Off the Shelf: Family sagas

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Family sagas have been called “kitchen sink” novels with the term used in a pejorative way, suggesting that family life is only of interest to women. But women’s lives are as greatly influenced by world events as men’s, something shown in two recent novels: “The Woman Beyond the Sea” by Sarit Yishai-Levi (Amazon Crossing) and “Kantika” by Elizabeth Graver (Metropolitan Books). The former offers three generations of women who were affected by events in Palestine/Israel, while the latter portrays the dispersion of one family after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. 

“The Woman Beyond the Sea” explores the lives of three women during the last years of the British rule in Palestine through the Yom Kippur War: Eliya, her mother Lily and the unknown woman who is Lily’s mother. When Eliya’s husband – a demanding writer – dumps her unceremoniously, Eliya returns in despair to her parents’ home. She’d left school and a potential career to support her husband and lacks the resources to continue. Unfortunately, Eliya and Lily have never gotten along, partly because Eliya feels she could never replace the perfect child, the son that Lily and her father, Shaul, lost at a very young age. She also knows almost nothing of her mother’s history because Lily has not only limited what she’s told Shaul, but forbidden him from telling Eliya anything about her life. 

The reason for this is that Lily still struggles to understand her own life: left at a convent soon after her birth, she has no idea whom her mother is and why she was given up. In fact, Lily was unaware that she was Jewish until one of the nuns finally offered her what little information they had about her. Lily then ran away and lived in the streets until she was discovered by a group of Jewish women who arranged for her to go to boarding school. Unsure of herself, Lily followed the advice of a fortune teller and married Shaul soon after she graduated. While Shaul is still madly in love with her, Lily doesn’t share his feelings and is also unable to constructively cope with Eliya’s depression.

A change occurs in the family members’ relationships, though, when Eliya attempts to take her life. The doctor helping her tells her that she needs to connect with Lily, to learn her mother’s story in order for them to forge a meaningful relationship. In order for that to happen, Lily must also come to terms with her own life. To do so, the two women need to learn about Lily’s mysterious mother in order for them to lay the past to rest.

“The Woman Beyond the Sea” is a melodrama in the best meaning of the word: readers will be swept along on an emotional roller coaster that made the novel feel far shorter than its 400 pages. Yishai-Levi makes it possible to extremely dislike a character on one page and then feel an enormous amount of sympathy for her a chapter later. The historical background of the novel adds depth, but doesn’t take away from the exploration of Eliya and Lily’s emotions and feelings. This is a family saga at its best. 

While “The Woman Beyond the Sea” takes place in one country, the main character, Rebecca Cohen, in “Kantika” spends time in four different places: Constantinople/Istanbul, Barcelona, Havana and the greater New York City area. Rebecca’s early life is one of ease and wealth, surrounded by family and friends. Unfortunately, Rebecca’s father, Alberto (Abraham) is not the businessman his forefathers were, something not helped by the change of government. World War II not only meant the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, but the end of a halcyon time for its Jews. By the time Alberto finally decides to move, the only position he can find is a lowly one as caretaker of a synagogue in Barcelona. 

Except for giving her two sons, Rebecca’s first marriage ends in disaster and forces her to fend for herself. She sets up a successful sewing business in Barcelona by pretending not to be Jewish. Although Spain claimed to welcome the Jews from the Ottoman Empire, the reality is that extreme prejudice still existed. When Rebecca has a chance to marry a refugee living in the United States, she agrees to meet him in Cuba. Unfortunately, once again, reality does not match what she’s been told, especially when it comes to her new stepdaughter Luna.

Rebecca is a fascinating character and Graver does an excellent job showing how her ideas changed and developed as she was forced to forge a life for herself. The author also created a character who is convincing in her own time: Rebecca is independent, but she is not a feminist, rather she is someone who lives in the realities of her time. The section showing her relationship with Luna was particularly moving as she was willing to be disliked in order to improve her stepdaughter’s life. The one chapter told from her son David’s point-of-view – about his time in the Navy during World War II – felt out of place and distracted from the flow of the story, although it’s understandable that Graver wanted to include it. However, that’s a minor quibble about a work that offers readers a lesser known view of Jewish life in the 20th century.