From Washington Heights To Central Florida, 7 Novels With A Sense Of History
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From Washington Heights To Central Florida, 7 Novels With A Sense Of History

Here are novels that turn on the issues of our day, others that are breezy, and still others where, more than 70 years after the end of World War II, its long shadow endures in fiction. Set in locales from Washington Heights to suburban New Jersey to rural Florida to Palm Springs, Calif., these novels are filled with compassion for the characters, and, also, good writing. We’ve left out many twists and turns of plot, so as not to give too much away.

Set in 1961 Florida and inspired by true events related to a turbulent growing season for citrus fruit and the struggle for civil rights, Andrew Furman’s “Goldens Are Here” (Green Writers Press) is a highly original story about a Jewish family and its connection to the land. Isaac Golden gives up his medical practice and moves with his wife and kids from Philadelphia to Florida’s central east coast, close to Cape Canaveral. They spend a modest inheritance to buy a hundred acres of choice grove land; they hope the weather will help their son who’s not well. “Goldens Are Here” is the name of their farm stand.

Furman captures the era, with the Cold War escalating, racial relations strained under Jim Crow laws and anti-Semitism present too. He’s also attuned to the singular landscape of the orange groves through the seasons, including summer with its “dragon-breath heat.”

As Isaac ponders, “That very word, landscape, would have been inscrutable to his parents. What business did a Jew have contemplating the lan

dscape, the frivolous outdoors? And what would they say about this frivolous place? Hardly a place at all.”

The closest synagogue is in Orlando, and they drive there almost every Saturday with the other local Jews — including the owners of the Cash Store in town, also known as the Jew Store. In Philadelphia, Isaac’s wife Melody found there were so many Jews that she could afford not to love all of them; here, that isn’t the case. They forge relations with their new neighbors, fellow growers and townspeople, at a time of social change.

Furman creates memorable characters, with beautiful prose and a love of the natural world —  detailing palmetto, magnolia, sweet gum and other trees as well as orange varietals — and some Yiddish vernacular thrown in. Readers are likely to crave a glass of fresh-squeezed juice.

The book, with a handsome jacket featuring an archival print of an orange blossom, is published by the new, Vermont-based Green Writers Press, whose aim is, “Giving voice to writers and artists who will make the world a better place.” A percentage of its profits is donated to environmental activist groups.

Now out in paperback, Betsy Carter’s “We Were Strangers Once” (Grand Central) is a novel of Jewish and Irish immigrants to New York City in the 1930s and ’40s who forge a community, all trying to build new lives. With a well-tuned sense of place, she captures their neighborhood of Washington Heights.

At the center of the novel is a Jewish émigré who had been an ophthalmologist in Germany before escaping. While he had been successful in Germany, he couldn’t practice medicine in New York and instead works in a Washington Heights grocery store. He is happy to find a job just six weeks after arriving in America, manning the cheese and cold cuts counter; the man who always dressed properly now wears an apron that absorbs mustard and other stains. Sometimes customers hear his accent and tell him to go back to where he came from.

His close friend from school days was a published writer of some promise, who spends his days walking the streets wearing a sandwich board advertising a men’s clothing shop, before getting a job at the German-Jewish newspaper, Aufbau. The experiences of this circle of friends are full of small triumphs and disappointments, as they try to understand America and find their way, lending great support to each other.

The title, with its biblical resonance, is taken from a 2014 quote from President Barack Obama (“My fellow Americans, we are and always will be a nation of immigrants. We were strangers once, too.”), and as Carter tells The Jewish Week, “is as oddly relevant now as it was seventy years ago.” The book is dedicated, “To everyone from somewhere else.”

Opening in the beginning of the 2000s, Fran Hawthorne’s debut novel “The Heirs” (SFA Books) is about inheriting stories. Eleanor Ritter is the daughter of an elderly Holocaust survivor — her Polish-born mother has long refused to speak of her experience. But after breaking her hip and landing in the hospital, her mother begins speaking Polish again, more than 50 years after arriving in America. Fragments of her story are revealed, and Eleanor grows increasingly, perhaps obsessively, curious to learn about her family’s past.

This is a novel of suburban New Jersey, and Hawthorne gets the soccer leagues and bat mitzvah party preparation just right. Eleanor meets the Polish Catholic parents of her son’s soccer friend and tries to tease out their story too, sensing possible connections. Hawthorne, who has written eight nonfiction books, presents a powerful meditation on identity, family history and the legacy of war.

Jenna Blum’s novel “The Lost Family” (Harper) opens in 1965 at Masha’s, a winning restaurant where the elegant owner and chef serves and memorializes the continental cooking of his late wife, Masha, who was murdered in a concentration camp along with their two daughters. The restaurant (its menu stretches across the opening pages) is known for its Brisket Wellington and other dishes “assembled by instinct, not by measurements.”

Blum is known for her best-selling work of fiction, “Those Who Save Us,” set largely in Europe and Minnesota. With rich storytelling, this novel is set against New York City of the 1960s through the 1980s, with flashbacks to the past. Here, the chef meets and marries a woman he meets in the restaurant, and they have a child. But the memory of his first family looms large, as t

hough the hole in his heart is too wide to bridge.

The author says that her character of the chef is inspired by a survivor she “had the privilege of interviewing” for Stephen Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation.

The title of Maxine Rosler’s novel in stories, “Queen for a Day,” is drawn from the television show of the same name, popular in the 1950s and 1960s, an early version of a reality show when housewives facing tough situations at home told their most personal stories, competing for new kitchen appliances, silver cutlery and other prizes. One woman would win and be crowned, and the others returned to their problems.

The women in her stories are under tremendous pressure, some facing a troubling reality. The mother who appears throughout has a special needs son. In the first story, she and her husband are led to believe by their couples therapist that if only their marriage were better, that if they weren’t arguing and shouting at each other, their son’s development would proceed on a smoother course. While it’s hard for them to bring him in for a diagnosis in the first place, it’s harder to face the future — but this mother is a fighter. The book is peopled with figures who help, sort of, like the gentile woman who has made a career getting “The District” to pay for kids to go to Orthodox yeshivas.

Few have written fiction about these situations, and Rosler does so with humor, wisdom and a big heart. She reveals much about love and marriage and New York life. The author has publ

ished stories widely, and this is her first book.

‘The Family Tabor” by Cherise Wolas (Flatiron Books) is a novel of forgetting and remembering, the story of a contemporary Jewish family with buried secrets.

The patriarch of his family and a distinguished Jewish leader known for generosity and humanitarian work on behalf of refugees and others, Harry Tabor is about to be named “Man of the Decade” in Palm Springs, Calif. Harry, whose family name in Europe was Tabornikov, describes himself as a “historical Jew” rather than a religious person, and knows that he has had good luck in life. He and his extended family are together at their large mid-century modern homestead in the desert in anticipation of the award celebration. Hours before the event, he is struck by dreams and visions, and forced to confront some serious imperfections in his perfect façade.

Harry’s wife, a psychologist, ponders “how family is an amalgamation of the solid, the liquid and the vaporous. … Whether there is love, happiness, contentment, success, health, and satisfaction, of sadness, trauma, and tragedy in any family, so much is dependent on ephemeral luck.”

In this compelling story, luck, like love, can be elusive, ever-present and lost. Wolas, who was longlisted for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction for her first novel, explores Jewish identity and the connection to the past, with a nod to Leonard Cohen.

There have been novels set at Passover seders, Thanksgiving dinners, weeks of shiva, all mining Jewish tradition as a background for family dynamics and personal takes on Jewish life. “We Are Gathered” by Jamie Weis

man (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt) is the story of a wedding in Atlanta, told through a series of first-person narratives featuring the guests.

While the bride is Jewish, the daughter of a prominent family, the groom is not. But the story is less about the couple than about the bride’s community: a close-friend-from-childhood bridesmaid who is now a Hollywood film scout; her great aunt, a Holocaust survivor ever haunted by her experience; her once-powerful grandfather, now in a wheelchair, and Annette, mother of the bride, reflecting afterwards on the beautiful but-less-than-perfect day.

Weisman, a novelist and dermatologist, presents these distinctive voices with knowing wit.

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