Celebrating Jewish Literature: Family, friends and other connections

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

The phrase “a woman’s novel” is considered an insult in many literary circles, as if the deeds of daily life can be easily dismissed and are of interest only to women. For me, a woman’s novel encompasses a wide range of basic and important human behaviors that underline our society: home, family and friendship, to name just a few. Two wonderful recent novels – “The Matchmaker’s Gift” by Lynda Cohen Loigman (St. Martin’s Press) and “The Dressmakers of Prospect Heights” by Kitty Zeldis (Harper) – qualify as women’s novels: they offer insights into the connections and disconnections that form families and communities without which society would disappear.

“The Matchmaker’s Gift” tells the story of two women: Sara Glikman and Sara’s granddaughter, Abby. Sara emigrated to the United States with her parents and siblings during the early part of the 20th century. Even as a child, she has the gift of knowing when two people belong together. Unfortunately, in the Lower East Side at that time, it’s considered inappropriate for women, particularly unmarried women, to be matchmakers. The male matchmakers see her as a threat to their livelihood and band together to try to prevent her from making matches. But nothing can stop her gift, even when it brings her heartache. 

Abby’s story begins after her grandmother’s death in 1994. A successful divorce lawyer, she chose that profession because of her parents’ difficult marriage and divorce. Sara leaves Abby journals that contain the details of all the matches she made in her professional life. Sara always felt that Abby had the makings of a matchmaker, if only she opened herself to the powers she has, the powers she’s hidden deep inside in order to protect herself from the sorrow of her parents’ split. 

The novel also offers some excellent wisdom and advice. To someone who wants to wait until he is finished with a year of mourning for his mother before meeting someone, Sara notes, “The heart of a mourner is like a woman’s womb... it can expand to hold whatever is asked of it. The heart is big enough to hold both grief and love,” but that love may not wait forever. Abby remembers Sara’s advice on the way to know that you have met your own match: “‘When you weep,’ her grandmother said, ‘the one you are meant for tastes the salt of your tears.’” Literally or figuratively, that is a good sign.

“The Matchmaker’s Gift” is a sweet, warm, delightful novel. Those words – which have also been used disparagingly – are meant as great compliments. Loigman’s work will touch readers’ hearts and make them eager to share this novel with their friends.

While Loigman’s work centers on two characters. “The Dressmakers of Prospect Heights” offers the story of three women: Beatrice, who moves from New Orleans to Brooklyn in 1924; her teenage ward Alice, with whom she starts a dress shop; and the seemingly unrelated Catherine, a newly married woman who longs for a child. Of course, there is a connection between Beatrice and Catherine, which drives the plot and affects the course of all three lives. However, of greatest interest to Jewish readers will be Beatrice’s early life.

Beatrice is a Russian Jew who was to travel to the United States with her mother after the horrific death of her father. Unfortunately, her mother died before they left. Even worse, the relative who was supposed to help her also passed away before she arrives in New Orleans. As a young woman, she finds work as a nanny and even meets a man who loves her. However, her life spirals out of her control and she finds herself looking for work in the less pleasant part of town. Beatrice’s choices – which were limited – return to haunt her in Brooklyn. 

The result of Beatrice’s time in Russia affects her even in the United States. She notes that “back in Russia, it had been dangerous to live openly as a Jew. Even the memory of her father.... could bring it all back. Still, in America – and especially in New York – being a Jew seemed less perilous. Yet, that fear, which had seeped into her at a formative time, was still there, sediment that remained.” Even Alice doesn’t realize that Beatrice is Jewish. 

Most readers will guess the connection between Beatrice and Catherine, the result of which also affects Alice, an orphan whom Beatrice has tried to protect. But the differing desires of the women create conflict and set the plot into motion. Beatrice comes to see their choices as an integral part of human nature: “Maybe everyone clung to the precarious place she had carved out for herself, clung to it tightly, resisting – and resenting – anyone who could be seen as a threat. The human heart was resilient as rubber, durable as stone, and breakable as the most delicate, handblown glass.”

At first, “The Dressmakers of Prospect Heights” seemed of less interest than “The Matchmaker’s Gift,” but then its plot took some unexpected turns and the novel also turned into a heart-warming story. All the characters – even the less admirable ones – want to feel safe and loved in their small corner of the world. The relationships between the three main characters help readers understand their trials and joys, and makes this work worth reading.