Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Sisters Weiss by Naomi Ragen ~ Book Review

Rose and her sister Pearl are growing up in a loving, yet super restrictive ultra-Orthodox Jewish family during the 1950's in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York. Though they love each other dearly, there is the typical tensions and jealousy between them that sisters have. Rose is approaching the age when the matchmakers of the community start looking for prospective wives for the young men of the community. This is the life they know until Rose has a chance encounter that introduces her to a love of photography and the stories that photographs tell. Not approved by the community or her parents, photography never the less draws her to the point where she is willing to take chances and she starts to live a hidden life. That is until her secret is exposed by the one person she trusted. Wisked away from all her friends and her school and those she loves to her grandmother's community for a year in punishment and hopes she'll repent, Rose nevertheless cannot resist the draw of the freedom that photography gives her and continues to live a secret other life. When the restrictions become so suffocating she makes the hardest decision of her life and pursues freedom at the cost of exile from her community.

 Forty years later, Rose's daughter receives a strange letter from someone claiming to be her cousin asking for help to break from Williamsburg. Rivka has been inspired by her aunt Rose's infamy within the community and her world renowned achievements in photography and wants to pursue the freedom that she has built up in her mind that her aunt has. But as she recklessly and thoughtlessly pursues what she perceives is the benefits of not answering to anybody, she throws those newly found family members and those that love her back at home into utter chaos. Both Rose and her sister Pearl must reopen old wounds in order to help Rivka.

 This book has been on my TBR for a while. It sounded so interesting in the description and it didn't disappoint. It was hard to put it down. It really examines what freedom really is, how we perceive it and the prices that individuals might pay to attain it. It is about love and family relationships, about betrayal and forgiveness and the reverberating consequences of actions that we might not even realize are happening. Both Rose and Rivka make choices within the story that set things into motion in their lives that will have far reaching affects and both must learn that those choices come at a cost. The story also examines the thought process and feelings behind rebellion that might come from such restrictive environments. I found the story super interesting.

 Though I've heard of the Ultra-Orthodox Jews I've never really known what they believe or how they go about their lives. This story was eye opening in that regard. The author is American but has lived in Jerusalem for over forty years and has observed the type of women described in the story both in New York and in Jerusalem. She has friendships both with the religious and secular communities and believes that the stereotypes about both do not do either sides justice. The story made me think about freedoms and what it might mean to individuals. Though Rose chaffed against the restrictions her sister Pearl's character learned accept them and actually find a good life within them. As it also examined perceptions that we may have from both sides of the fence it really made me think. Rivka definitely had a rosy perception of what Rose's life might be like but under the surface there were many life long issues that came with Rose's bid for freedom and pursuing the life she wanted for herself.

 The reason I knocked off a half point for this really good thought provoking story was because in the first 1/3 or so of the book, it is filled with quite a few Jewish sayings. Though there is a glossary of Hebrew and Yiddish words and phrases at the back of the book there was not a way in the story of knowing which term would actually be on the list. I must admit I did get tired of flipping to the back to find meanings and wished it would somehow have been defined within the story itself. But other than that, the story itself was really good. For those who are sensitive to it, there is a scene of promiscuity in the story but can be skimmed over without missing the purpose and consequences of the scene.  And bonus points to the author for showing some of the consequences of being promiscuous.

I gave this book a 9.5/10

Linked to Semicolon Saturday Review of Books


Barbara H. said...

Sounds interesting! I can't imagine how hard it would be to break from such a community.

Patti Gardner said...

I saw this book on your sidebar last week, and it looked/sounded interesting to me (from then going to the Amazon description). I was able to pick it up at the library over the weekend. I am looking forward to reading it.

Karen said...

I need to stop reading your reviews, or just resign myself to the fact that I will make a longer list. I think I'll go with the longer list. This sounds like a good story and I would enjoy learning about the Orthodox Jewish culture.