Holy Lands

Aman­da Sthers

  • Review
By – May 6, 2019

In Holy Lands, Aman­da Sthers por­trays the mem­bers of the Rosen­mer­ck fam­i­ly strug­gling to con­nect and accept each oth­er while suf­fer­ing from indi­vid­ual hard­ships. The sto­ry cen­ters around Har­ry Rosen­mer­ck, who has recent­ly relo­cat­ed from New York to Nazareth, Israel in order to raise pigs — leav­ing behind his sep­a­rat­ed wife, unset­tled daugh­ter, and estranged son. Insight­ful­ly told through a series of let­ters, emails, and hand­writ­ten notes, the nov­el demon­strates the phys­i­cal as well as emo­tion­al dis­tance between the fam­i­ly mem­bers. On his pig farm, Har­ry choos­es to live in an iso­lat­ed man­ner, with­out inter­net or phone. The chal­lenges of stay­ing in touch via let­ters aggre­gate the fray­ing bonds of this family.

While deeply mov­ing, Holy Lands is also wit­ty and humor­ous. Annabelle and David squab­ble as any sib­lings do — even in their transat­lantic cor­re­spon­dences. The Rosen­mer­cks’ ded­i­ca­tion to and care for one anoth­er is cou­pled with often detached and even scathing words and actions. The nov­el lends a rep­re­sen­ta­tive glance into what a fam­i­ly of four inde­pen­dent adults is like in a mod­ern, glob­al­ized world.

In addi­tion to writ­ing to his fam­i­ly, Har­ry exchanges let­ters with Rab­bi Moshe Cat­tan, with whom he has formed an unlike­ly friend­ship. Rab­bi Moshe and Har­ry debate with and poke fun at each oth­er — and even fun­da­men­tal­ly dis­agree on what it means to be Jew­ish — and yet, they both cher­ish their friend­ship enough to con­tin­ue their cor­re­spon­dence. Among the myr­i­ad of points of digres­sion in their faith and phi­los­o­phy, the fact that Har­ry is rais­ing pigs in the Holy Land (even though the pigs are kept in a pen over the sea) is as the major source of con­tention. The warmth that exists between the two men despite their dif­fer­ences, how­ev­er, is a nod towards accep­tance and the ever-expand­ing def­i­n­i­tion of Jew­ish identity.

A par­tic­u­lar­ly evoca­tive aspect of the nov­el is Harry’s rela­tion­ship with his son, David. Har­ry has not spo­ken to David since he came out as gay. Through David’s per­son­al tri­umphs and suc­cess as a writer, there is a con­spic­u­ous gap in the exchange of let­ters between father and son. David nev­er ceas­es to reach out to his father with updates, pic­tures, or pleas for recon­nec­tion. As Sthers slow­ly reveals Harry’s com­pli­cat­ed feel­ings towards his son, she touch­es on a high­ly sen­si­tive issue with grace and hard-to-swal­low real­ism. Holy Lands con­veys that fam­i­ly tran­scends dys­func­tion and com­pli­ca­tions: You are my pris­on­ers and I am yours. We are a family.”

Discussion Questions