In the summer of '76, the Shulmans and the Melishes migrate to Kaaterskill, the tiny town in upstate New York where Orthodox Jews and Yankee year-rounders live side by side from June through August. Elizabeth Shulman, a devout follower of Rav Elijah Kirshner and the mother of five daughters, is restless. She needs a project of her own, outside her family and her cloistered community. Across the street, Andras Melish is drawn to Kaaterskill by his adoring older sisters, bound to him by their loss and wrenching escape from the Holocaust. Both comforted and crippled by his sisters' love, Andras cannot overcome the ambivalence he feels toward his children and his own beautiful wife. At the top of the hill, Rav Kirshner is coming to the end of his life, and he struggles to decide which of his sons should succeed him: the pious but stolid Isaiah, or the brilliant but worldly Jeremy. Behind the scenes, alarmed as his beloved Kaaterskill is overdeveloped by Michael King, the local real estate broker, Judge Miles Taylor keeps an old secret in check, biding his time....
My thoughts on Kaaterskill Falls are a little mixed. I loved the setting - I thought Goodman gave a great sense of place in the Catskills and also back in the city. The writing was good - definitely a step up from most writers. The plot was where this novel fell short. Is it possible for there too be just not enough plot but way too many storylines? That is how I felt about this story.
There are 2 major stories to follow in this book - they both march along at maddeningly slow speed with very little dramatic tension. Then - there are about a dozen (at least!) small stories that are thrown in and alternated through. With so many characters to keep track of and story lines to keep straight reading this book became somewhat of a chore.
I will still read Goodman - i think she is one of the better contemporary writers out there (and she lives one town over from me!) - despite the awards it won - it fell short for me.
Many key characters struggle with their identites, place in the community, and in the larger world. Goodman points directly to those in orthodox families and communities as suffering the most severe and painful introspection. They question their faith against powerful frustration and anger, and how they reconcile their emotions to reach decisions about their future.
Well-planned and written. Great read!
The upstate town of Kaaterskill Falls is a painterly setting. Pages turn and the plot unfurls. Yet nothing ever snaps or nips. One cares about the characters; their foibles are endearing and believable. Yet the threads, despite several intriguing arcs, never resolve.
Ambiguity in ending is a reasonable authors' prerogative. But here it feels like the time-slice of the novel is arbitrary. Goodman's examination of American Jewish communities in light of upheavals in the mid-1970s is an academically admirable project, but it doesn't necessarily translate to intrigue for the reader. Snippets of (real) political history seem to invade the quietness of the family-based stories, not enrich them.
And in the end, the sense of quiet-town stagnation feels muggy and oppressive. Not much has changed or resolved, and there is a haze of disappointment, almost. Perhaps Goodman is trying to project a helpless disillusionment on the part of her characters.
A very worthwhile book for learning about elements of conservative Jewish culture; a respectable plot and a carefully-built story, yet, in the end, the very accuracy of the characters Goodman has built--restrained, traditional, averse to conflict--keeps the book from kindling a real spark.
A remarkable story in that its characters are deeply complex and developed yet simply told through many narrators with whom we come to feel neighborly. Large amounts of the novel are by and about Elizabeth Shulman, a seemingly plain and devoted Jewish housewife who follows the teachings and law of one Rav Kirshner. Yet, we learn that even the most religious and pious of people long for something more than blind adoration.
Many of Kirshner's New York City Washington Heights followers spend their summer in Kaaterskill Falls with the Rav and his family. A humble set of intwined lives that continuously reflect on their past and try and change their future - from the bored teenager Renee to the intellectual son of the Rav, Jeremy, to the longings of Elizabeth and the greater visions she dreams for her daughters.
A thoughtful, intimate read that you will want to linger over each evening, as if chatting with friends.
Deborah, you will really like this one!
As traditional as the Kirshners are, they are also forward-looking in some respects. They do not wear the sidelocks or beards as do many Orthodox Jews, and they are not prevented from interacting with the outside world as long as they exhibit a strict adherence to the rules and mores of their faith. But as the Rav ages, his rulings on community affairs have become more conservative and restrictive. And yet there is still joy in his followers. There are ritual celebrations and the comfort of prayer, and the comfort of always knowing your place in the world (and the world to come).
Nevertheless, it felt a bit frustrating to read about the Kirshners, especially the position of women, who must cut their hair and wear wigs or scarves when they marry, who must sit behind a curtain during religious services, and who are basically consigned to a life of child-bearing, cooking, and living in obeisance to the men.
Goodman’s portrayal is detailed and evocative; we come to know what life is like in all its domestic and social particulars for this reclusive group of people. And some of the characters are not as religious as others, but because they are related by family, they are accepted (albeit reluctantly) by the Kirshners.
The main focus of the book is Elizabeth Schulman, a 34-year-old mother of five girls who ardently wishes to be more than what her lot in life has assigned her. Elizabeth’s oldest daughter, 12-year-old Chani, dreams of going to Israel, the existence of which is not acknowledged by the Kirshners. (The Kirshners, like some Orthodox Jews, do not accept Israel “with its atheist socialists.” They wait for the “perfect” Israel when the Temple has been restored; when only Hebrew, the holy language, is spoken; and when there has been a “transformation of all the lives in every place in the world.”) We also get to know Rav Kirshner, who is old and dying, and his two sons: Jeremy – the intellectual, and Isaiah – more stolid and obedient. Jeremy is not married, but Isaiah is married to Rachel, ambitious for Isaiah and jealous and judgmental about others. One of the sons will presumably be the Rav’s “heir” in the Kirshner religious dynasty, as is common in Orthodox communities. Another character, Andras Melish is more secular than his neighbors or even his South American wife, but is a part of the Kirshners largely because of his emotional dependence on his religious sisters, Eva and Maja. His daughter Renee, a teen, longs for excitement, and thinks she has found it with a Syrian Maronite Catholic friend who lives in the town.
Thus from all these different characters and more we learn about life among the Orthodox. It’s an ongoing story that doesn’t really come to a resolution, and it's not earth-shaking, but rather, it’s a period portrait for us to observe. It has been compared to a novel of manners similar to those of Jane Austen, and I don’t find that to be an unwarranted observation. Goodman’s writing is just fine, and the book was a National Book Award Finalist.