As Close to Us as Breathing

  • Review
By – May 3, 2016

There is no short­age of books focused on Jew­ish fam­i­ly life, but Eliz­a­beth Poliner’s stands apart as an instant clas­sic. It is an inspired lit­er­ary explo­ration of the ten­sion between per­son­al and fam­i­ly iden­ti­ty, between mas­cu­line and fem­i­nine mod­els of achieve­ment, between tra­di­tion as habit and tra­di­tion as choice, between love that gives and love that demands.

Though the nov­el exam­ines an extend­ed fam­i­ly and its world over three gen­er­a­tions, its point of focus is the sum­mer of 1948, imme­di­ate­ly fol­low­ing mod­ern Israel’s birth and, for the Leib­rit­sky fam­i­ly, the trau­ma of its youngest member’s acci­den­tal death. Spa­tial­ly and cul­tur­al­ly, its main are­na is a place infor­mal­ly named Bagel Beach: the fam­i­ly vaca­tion area on the Con­necti­cut shore of Long Island Sound that con­sti­tutes a sum­mer Jew­ish beach­front neigh­bor­hood in the midst of oth­er eth­nic enclaves.

The nar­ra­tive reach­es us through the voice of Mol­ly, mid­dle child and only daugh­ter of Ada and Mort Leib­rit­sky. Mort, the king­pin of the fam­i­ly, owns Leibritsky’s Depart­ment Store in Mid­dle­town, inher­it­ed from his father. His broth­er, broth­er-in-law, and, occa­sion­al­ly, his old­er son work there. A mod­er­ate­ly obser­vant Jew, Mort car­ries on his father’s mantra of respon­si­bil­i­ty to his God and to the Jew­ish peo­ple. It’s a noose and a blessing.

The men enjoy the beach cot­tage over week­ends; the women live there through the sum­mer months. Beau­ti­ful, queen-like Ada reigns over the house­hold: her sis­ters Vivie and Bec; her chil­dren Howard, Mol­ly, and young Davy; and Vivie’s daugh­ter, Nina, who is a few years old­er than Mol­ly. At the time of her brother’s death, Mol­ly is twelve years old; in her mid­dle age, she deliv­ers the grand Leib­rit­sky saga, passed down to Mol­ly by her par­ents and aunts.

Polin­er treats the sum­mer of 1948 as if it were the hub of a wheel from which extend spokes of increas­ing sig­nif­i­cance through the pow­er of this fam­i­ly dis­as­ter. Like all fam­i­lies, this one has many chal­lenges, as do its indi­vid­ual mem­bers. Mol­ly allows us to see them, feel them, and under­stand them. Sis­ters are estranged. Love is frus­trat­ed by duty. Mar­riages fail. A boy dies for no rea­son. And still, indi­vid­u­als per­se­vere to lead remark­able lives. By open­ing and clos­ing the aper­ture, Polin­er is able to sweep us through decades of change, growth, accom­plish­ment, and frus­tra­tion. We wit­ness her char­ac­ters respond­ing to social changes, their own matur­ing and aging, their own real­ized or thwart­ed sense of destiny.

Polin­er han­dles the tex­ture of Jew­ish fam­i­ly life with bril­liance, authen­tic­i­ty, and a touch of wist­ful­ness. Mort makes Jew­ish iden­ti­ty and rit­u­al obser­vance a debt always in need of ser­vic­ing. Why can’t peo­ple incon­ve­nience them­selves a bit for what oth­ers have died for? Howard’s deci­sion to fol­low Mort’s sense of trib­al duty and for­sake his Irish-Catholic true love turns him to a life of meet­ing the expec­ta­tions of oth­ers. He mar­ries a Jew­ish woman, has chil­dren, mud­dles through as a physi­cian, but pass­es away at an ear­ly age — as if his sac­ri­fices of the heart have short­ened his life.

Scenes of men pray­ing and of women prepar­ing — excit­ed­ly or grudg­ing­ly — for Shab­bat din­ners cre­ate a pro­nounced back­ground music for the char­ac­ters’ large­ly sec­u­lar lives and con­cerns. What do you owe your par­ents, your peo­ple, and your cre­ator? What do you owe your­self? When have you paid enough?

Philip K. Jason is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of Eng­lish at the Unit­ed States Naval Acad­e­my. A for­mer edi­tor of Poet Lore, he is the author or edi­tor of twen­ty books, includ­ing Acts and Shad­ows: The Viet­nam War in Amer­i­can Lit­er­ary Cul­ture and Don’t Wave Good­bye: The Chil­dren’s Flight from Nazi Per­se­cu­tion to Amer­i­can Free­dom.

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