In search of some­thing

Tova Re­ich’s lat­est novel fea­tures ma­ter­nal themes, in­ter­na­tional travel and flashes of reck­on­ing on the bounds of Jewish life

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - BOOKS - • ELAINE MAR­GOLIN

There is a re­cent pho­to­graph of au­thor Tova Re­ich in which she ap­pears fear­less and un­bri­dled. We see a woman in her 70s with a hefty mane of di­sheveled gray hair that frames her re­gal face and pierc­ing eyes that seem to see right through you. It seems to sug­gest that Re­ich has con­quered her own demons and is rev­el­ing in the af­ter­glow.

Yet, her lat­est nar­ra­tive, Mother In­dia, seems to say oth­er­wise – and re­veals an au­thor still plagued by tur­moil that seems to be puls­ing through her. The book con­tains all of Re­ich’s cus­tom­ary ironic wit and bite about Jewish life and the de­mands of moth­er­hood and daugh­ter­hood. It also zones in on the of­ten cor­ro­sive ef­fect of the men who rule over the Or­tho­doxy in which she was raised.

Re­ich is the sis­ter of Rabbi Avi Weiss and the daugh­ter of Rabbi Dr. Moshe Weiss, who be­come one of the most prom­i­nent Re­li­gious Zion­ists lead­ers in Amer­ica. Her hus­band, psy­chi­a­trist Wal­ter Re­ich, was the first di­rec­tor of the US Holo­caust Mu­seum. It is ob­vi­ous Re­ich has spent much of her life im­mersed in the de­mands of oth­ers; as well as their dom­i­nat­ing shad­ows, while per­haps bit­terly swal­low­ing fes­ter­ing re­sent­ments. Her com­pelling nar­ra­tive of­ten seems to tap into this anger in her fic­tional imag­in­ing of a young Ortho­dox woman named Meena who speaks to us in a sear­ing first-per­son voice dar­ing to chal­lenge all that is ex­pected of her. We can’t help but think Re­ich is present in Meena; and Meena in Re­ich; there is some­thing about them that seems in­sep­a­ra­ble.

Re­ich’s story be­gins when Meena’s mother, an obese woman of seem­ingly in­ex­haustible strength who has borne nine chil­dren, is di­ag­nosed with ter­mi­nal can­cer and sud­denly de­cides to go to In­dia to die in peace and be cre­mated; flout­ing sa­cred Jewish tra­di­tions re­gard­ing such things.

Her les­bian daugh­ter, Meena, our nar­ra­tor, is al­ready there run­ning a travel busi­ness that lures dis­en­fran­chised Jews to In­dia in search of some­thing they can’t find at home. Meena has re­cently been aban­doned by her les­bian lover Geeta and is pour­ing her sad­ness into her al­ready de­pressed young daugh­ter Maya – who seems hell bent on self-de­struc­tion.

Meena is re­luc­tant to help her mother, know­ing it will en­rage her fa­ther who has scorned her and her many sib­lings, but she con­sents and ar­ranges liv­ing ac­com­mo­da­tions for her, which in­clude a ser­vant to tend to her needs. Her mother, much to Meena’s sur­prise, seems to blos­som in In­dia, dress­ing for the first time in pants and mak­ing new friends and seem­ing to lose the heav­i­ness that hung around her neck for as long as Meena could re­mem­ber.

It was ironic – since Meena had ini­tially left for In­dia in search of the same sort of free­dom, but it had eluded her. She was lost in a maze of sad­ness; dis­tressed about her lost lover, her daugh­ter’s vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties, and her own thwarted de­sires.

Re­ich de­scribes Meena’s mother’s tran­si­tion with her usual dark satiric wit­ti­ness: “We’re talk­ing here about an ul­tra-Ortho­dox Jewish woman clos­ing in on the fin­ish line of her eighth decade in a life­span tra­di­tion­ally cal­cu­lated at the three score ten, hang­ing on past the statute of lim­i­ta­tions, liv­ing on bor­rowed time – the wife of a rabbi, a reb­bet­zin, mother of nine, grand­mother to many. How many? Don’t ask. That’s a ques­tion she would never have an­swered. Jews do not count their own; God does not take kindly to that, it can be fa­tal. On top of that, she was stricken with stage four breast can­cer, an

Ashke­nazi spe­cialty like gefilte fish; it had oc­cu­pied all her ter­ri­tory. Though you might never have guessed it by eye­balling her. As a proper re­li­gious ma­tron, she had al­ways worn a wig, well be­fore she lost all hair from the chemo and she still weighed in at close to 250 pounds.”

BUT RE­ICH’S comedic tone be­gins to plum­met into a dark space where wit and satire seem mis­placed; par­tic­u­larly when speak­ing of her daugh­ter Maya – whose trou­bles have be­come over­whelm­ing. Maya has taken to vis­it­ing the lo­cal Chabad House and is in love with one of the young men who talks to her, but soon leaves to marry, leav­ing her dev­as­tated. She be­gins to fall to the ground re­peat­edly for no ap­par­ent rea­son. Her mother takes her to a healer in the vague hope that some­thing could re­store her, but this en­counter sim­ply leads her down a more treach­er­ous path; one with grave con­se­quences.

Re­ich cap­tures the feel­ing of failed moth­er­hood; the help­less­ness of it; and the enor­mous bur­den. There are re­veal­ing pas­sages on Meena’s heart­felt de­sire for her daugh­ter’s re­cov­ery bounc­ing against more can­did med­i­ta­tions about want­ing to fi­nally be free of her. She cap­tures the zeit­geist of a woman who wants to do the right thing by her daugh­ter and by her ail­ing mother; but it does not come eas­ily to her. There are com­pet­ing con­cerns; namely her­self, an en­tity she has been raised to dis­re­gard.

Meena con­fesses that she came to In­dia in the first place to es­cape; to purge her­self “from the au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism of the orig­i­nal Abra­hamic faith that had messed so neg­a­tively with my head.” She orig­i­nally thought In­dia would be a place where spir­i­tu­al­ity and mean­ing would come into fo­cus, but soon rec­og­nized that it, too, was filled with huck­sters and con men mas­querad­ing as prophets. She was guilty of de­cep­tion her­self. Her travel busi­ness played on the “sad, hu­man long­ing for mean­ing in this life, for re­lief from suf­fer­ing by de­liv­er­ing all of those spir­i­tu­ally needy souls to feet of gu­rus.” In In­dia, these forces were ex­ot­i­cally dressed-up nov­elty per­form­ers, but per­form­ers none­the­less. The Promised Land she hoped for was an il­lu­sion ev­ery­where.

Hover­ing over the nar­ra­tive are me­mories of her twin brother Sh­melke, who was once thought to be the rein­car­na­tion of Rabbi Nachman of Breslav, and was now an in­fa­mously well-known rene­gade rabbi who had landed in In­dia him­self after be­ing chased out of ev­ery­where else. He reaches out to Meena to help her with Maya, who has gone miss­ing, and the twins get to­gether once again in mu­tual des­per­a­tion.

Re­ich pro­vides some won­drous mo­ments that catch you un­aware with flashes of reck­on­ing, but re­lies too heav­ily on her own clev­er­ness and dis­trac­tion to truly move you. It feels as if she is afraid to feel too much or re­veal too much and in­stead hides be­hind a screen of sorts that de­fies pen­e­tra­tion. Like in her ear­lier con­tro­ver­sial work, My Holo­caust – which ruf­fled feath­ers with its brazen de­scrip­tions of the Holo­caust as a brass com­mer­cial en­ter­prise de­void of sub­stance – Re­ich shies away from the deep­est hu­man emo­tions; the con­fes­sional ones that make us shud­der. Even the smells and sick­ness and poverty of In­dia and its starv­ing chil­dren are pre­sented coarsely as a face­less back­drop of sorts to Jewish angst and not given full mea­sure.

There was one pas­sage near the end that caught me off guard. As Meena is slid­ing fur­ther and fur­ther into an abyss with her wheel­chair-bound brother Sh­melke in tow, she re­mem­bers a defin­ing mo­ment from long ago: “I must have lost my bear­ings and could not pre­cisely fol­low the swift un­fold­ing of events. It was as if I were a young girl again in Brook­lyn at a wed­ding or a hol­i­day cel­e­bra­tion, danc­ing se­dately with the women when a mass of men charged for­ward to lay claim to our floor space, forc­ing us to re­treat, to scurry to the side­lines, push­ing us against the wall as they took con­trol of the cen­ter.”

There was an el­e­gant and sim­ple naked­ness to this be­lated con­fes­sion that was sadly miss­ing from the rest of the book.

Re­ich cap­tures the feel­ing of failed moth­er­hood; the help­less­ness of it; and the enor­mous bur­den

(Vivek Prakash/Reuters)

A WOMAN walks along the beach in Mum­bai as the sun sets.

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