The Sweet­ness

By – May 22, 2014

It is always pleas­ant to read an author who can take you back to the past with minute details that cause you to revive fad­ed mem­o­ries. Sande Boritz Berg­er does this for Amer­i­cans who lived dur­ing the 1940s by recall­ing items such as the month­ly mag­a­zine Mod­ern Screen, one of the first jour­nals to record the pri­vate lives of movie stars, mas­cara which came in cake form and had to be applied with a wet brush, and cut glass door­knobs. She uses these touch­es to set the scene for life in a res­i­den­tial mid­dle class sec­tion of Brook­lyn as well as for con­trast of the super­fi­cial lives of Amer­i­cans who were untouched (or thought they were) by World War II and those who ter­ri­fy­ing­ly lived through it in Poland.

Berg­er tells the sto­ry of two girls, Mira, a teen liv­ing in a large house on Avenue T in Brook­lyn and Rosha, a ten-year-old, liv­ing in the base­ment of a stranger’s house in Poland. These two are cousins who have nev­er met. And the sus­pense lead­ing up to when their lives will inter­sect is kept up through­out the book.

The descrip­tion of Mira’s thoughts and activ­i­ties in the 40s is pre­cise and alive. Her rela­tion­ships to her par­ents, her broth­er, her best friend, Faye, and house­hold help are por­trayed in such a way, it is almost like a mem­oir. Her love-hate rela­tion­ship with her father as she works for him at Kane Knit­ting (Kane changed from Kamin­sky), and grad­u­al­ly gains some con­trol at work, is relayed almost auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal­ly. And her jeal­ousy of her best friend, Faye, who goes off to Hol­ly­wood to become a fash­ion design­er which is what Mira want­ed to do before her father envel­oped her in his fac­to­ry, has a truth­ful quality.

Simul­ta­ne­ous­ly, Rosha’s sto­ry of a girl whose father thrust her into the arms of a non-Jew­ish woman, known as Mrs. Juras­ka, a can­dle-mak­er and begged her to take care of his daugh­ter as he was in the midst of a roundup of Jews being tak­en to a concentra­tion camp, is told. But Rosha’s feel­ings about being thrown into a strange home so sud­den­ly with­out say­ing good­bye to her par­ents does not have the emo­tion­al impact of the Brook­lyn story.

Apart from depict­ing the behav­ioral char­ac­ter­is­tics of Rosha, who refus­es to eat or talk dur­ing her first month liv­ing in the base­ment of this family’s home, lit­tle is giv­en about her inner strug­gle. Is she angry at her father? Is she curi­ous about the where­abouts of her beloved Bubbe?” Is she tor­tured by mem­o­ries of her pleas­ant for­mer life with her fam­i­ly? We are not priv­i­leged to know. We are left to assume these things. And Rosha remains opti­mistic in the face of the mean teas­ings of Vic­tor, a young boy in the Juras­ka house­hold who hates her entry into his life as it takes his father’s atten­tion away from him, and in the drea­ri­ness of her soli­tary life in a cold basement.

She spends her time mak­ing up sce­nar­ios to play­act with the young daugh­ter of the house­hold when Sophie is allowed to vis­it or imag­in­ing her wel­come in Amer­i­ca when she final­ly will meet her cousin, Mira.

The book ends when Rosha arrives in Amer­i­ca and her arrival helps to heal all the var­i­ous suf­fer­ings and con­flicts her Amer­i­can rel­a­tives were under­go­ing. The love they feel for her unites them. And so the two sto­ries end happily.

Eleanor Ehrenkranz received her Ph.D. from NYU and has taught at Stern Col­lege, NYU, Mer­cy Col­lege, and at Pace Uni­ver­si­ty. She has lec­tured wide­ly on Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture and recent­ly pub­lished anthol­o­gy of Jew­ish poet­ry, Explain­ing Life: The Wis­dom of Mod­ern Jew­ish Poet­ry, 1960 – 2010.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Sande Boritz Berger

  • In the first chap­ter of The Sweet­ness we are intro­duced to young Rosha Kanin­sky who notices signs of impend­ing doom in Vil­na. What were some of the ear­ly hints that things were about to change for her fam­i­ly? How does the child dis­play her fears?

  • When we meet Mira Kane for the first time, she, too, exhibits a sense of anx­i­ety and yet she is focused on her fash­ion designs and career. Is this how she deals with her concerns?

  • Char­lie Kane’s sur­vivor guilt is an ongo­ing theme in The Sweet­ness. How would you describe his char­ac­ter, and what besides his guilt, do you think drove him to make many of his decisions?
  • How would you com­pare the char­ac­ter Avram Juras­ka to Char­lie Kane? As fathers and hus­bands, how are they alike and dissimilar?

  • There’s a quote from the Tal­mud that says: when you save one life, it is as though you have saved the entire world. What do you think cre­ates that the kind of self­less­ness as shown by Mar­ta, the can­dle mak­er? Do you believe there are peo­ple like her in the world today? Does she remind you of any oth­er lit­er­ary characters?

  • Each immi­grant expe­ri­ence is unique­ly dif­fer­ent and yet when it comes to the younger gen­er­a­tion and first gen­er­a­tion Amer­i­cans, often the strug­gles are sim­i­lar. Do you think this is a prob­lem in fam­i­lies today? Where do you see this most prevalent?

  • Prac­ti­cal­ly all of the women in The Sweet­ness go through tremen­dous upheaval and change. Who was your favorite female char­ac­ter and why?

  • Dis­cuss the cul­mi­na­tion of both Mira’s and Rosha’s jour­ney. What do you envi­sion for each of their futures? What would you like to see happen?