Off The Shelf: Finding and Creating Families

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

The exploration of family relationships – the families we are born into and the ones we create on our own – forms the basis of three recent novels. Each shows how those relationships form the core of our lives, even while noting how every family has its unique characteristics and problems. Judaism also plays a part in the characters’ lives, even when it doesn’t play a large role in the plot.

“Morningside Heights”

Some books are worth the wait. I received an advance review copy of Joshua Henkin’s novel “Morningside Heights” (Pantheon Books) in 2020, but was later told its publication was being postponed until the summer of 2021. Since I prefer to read books just before I review them, the novel remained on my to-read shelf for more than a year. It had already been getting good press, including the number one spot on the Indie Next List for June. Well, it deserves all that praise: “Morningside Heights” is wonderful. 

Although the book features insights into three characters, it is Pru Steiner who is the star of the story. The Ohio-born Pru who went to Yale in the early 1970s had grand dreams of her future. Instead, she falls for her charismatic Shakespeare professor, Spence Robin. While her marriage is a success, the career she chooses after giving birth to her daughter, Sarah, is less than satisfying, as was discovering that Spence has a child, Arlo, from his first marriage. But the real story begins when the formerly brilliant Spence begins to decline mentally. His diagnosis of early dementia is difficult for both of them, especially when Spence begins to need physical help and it becomes clear it’s unsafe for him to be alone in their apartment. How Pru adjusts to her new situation, while still trying to have a life beyond work and caring for her husband, is brilliantly portrayed.

Henkin writes beautifully and the pages of his novel slide by – that is, until you get to heart-breaking, devastating moments that force you to stop and consider his words. Those short sentences are packed with more meaning than many writers’ paragraphs. “Morningside Heights” is ultimately a love story, one that will warm your heart and leave you grieving at the same time. 

“Jacobo’s Rainbow” 

At first, David Hirshberg’s “Jacobo’s Rainbow” (Fig Tree Books) doesn’t seem to have a great deal of Jewish content. However, readers may note some important clues the author places early in the novel when narrator Jacobo Toledano speaks of certain customs that his family and others in their small village in New Mexico follow. Jacobo’s focus, though, is on college, but what he finds is different than he expected: it’s the 1970s, a time when protests for free speech and against the Vietnam War were sweeping many campuses.

Jacobo becomes part of two groups on campus, one formal and one informal. As part of the rowing team, he is befriended by Herzl, who talks about the antisemitism he faced as a child and how he used it to become physically and mentally strong. Jacobo also falls under the sway of Myles, a graduate student, who leads his followers into confrontations with the university and the police. Myles demands people’s complete loyalty: anyone who questions him is treated with disdain and exiled from the group. Jacobo is assigned to record the conflict: he fills his notebook with a behind-the-scenes look at what is occurring. During this time, he also learns that not everyone has his best interests at heart. However, with the help of a few loyal friends, Jacobo discovers his true worth and decides to reveal the history and secrets of his village.

“Jacobo’s Rainbow” is well done, although a few of the plot elements weren’t totally convincing. The best parts of the story were the revelations about the true meaning of his family’s customs. Jacobo is an engaging character and Hirshberg’s depiction of the protests of the early 1970s rings true.

“Closer to Fine”

Rachel Levine’s mother is very upset: she refuses to accept that her daughter is bisexual. She demands that Rachel keep the news secret from her grandfather with whom Rachel is going to live while she attends graduate school in Boston. Over the course of Jodi S. Rosenfeld’s novel “Closer to Fine” (She Writes Press), Rachel must decide how she wants to live her life, something that includes re-evaluating her relationship to Judaism. 

Rachel is studying clinical psychotherapy, a profession that forces her to look at her own life more closely when her supervisor analyzes her interactions with her patients. Outside of school, she spends time with her grandfather, including attending Saturday morning services with him at his Conservative synagogue. Although he dislikes the changes the new rabbi makes, Rachel finds them refreshing since Judaism begins to feel more relevant to her life. She also finds friendship and more with Liz Abraham, a lesbian who also attends services and opens a new world to her. However, that relationship forces Rachel to make choices about her identity, choices that could affect her entire future. 

While some parts of “Closer to Fine” felt predictable, that didn’t detract from the story. Rachel’s conflicts were real and interesting, and the discussions relating to women and Judaism add a greater depth to the novel. Book clubs interested in LGBTQ+ stories or feminism and Judaism might want to explore Rosenfeld’s work.