Please Say Kaddish For Me – by Rochelle Wisoff-Fields – independent book review – non-fiction

Somewhat interesting not very well written. I consider the three stars awarded on Goodreads is a bit of a gift.

saykaddishAfter beginning my own genealogy work, I was looking for an historical novel that would give me a richer sense of what it was like to live through the “pogroms”, the brutal persecution which motivated the exodus of literally MILLIONS of Jews from Eastern Europe between 1880 – 1910. Many of them, including my grandparents and the author’s, wound up in the United States. My Google search for “historical novels + pogroms” turned up this book. So, I jumped right in.

It’s the story of a large extended Jewish family living in Czarist Russia in the late 1880s. (In fact, there are so many members in this family that I found it difficult to keep track of who was related to whom and how.) Early on in the book a teenage girl, Havah, witnesses a horrific act of violence and flees one small Jewish settlement for another. There she is taken in by this large extended family.

The next 80% of the book is much more focused on daily Jewish life–making meals, arranging marriages, studying the Torah. The author puts MUCH effort into documenting the speech patterns commonly attributed to Jews. I found, after a while, that this stepped over the line into stereotyping, and did not add to the narrative of the novel.

There are also storylines that portray less that admirable aspects of everyday life. Marriages without love, domestic abuse, petty jealousy, and generally unkind behavior — all of which have little to do with the main plot. So that it did not, for me, paint a very favorable picture of many in this family.

On the other hand, I did get the sense of the poverty and limited opportunity available to Jews at this time. And there are a few random acts of intimidation and discrimination. I understood that there was always the threat of more serious acts of violence, keeping Jews always on their guard. And it was clear they had no recourse, nor could they count on fairness or support from local officials. Some of the people in this story DO demonstrate loyal and close connections. Including one non-Jew whose empathy for the plight of Jews draws him into the orbit of the family.

About 85% into the book, there is another horrific act of violence — the one which finally prompts many family members to emigrate.

I found the writing downright amateurish. There is no logical story arch and so, no steady building of tension. The novel’s construction is clunky, with too much detail given to many UNimportant events and some important events skipped over much too quickly. Characters too often become caricatures, lacking believable motivations for their actions.

Do I have a better sense of Jewish life during the pogroms? A bit. But I plan to look for a different novel, one that hopefully provides more perspective on why the pogroms occurred when they did, what was going on in the minds of the perpetrators, and what was the nature of relations between Jews and non-Jews during this period.

Rochelle Wisoff-Fields (courtesy of her web site)

If you have any suggestions, I’d welcome them.

This was the author’s debut novel. She has now published two more books in the Havah Gitterman Saga —  From Silt and Ashes and As One Must, One Can.
More about the author, Rochelle Wisoff-Fields.

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