by Naomi Ragen
In the late 1950’s and early 60’s, sisters Rose and Pearl grow up in an ultra-orthodox Jewish family in New York City. Together, they learn the Jewish culture and religion: the strict regimen of preparing and eating kosher food, the prayers and other rituals. Rose, the older of the two, takes care of Pearl, and they develop a bond.
As a child, Rose takes an interest in photography when she wins a camera as a prize for depositing a certain amount of money in a bank account. The camera is cheap, and she gives up, thinking she can never take pictures like the ones she sees in books. When she’s in high school, the father of one of her friends, who is not an orthodox Jew, loans her a book of photographs, some of them of naked women. When her parents find out, she is proclaimed a sinner and sent to live with her grandmother in another part of the city and attend a more stringent Jewish high school.
That doesn’t stop her from pursuing photography. Realizing that she can lie to her grandmother about her whereabouts, she starts taking a photography class at a local arts institute. Her parents eventually find out, and she is forced to move back home, and preparations are made to marry her off as soon as possible.
At seventeen, Rose doesn’t want to be like her mother, caring for a husband and children and having no time for her own ambition. However, she tries to abide by her parents’ wishes until she discovers that in order to marry a boy her parents have chosen, she must give up photography. The night before her wedding, she leaves her family home, never to return.
Forty years later, Rose is a successful photographer with several published books and various awards for her work. She has traveled all over the world, married twice, and had two children. When her niece, Pearl’s daughter, shows up on her doorstep, also fleeing an arranged marriage, Rose is forced to confront her past and compelled to re-connect with her family.
This was one of those books I couldn’t put down. I was fascinated and horrified to learn of the Jews’ dietary restrictions and the list of things a person couldn’t do on the Sabbath. I was amazed to discover that even in 2007, there were still orthodox Jews who led sheltered lives, providing girls with just enough education to allow them to be good and pious wives and mothers. I found the glossary of Yiddish terms interesting and helpful, although I understood most of them within the book’s context. I was disappointed in the ending, though. Without giving it away, let me just say I wish it could have been different.
We Shall Overcome
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That’s Life: New and Selected Poems