Jump­ing Over Shadows

  • Review
By – March 31, 2017

Every con­vert to Judaism has a sto­ry. Chang­ing one’s reli­gion is always a dra­mat­ic state­ment; step­ping over the thresh­old of com­fort­able major­i­ty mem­ber­ship to embrace minor­i­ty sta­tus in a peo­ple­hood whose reli­gion is rich in tra­di­tion and rife with oppres­sion is sober­ing, to say the least. It is also excit­ing and incred­i­bly reward­ing. In Annette Gendler’s com­pelling mem­oir, Jump­ing Over Shad­ows, the author jux­ta­pos­es her jour­ney to Judaism (pri­mar­i­ly in Ger­many, though she con­vert­ed in Switzer­land) with the sto­ry of her Chris­t­ian great-aunt, who mar­ried a Jew in a Ger­man com­mu­ni­ty with­in Czecho­slo­va­kia before World War II and saw her fam­i­ly torn apart because of it.

Gendler skill­ful­ly inte­grates the his­to­ry of her fam­i­ly, which she metic­u­lous­ly researched, with her own mod­ern love sto­ry. Along the way, she recre­ates dia­logue that places the read­er in the mid­dle of the unfold­ing events, whether in the 1930s or the 1980s. Telling her own love sto­ry is no mean feat, for it is tricky to describe a romance that ulti­mate­ly prompts a Jew­ish con­ver­sion. A halachic con­ver­sion to Judaism is grant­ed by an Ortho­dox bet din (court) whose rab­bis, act­ing as judges, must turn away prospec­tive con­verts sev­er­al times before accept­ing them as devot­ed to Judaism for strict­ly reli­gious rea­sons — not moti­vat­ed by love of any­thing or anyone oth­er than the reli­gion itself. As a poten­tial con­vert, Gendler must study, absorb, and accept the pre­cepts of Judaism, and adopt reli­gious obser­vance. As she notes decades lat­er, In real­i­ty, becom­ing a Jew…was not accom­plished by duck­ing in the mik­vah and get­ting the bet dins stamp of approval. It had to be lived many years and through the mile­stones of life.”

But that is get­ting ahead of the sto­ry. Some of the dra­mat­ic ten­sion in Gendler’s mem­oir comes from ini­tial­ly hid­ing the youth­ful romance from her boyfriend’s par­ents. These Holo­caust sur­vivors liv­ing in a tight­ly knit Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty in Munich would, their son Har­ry knows, be deeply opposed to his mar­ry­ing out.” And so the tale unfolds, Gendler’s nar­ra­tive flow­ing smooth­ly. In the few places through­out the book where a word or phrase hints that Eng­lish is not Gendler’s native lan­guage, the effect is more charm­ing that jar­ring. She opens a bag to search for lip balm”; her eyes cramp” when she cuts an onion. She deft­ly sets scenes, bring­ing them to life with details of the times.

The book’s title is enig­mat­ic. Jump­ing over shad­ows” con­jures an image of some­thing mys­te­ri­ous and dark, shape-shift­ing and vague­ly threat­en­ing. A ver­sion of the phrase is uttered by Harry’s father and seems to allude to the dark his­to­ry of the Holo­caust. Gendler’s own rel­a­tives faced the fall­out of the Shoah as fam­i­lies became linked through mar­riage, so the phrase thus inter­pret­ed would apply to them as well. And did Gendler and Har­ry not jump over the shad­ows of his­to­ry as they sought clar­i­ty in their rela­tion­ship? Ulti­mate­ly, the author leaves the title’s inter­pre­ta­tion up to the read­er. It is a wise and provoca­tive choice, as shad­ows gath­er over the Unit­ed States and Europe today.

Amy Spun­gen, a free­lance edi­tor and writer, has a BS in jour­nal­ism from Vir­ginia Com­mon­wealth Uni­ver­si­ty and an MA in Eng­lish from North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty. She lives near Chica­go in High­land Park, Illinois.

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