Off the Shelf: Stories of love and sacrifice

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

The desires of the human heart are difficult to define, whether their focus is religion, politics or love. Trying to fulfill these desires is not always easy, especially if someone or something must be sacrificed in order to make them a reality. Two recent novels portray these conflicts and choices: “My Mother’s Secret: A Novel of the Jewish Autonomous Region” by Alina Adams (History Through Fiction), which focuses on life in the U.S.S.R., and “Love and War in the Jewish Quarter” by Dora Levy Mossanen (Post Hill Press), which takes place in Iran. Both novels look at life in the mid-20th century, although the Jewish culture of each location is very different. 

Unlike many novels whose secrets are revealed in their concluding chapters, the one featured in “My Mother’s Secret” comes to light during its prologue. The story then quickly moves back in time, from its opening in San Francisco in 1988 to the U.S.S.R. during the years before and during World War II. The Soviet Union of that time was a dangerous place in which to live: people who were in favor one day would be arrested and executed the next. Regina, whose story is the central focus of the novel, must flee Moscow if she wants to stay out of prison; she decides to move to Birobidzhan, the autonomous Jewish state founded by the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, the area she thought would be a utopia turns out to be anything but. 

Regina firmly believes that Stalin’s decisions are wise and consider only the good of Soviet citizens. Unfortunately, the propaganda she spouts has no basis in reality. As time passes, she realizes she must choose between the party line and helping people survive. That also means choosing between two men: Felix, who rules Birobidzhan, but has no idea how to help it survive; and Aaron, who not only understands farming, but cares for the people who work with him. It’s not revealing too much – since her choice is obvious – that she picks Aaron. Unfortunately, Aaron pays for her decision and is drafted into the Soviet army. Regina travels to be with him in what are the most interesting and challenging sections of the novel.

During and after the war, Regina and Aaron make choices that affect the rest of their lives. To say more about that would ruin the plot. However, their choices – and those made by men living in a German prisoner of war camp – highlight just how difficult it is to fulfill one’s own desires and still help others in need. It also portrays the differences in temperament between Soviets and Americans. In the novel, the Soviets expect things to go wrong, while the Americans assume there will always be a happy ending.

Although “My Mother’s Secret” starts out slow, it builds interest as Regina’s character gains understanding of the true workings of the Soviet world. The difficulty of choosing between conflicting desires forms the true emotional core of the work. There are also several surprises as readers come to understand what truly occurred. The author includes a section detailing fact from fiction, although those unfamiliar with the U.S.S.R. might be surprised just how much truth underlies her work. 

Although the Jews in “My Mother’s Secret” were not allowed to practice their religion, the same is not true for those in “Love and War in the Jewish Quarter.” However, that doesn’t mean that being Jewish is easy. For example, the doorposts of Jewish houses have to be low enough to require people to bow their heads when leaving their homes. During certain times of the year, it is dangerous for Jews to leave the Jewish Quarter and life in general is precarious: the community’s well-being depends on the whim of those leading the country. Their future is also complicated by their fears of what would happen if the Germans invade Iran and Nazi laws are imposed.

The main focus of the story is Jewish dentist Soleiman Yaran, a widower, and his daughter, Neda. Everyone – well, everyone except Yaran – believes he needs to find a Jewish wife to help him raise Neda. He, on the other hand, believes he will never love again, and his Aunt Shamsi, who has moved into his house, is all the help he needs. However, problems arise: Neda develops an unusually strong sense of smell, but has lost the ability to cry. No doctor in their city has been able to help. Plus, Aunt Shamsi believes in folk wisdom that Yaran, a man of science, sees as nonsense.

Yaran’s career seems to be going well: he’s done work for the queen and is required to make many visits to the governor general’s house. The governor general treats him as a doctor, rather than a dentist, and demands a great deal of attention. Life then takes an unexpected turn: Yaran falls in love with the governor general’s wife, Velvet. But life is complicated: Velvet is still a virgin because her husband refuses to sleep with her, although he does treat her well. That’s because someone else has his affection: the eunuch Tulip, whose history is incredibly sad.

The author juggles the stories of Yaran, Velvet, Nada, Tulip and other characters. They all must make choices that will not only affect their own lives, but the lives of those around them. Although learning about Iranian Jewish life during the time period was interesting, it is the decisions the characters make that are the most affecting parts of the novel. “Love and War in the Jewish Quarter” succeeds because it feels real: this is no fairy tale, but rather accepts that our desires may not always be fulfilled the way we wish. Yet, that doesn’t mean we won’t find a different kind of happiness, something readers of the novel will surely want to debate.