Book Review | A Writer Whose Stories Bite Deep

By | Apr 03, 2023

The House of Love and Prayer and Other Stories
By Tova Reich
Seven Stories Press,
256 pp., $26.95

American author Tova Reich has been writing fiction for a long time: Mara, the first of her six published novels, was released in 1978. The second, Master of the Return (1988), won the Edward Lewis Wallant Award, a prestigious Jewish literary prize, and the most recent, Mother India (2018), was named a National Jewish Book Award finalist. Her books have earned Reich a reputation for deep knowledge of Jewish subjects, among them ritual, history, culture and texts; experiences of Jewish women; varieties of religious (particularly Orthodox) observance; the Holocaust and its repercussions; and Israel.

Her fiction is also associated with sharp narrative bite. Fifteen years ago, My Holocaust—the opening chapter of which, in altered form and under the title “The Third Generation,” initially appeared as a short story in The Atlantic and is included in the new book—was celebrated by some readers and excoriated by others. The tale concerns a father-son duo who run a morally questionable consulting company called “Holocaust Connections, Inc.,” and whose offspring, representing the eponymous third generation, not only converts to Christianity but, as her second-generation father notes, becomes a nun at “that Carmelite convent right by Auschwitz, of all places.” What some considered brilliant satire of Holocaust education and commemoration others found beyond offensive. Matters became so heated that no less eminent a figure than Cynthia Ozick publicly castigated both the then-editor and a writer for New York’s Jewish Week for their vilification. (Ozick’s defense of the book is preserved on the website of Reich’s literary agent.)

Reich’s trademark subjects and recognizable style fill the pages of The House of Love and Prayer and Other Stories, the publication of which marks the first time her short fiction has been gathered into book form. The volume comprises stories that date as far back as 1995’s “The Lost Girl,” which won a National Magazine Award after publication in Harper’s and canonization in The Norton Anthology of Jewish-American Literature. Some of these stories may already be familiar to readers of literary journals such as Conjunctions or Agni. Two pieces, including the title story, appear to be published here for the first time.

Like Reich’s novels, these stories unfold in settings both common and less so in Jewish-American writing, frequently but not always in Orthodox settings. The sometimes unsympathetic characters often find themselves in extreme situations: In “The Lost Girl,” the principal of an all-girls high school must contend with the disappearance of a student in the woods on a field trip; the title story follows Rabbi Yidel Glatt, so preoccupied with bodily holiness that he eventually dies of anorexia. Other stories take place in Israel, Poland and China.
“Forbidden City” offers an illustrative example of her style. First published in 2004, the story introduces Reb Pesach Tikkun-Olam Salzman, long-settled in Beijing after being dispatched as an emissary from Brooklyn with his wife, Rebbetzin Frumie. But Reb Tikkun-Olam’s dubious activities, including a mutually beneficial collaboration with Chinese “Bosses” that involves the care and eventual placement for adoption in the United States of the most vulnerable (often disabled) abandoned young Chinese girls, have driven his exasperated wife to leave him. Reich summarizes the rupture with signature style, simultaneously comic and horrifying, while deploying one of her equally characteristic, exquisitely crafted long sentences:

But the last straw for Frumie came when he informed her that although all the other discarded girls he would be rescuing as part of his mission to repair the world would be for the purpose of finding them good Jewish homes and adoptive Jewish parents from among the increasing numbers of older overeducated infertile Jewish couples of America with dual incomes who could afford the fees, thereby, as a side benefit of saving the children, also drawing from the demographic plenitude and genetic variation of the Chinese to correct the population shortage and chronic inbreeding among the Jews, throwing in as a bonus the extra service of personally converting the girls in advance through ritual-bath immersion, like pre-koshered chickens, already salted and soaked—this particular girl, this Dolly, his first, he would keep, not for his own sake, God forbid, but for hers, for Frumie’s sake, to raise Dolly to serve as his pilegesh when she came of age so that he would no longer have to bother Frumie with his needs even during the periods when she was not ritually impure, when she was technically available to him, albeit suffering from a terrible migraine.

If you’re encountering pilegesh for the first time (it means “concubine”), rest assured that you’re not alone. Surely, I won’t be unique in valuing the lessons (or refreshers) in Jewish literacy that these stories can provide outside the adult education classroom. The specifics of rituals surrounding death and burial, for instance, are central to the third story, “The Plot”—in which two women in their eighties build a friendship through a local chevra kadisha, or bereavement committee—and recur elsewhere in the volume. Through “The House of Love and Prayer,” one will discover (or be reminded of) an array of details concerning circumcision.

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Let’s linger here: Until I picked up this book, I was not aware that there was a real-life House of Love and Prayer corresponding to the fictional one of the story’s (and the volume’s) title. It is in the fictional House of Love and Prayer, in San Francisco in the 1960s, that the story’s main character, the aforementioned charismatic Rabbi Yidel Glatt, meets the woman who becomes his wife (Tahara, née Terry, Birnbaum, “from a bagels-and-lox family on the Upper West Side of Manhattan”). But when I recognized a minor character—Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach—presented as the House of Love and Prayer’s “guru,” I paused. Google confirmed that there was, in fact, a House of Love and Prayer in San Francisco, and that it was Carlebach’s domain. Especially after allegations against the real-life Carlebach resurfaced in the #MeToo era, it seems worth stating plainly that here, as elsewhere, these stories take on material that some may find extremely disturbing. Some of the allegations against the real Carlebach, indeed, date back to the 1960s, when, in the story, before her would-be husband’s arrival, Reich’s Terry/Tahara would spend nights “gathered with the other lost souls at Reb Shlomo’s feet, getting higher and higher on his songs and streaming his stories so that it was nothing less than an honor in those pre-dawn hours when the heart is clamped with dread to be the girl summoned to his chamber…”

These stories take on material that some may find extremely disturbing.

Every story in this volume is memorable, but perhaps the most striking—especially right now—is “Dead Zone,” which concludes the book. Here, Reich takes us into the future: When Isadore “Izzy” Gam dies in 2040, his great-grandson is only three years old. But as an adult, this great-grandson absorbs and narrates Izzy’s exceptional story largely because of its “peculiar” connection with something that happens not long after Izzy’s demise, something we discover in the story’s very first line: “the decision by the United Nations to officially terminate the existence of Israel as a living entity, an event that occurred about a century after it had voted for the partition of the Holy Land leading to the establishment of the Jewish State in 1948.” (Do you need a minute before continuing? I did, when I first read those words.)

As the younger Gam explains: “How [the UN] so ingeniously eliminated Israel as a state was simply by designating it a UNESCO World Heritage Site—specifically, as the world’s largest Jewish cemetery.” And this, as he narrates, is indeed linked with his great-grandfather’s atypical burial.

I’ve already noted that death is threaded through the book. This final story raises the stakes exponentially, from individual demise and the Holocaust’s reverberations to something so shocking that it might seem unthinkable. But if we acknowledge our Jewish past, and consider the present, how unthinkable is it? How does Reich intend for readers to respond here, particularly regarding the State­—and the state—of Israel? As with each of the preceding stories, the interpretative possibilities are voluminous.

This much seems certain: If Reich’s novels have provoked strong reactions in the past, this collection will fuel vivid conversations, too. Try it in your book club—if you dare.

Erika Dreifus is the author of Birthright: Poems and Quiet Americans: Stories, which was named an American Library Association/Sophie Brody Medal honor title for outstanding achievement in Jewish literature.

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