Celebrating Jewish Literature: Secrets, race and tragedy

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

“The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store” 

It only took a few pages for me to realize I was in the hands of a master writer. James McBride’s “The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store” (Riverhead Books) is a funny, moving, wise work that will remain with readers long after they turn its final pages. Although it tells of two communities – the black and Jewish residents of the Chicken Hill section of Pottstown, PA – it feels steeped in Jewish thought: the idea that, while we may not be able to change the whole world, our actions can still make a difference.

During the 1920s, when most of the story takes place, Chicken Hill is not the rich section of Pottstown. In fact, the whites of the city try to ignore its existence and many of the Jews who once lived there moved from the area after becoming successful. That is not true of Chona Ludlow, who – even after the theater her husband, Moshe, runs gives them enough income to buy a house elsewhere – not only refuses to move, but insists on keeping her store, the Heaven and Earth Grocery Store, open, even though it’s always lost money. That’s how she helps her neighbors, poor Jews and Blacks, who wouldn’t be able to afford groceries if she didn’t allow them to buy on credit and often forgave what was owed. It’s through her connections with the Black community that Chona learns that the state has decided a local, deaf, Black boy should be institutionalized. Chona and Nate Timblin, a local Black worker, work together to protect the boy from that disastrous decision. 

Although their actions set the plot in motion, it’s McBride’s portrayal of the daily lives of these people that makes his novel so wonderful. There is Moshe learning the best ways to keep his theater in business, even when his catering to the Black population of the town is not appreciated by everyone. The author captures Moshe’s journey to the U.S. and the bewilderment of Jewish immigrants when the country turns out far different from their imagination. The members of the local Black community are also depicted as three-dimensional characters and the novel offers insight into the difficulties they face. At one point, McBride notes that “a colored person couldn’t survive in the white man’s world being ignorant. They had to know the news,” meaning they needed to know what was happening in order to avoid the trouble the white community often brought to their doors. 

The novel’s portrayal of the casual racism and antisemitism that existed in Pottstown during the 1920s is unfortunately still relevant today: white Christian members of the town looked at people of color, or those who practice a different religion, as dangerous invaders of their ideal all-white American world. Fortunately, one example of casual racism that occurred in the past does not occurs today: Pottstown’s annual Ku Klux Klan parade, about which the author writes, “No one complained. It was just one of those things. Once a year, on Klan parade day, the Negroes in town disappeared, the Jewish stores closed, the Klan marched, and that was it.” No one complained – well, except for Chona, McBride’s greatest gift to readers.

I’ve read many novels that include characters with whom I wish I could be friends. However, “The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store” contains one of the few characters I admired so much that I wanted to be her. While Chona is not perfect, she is loving and caring – refusing to accept anyone’s prejudices and treating everyone with the consideration they deserve. Her courage – that is simply part of her essence – makes her a role model.

I could write pages praising “The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store” – I haven’t even mentioned the sections that are extremely funny and the parts that are heartbreaking – but I think most readers of this column will realize just how much I enjoyed this book. However, in case I haven’t been clear enough: “The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store” is one of the best – if not the best – novels of the year. 

“The Wolf Hunt”

Ayelet Gundar-Goshen’s novels usually feature a complex moral dilemma and her latest work “The Wolf Hunt” (Little, Brown and Company) is no exception. (For   review of her previous novel, “The Liar,” visit www.thereportergroup.org/opinion/off-the-shelf-novels-that-take-place-in-israel-part-1-350806.) The work is narrated by Lilach Shuster, an Israeli, who lives in Silicon Valley with her husband Mikhael, and their American-raised son, Adam. The novel’s plot is made clear in its first paragraph: 16-year-old Adam has been accused of killing a fellow student, African American Jamal Jones. However, Lilach refuses to believe her son could be a murderer.

How this accusation came about can only be understood in the context of events that occurred before the death and Lilach carefully offers her insights into how they affected her family, starting with an attack on a local Reform synagogue that resulted in four injuries and one death. Even though her family was not a member of the synagogue, the attack felt personal and led Adam into attending a self-defense class. This decision played into an ongoing disagreement between Lilach and Mikhael. Mikhael, who had been a member of an elite unit in the Israel army, has been concerned about his son since Adam was in preschool and bullied by other students. Mikael worries that he is raising a son who will be a victim, something he feels is confirmed by Adam’s lack of interest in sports. Lilach, in the other hand, loves her son as he is and wonders whether there is third choice, one in addition to either being a bully or being a victim.

This means that Mikhael is thrilled when Adam continues his classes with Uri Zev, who was also once part of the same elite Israeli military unit as Mikhael. Adam gains confidence in his physical abilities and invests in Uri’s ideas to an extent that makes Lilach nervous. Adam’s new abilities become a problem after Jamal dies at a party that Adam also attended. At first, the death was thought to be an accidental drug overdose. However, the investigation continues and rumors begin to emerge about the connections between Jamal and Adam. The continued police investigation greatly upsets Lilach, as does what she learns about Adam and Jamal, things that make her wonder if she really knows her son. 

The plot of “The Wolf Hunt” contains many twists and turns, while also offering insight into racism and antisemitism in the U.S. However, it’s the secrets people keep that truly underscores the plot. Not all readers will be satisfied with the novel’s ending for reasons that won’t be revealed here. The differing opinions about its conclusion, though, would make for some interesting discussions at book clubs.