The Math­e­mati­cian’s Shiva

  • Review
By – July 16, 2014

This won­der­ful­ly quirky nov­el cel­e­brates the life of a famous, fic­tion­al math­e­mati­cian, Rachela Karnokovitch. She is a Pol­ish émi­gré to Madi­son, Wis­con­sin, a pro­fes­sor who is rumored to have solved the mil­lion-dol­lar Navier-Stokes Mil­le­ni­um Prize prob­lem, and to have tak­en the solu­tion to her grave. 

When her son Sasha, who nar­rates the nov­el, sits shi­va with his father, uncle, and cousin, surpris­ing things hap­pen. Hordes of math­e­mati­cian friends and ene­mies of Rachela come to pay their respects. Though some are gen­uine­ly bereaved, oth­ers are hop­ing to find any hint of the solu­tion to the mil­lion-dol­lar prob­lem. Sasha’s long-lost daugh­ter from a short-lived mar­riage shows up at the shi­va as well, bring­ing her own daugh­ter, a grand­daugh­ter Sasha knew noth­ing about. Although Sasha and his father are both pub­lished researchers in their own right, their accomplish­ments pale in com­par­i­son with Rachela’s and they are proud and pro­tec­tive of her lega­cy. Sasha’s account of his mother’s funer­al and shi­va, while deal­ing with his new-found prog­e­ny and the crowd that descends on his home, is inter­spersed with chap­ters from Rachela’s mem­oirs, A Life­time in Math­e­mat­ics, which describes the incred­i­ble hard­ships of her life in Poland, her strong deter­mination to sur­vive, the ben­e­fits of ski­ing in icy cold weath­er, and the cut­throat com­pet­i­tive­ness among math­e­mati­cians. This bit­ter­sweet nov­el, which depicts fam­i­ly loy­al­ty and the love between a moth­er and son, is rem­i­nis­cent of Jonathan Tropper’s This is Where I Leave You in its humor­ous descrip­tions of human rela­tion­ships, eccen­tric­i­ties, and challenges.

Relat­ed content:

Read Stu­art Rojs­tacz­er’s Posts for the Vis­it­ing Scribe

Why I’m a Jew­ish Writer

The Author Talks To His Mom About The Mathematician’s Shiva


Read Juli Berwald’s inter­view with Stu­art Rojs­tacz­er here.

Miri­am Brad­man Abra­hams, mom, grand­mom, avid read­er, some­time writer, born in Havana, raised in Brook­lyn, resid­ing in Long Beach on Long Island. Long­time for­mer One Region One Book chair and JBC liai­son for Nas­sau Hadas­sah, cur­rent­ly pre­sent­ing Inci­dent at San Miguel with author AJ Sidran­sky who wrote the his­tor­i­cal fic­tion based on her Cuban Jew­ish refugee family’s expe­ri­ences dur­ing the rev­o­lu­tion. Flu­ent in Span­ish and Hebrew, cer­ti­fied hatha yoga instructor.

Discussion Questions