The Row­ing Lesson

  • Review
By – November 9, 2011
It’s a poem, real­ly. An ele­gy.

A love-song. 

Anne Landsman’s nov­el takes us on a jour­ney through the life of a South African Jew­ish doc­tor, seen through the lov­ing eyes of his daugh­ter as he lies in a hos­pi­tal bed with his fam­i­ly gath­ered round for the last time. 

The metaphor here is the riv­er as life and the need for the strength to row hard and row well to nav­i­gate the jour­ney. It’s a metaphor that has been used many times, of course, but the lyri­cal poet­ry of the lan­guage makes it seem fresh and the streamof- con­scious­ness flow eeri­ly echoes the river’s pas­sage through chart­ed and unchart­ed ter­ri­to­ry. The com­plex­i­ties and com­pli­ca­tions of life, love, and fam­i­ly rela­tion­ships con­trast with the ebb and the flow of the riv­er. 

The South African land­scape comes alive here, with sights and sounds almost pal­pa­ble, as does the small slice of Jew­ish his­to­ry here por­trayed. 

Themes flow gen­tly through the nar­ra­tive. Extinc­tion is one; ani­mals and fish can become extinct but can the love of fam­i­ly? Trans­porta­tion, too, is a con­tin­u­al theme with boats and trains and planes mov­ing char­ac­ters from place to place as the jour­ney con­tin­ues from one gen­er­a­tion to the next. 

As the most­ly gen­tle nar­ra­tive flow lulls us a bit, the shock­ing end is effec­tive and sur­pris­ing. This is a beau­ti­ful­ly writ­ten sto­ry and a trip worth tak­ing.

Anne Lands­man on The Row­ing Lesson

My nov­el, The Row­ing Les­son, is Bet­sy Klein’s bed-side ele­gy for her dying father, Har­ry. It’s her attempt to cap­ture the essence of who he was, before she los­es him for­ev­er. I think most of us are fas­ci­nat­ed by who our par­ents real­ly were. We get snip­pets of them. And I think we want more, because we can under­stand our­selves bet­ter when we under­stand them bet­ter. And that’s what’s at the heart of Betsy’s jour­ney. It’s her attempt to see her father clear­ly, so she can come to terms with him. She sum­mons him up and tries to under­stand him and when she does, she is final­ly able to under­stand herself.

I like to think that all kinds of peo­ple would be drawn to my work as we all live in fam­i­lies of one kind or anoth­er, we all expe­ri­ence the pain of los­ing a loved one, the joy of see­ing a new life come into the world, as well as all the twists and turns in between. I’m intrigued by fam­i­ly ties, how they get stretched, expand­ed, bro­ken, renewed by cir­cum­stance, his­to­ry, geog­ra­phy. These are uni­ver­sal con­cerns, not lim­it­ed to one par­tic­u­lar audi­ence. And being a Jew­ish writer is such a gift because we strad­dle sev­er­al tra­di­tions, cul­tures, his­to­ries, giv­ing us access to such a wealth of ideas. I’m a South African, Lithuan­ian, Amer­i­can Jew who grew up speak­ing flu­ent Afrikaans (as my sec­ond lan­guage), loved Shake­speare, Bronte and Dick­ens, and went to ched­er three times a week. All of these strands influ­ence who I am, and how I write, and they con­nect with peo­ple all over the globe.

From the Rohr Judges

The first thing you notice about Anne Landsman’s nov­el is its chal­leng­ing form: con­stant­ly employ­ing the sec­ond per­son, it feels dif­fer­ent from almost any­thing you’ve read before. But you then real­ize why she’s made that deci­sion: in telling the sto­ry of Bet­sy Klein, return­ing to South Africa to her father’s deathbed, it empha­sizes how deeply a child can imag­ine her parent’s life, and how pow­er­ful, how inva­sive an effect it has on her own. And then, real­iz­ing this, you can go on to appre­ci­ate Landsman’s crafts­man­ship, her evoca­tive scenes and her sure sense of his­tor­i­cal place, to say noth­ing of her thought­ful med­i­ta­tion on life, death, and the emo­tions and mem­o­ries that can bridge the two.


By Anne Lands­man
Nov­el­ist Anne Lands­man­’s quest to locate the essence of the Torah’s holi­ness led not to sim­ple answers but a deep­er under­stand­ing of the questions

On Sat­ur­day morn­ings, when the Torah scroll is car­ried through the aisles of the syn­a­gogue, and con­gre­gants press for­ward, tal­li­tot in hand, to kiss the vel­vet, embroi­dered cov­er, there’s a moment of vis­cer­al con­nec­tion. This word­less moment, of hon­or­ing and ele­vat­ing the ancient texts, has always fas­ci­nat­ed me. As Jews, we don’t kiss beads, icons, stat­ues or cross­es. We kiss words we believe to con­tain the divine spark. And these words are not print­ed on paper, they’re inscribed by hand on parch­ment, and the parch­ment is rolled around two wood­en cylin­ders. By kiss­ing the Torah, we’re rever­ing not only the words them­selves, but the anti­quat­ed form in which they appear. We’re hon­or­ing both the mes­sage and the medi­um, acknowl­edg­ing that books were once writ­ten dif­fer­ent­ly and read dif­fer­ent­ly. Every time the Torah is uncov­ered and unrolled, we trav­el back in time.

This time-trav­el­ling, or unrav­el­ing, rais­es a myr­i­ad ques­tions: What makes these words holy? When did they first appear? Who wrote them? What is the his­to­ry of the peo­ple who have car­ried the Torah for three and a half mil­len­nia? In Sep­tem­ber 2007, when I reg­is­tered for the Me’ah Pro­gram, I was attempt­ing to answer some of these ques­tions for myself. Me’ah is a two-year adult edu­ca­tion pro­gram (or 100 hours of Jew­ish learn­ing) found­ed by Hebrew Col­lege in 1994 in Boston, now offered at many dif­fer­ent syn­a­gogues in the North­east. 

The course was divid­ed into four semes­ter- long sec­tions — Bible, Rab­binics, the Medieval Peri­od, and the Mod­ern Peri­od. One of the first notes I took at the begin­ning of this remark­able jour­ney was in Sharon Keller’s Bible class, about approach­ing the Bib­li­cal text as if it is alive.” Using the Jew­ish Study Bible as our guide, our sense of the Book” as a mono­lith­ic, seam­less whole was imme­di­ate­ly explod­ed, and what replaced it was a sense of excite­ment and rev­e­la­tion at the mul­ti­plic­i­ty of points of view, voic­es, and time peri­ods con­tained with­in the text. Equal­ly thrilling were the dif­fer­ent types of inter­pre­ta­tion — the com­par­a­tive approach, the lens of his­tor­i­cal crit­i­cism, and the meth­ods of source crit­i­cism, and fem­i­nist crit­i­cism. Some­times these approach­es diverged and some­times they over­lapped. 

In Rab­binics, with Mar­cie Lenk at the helm, we explored the sys­tem the rab­bis cre­at­ed after the destruc­tion of the Sec­ond Tem­ple and a new way to live with­in the same frame­work was con­struct­ed and even­tu­al­ly cod­i­fied. One of my favorite and rather cryp­tic notes from this sec­tion of the course were the words, Tal­mud — reac­tion to the Gospels?” Also remark­able was the flu­id­i­ty of the Mish­nah, the Pales­tin­ian Tal­mud, the Baby­lon­ian Tal­mud and that the texts were not unchanged until the print­ing press was invent­ed. Only then did the idea of the author­i­ta­tive ver­sion emerge. With the advent of the dig­i­tal rev­o­lu­tion, one won­ders what these texts will look like a hun­dred years from now. 

Ben­jy Gam­pel, our fear­less medieval peri­od leader, imme­di­ate­ly tack­led medieval” as a pre­sen­tist mis­nomer, a mod­ern West­ern Euro­pean con­struct that saw antiq­ui­ty as glo­ri­ous, fol­lowed by the Dark or Mid­dle Ages where the hier­ar­chi­cal church repressed all dis­sent, final­ly lead­ing to the Enlight­en­ment and moder­ni­ty, where the glo­ry of antiq­ui­ty was recap­tured. But from a Jew­ish per­spec­tive, the medieval peri­od is the time peri­od where Jews lived under the rival monothe­is­tic cul­tures of Chris­tian­i­ty and Islam. Before then, they prac­ticed their monothe­ism in a poly­the­is­tic soci­ety. With­in Chris­ten­dom, Jews were seen as the direct heirs of the Bible but also as Christ-killers. They could tes­ti­fy to the truth of the Old Tes­ta­ment prophe­cies, and for that rea­son were kept alive but in a debased sta­tus. They were also seen to be an inte­gral part of the dra­ma of the end of days, when it was under­stood that Jesus would return and con­vert them to Chris­tian­i­ty as the cap­stone of his career, the cli­max of his sec­ond com­ing. 

The rise of Islam as a world reli­gion with 80 to 90 per­cent of world Jew­ry under its con­trol by the end of the sev­enth cen­tu­ry meant a dif­fer­ent set of free­doms and lim­i­ta­tions for Jews. Along with Chris­tians, they were classed as dhim­mi” in the Mus­lim world and the pre­vail­ing atti­tude towards them was tol­er­a­tion, but not equal­i­ty. Two great reads for this part of Me’ah were A.B. Yehoshua’s Towards the End of the Milen­ni­um and The Mem­oirs of Gluck­el of Hameln

The notion of equal­i­ty for the Jews came with the enlight­en­ment, and the birth of the mod­ern nation-state. The mod­ern peri­od was taught by Jonathan Gri­betz, appro­pri­ate­ly the youngest of the four teach­ers, and the pre­scribed text was The Jew in the Mod­ern World. As always, each class was filled with rev­e­la­tions, rafts of new learn­ing. The Reform move­ment began in Ger­many in 1817 with the New Israelite Tem­ple Asso­ci­a­tion of Ham­burg, and not in Amer­i­ca, as I had sup­posed. And again, when it came to the devel­op­ment of Zion­ism, it became abun­dant­ly clear how many dif­fer­ent, rival nation­alisms exist­ed at that time, and that there were many dif­fer­ing forms of Zion­ism. 

As with the study of the Bible, the pic­ture of Jew­ish life that emerged was any­thing but mono­lith­ic. In the ear­ly years of Zion­ism, Israel as the home­land of the Jew­ish peo­ple was not a fore­gone con­clu­sion. Oth­er ter­ri­to­ries that were dis­cussed were Argenti­na and Ugan­da (which was actu­al­ly Kenya). Some of the foun­da­tion doc­u­ments we stud­ied were the Bal­four Dec­la­ra­tion, David Ben-Gurion’s On the Arab Ques­tion” (Jan­u­ary, 1937), as well as The Pales­tin­ian Nation­al Char­ter (July 1968) and we had a par­tic­u­lar­ly live­ly class dis­cussing the Pales­tin­ian denial of Jew­ish nation­hood as well as the Zion­ist denial of Pales­tin­ian nation­hood. Jonathan made a delib­er­ate choice not to cov­er the Holo­caust as he right­ly felt that it was too large a sub­ject to cov­er with­in the lim­it­ed time. 

Ulti­mate­ly, what I loved most about this two-year adven­ture into the thick­ets of Jew­ish learn­ing was that there were no easy answers, no cer­ti­tude about whether Moses and Abra­ham real­ly exist­ed out­side of the Torah, no com­fort­able plat­i­tudes about the thorny pol­i­tics of present-day Israel. As we trav­eled in time, we tried to look at each gen­er­a­tion of Jews as they saw them­selves. Now, when I reach for­ward to kiss the Torah, I real­ize I’m cel­e­brat­ing my own agency, my desire to con­nect to the ancient words, as well as to the lay­ered, non-lin­ear his­to­ry of the Jew­ish peo­ple, and that the spark of the divine rests in that end­less­ly shift­ing, rest­less human search for meaning.

Michal Hoschan­der Malen is the edi­tor of Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s young adult and children’s book reviews. A for­mer librar­i­an, she has lec­tured on top­ics relat­ing to lit­er­a­cy, run book clubs, and loves to read aloud to her grandchildren.

Discussion Questions