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.