Hadassah Magazine—February 1991


Courter recreates the world of Indian Jewry.






Reviewed by Gloria Goldreich


The heroes and heroines of fairy tales, the personae of ancient myths, wandered through unfamiliar and rnysterious kingdoms, sailed across vast oceans during the wondrous intervals between “once upon a time” and “happily ever after. “So too did the heroes and heroines of the Torah trek through desert wilderness and confront the harshness of unfamiliar terrain between the era of Genesis and the generations of Deuteronomy. Given this influence it is hardly surprising that Jewish literary tradition embraced the generational novel.

The successful saga engages the intellect and the imagination, offering a bonus of knowledge and intimacy, an introduction to worlds exotic and unfamiliar. Gay Courter, author of The Midwife, creates such a world in her new and intriguing Flowers in the Blood. With depth and deftness she tells the story of the Sassoons of Calcutta, a Jewish family with origins in Baghdad, who dominated the opium trade in India during the late nineteenth century. Indeed, the hook takes its name from the poppy and its opium by-product which controls the blood of those addicted to it.

Dinah Sassoon is a sensitive, introspective child whose beautiful mother, an opium addict, was an unfaithful wife murdered by her lover. That tragedy haunts Dinah through her adolescence and shadows her marriages; its memory adheres during her adventurous journeys through the Himalayas, to Hong Kong and Darjeeling. The customs and histories of Jewish communities that endured in those Victorian out posts far from centers of religious authority are recounted with verve. Betrothal ceremonies, the celebration of Passover Seders, High Holiday observances, marriage and funeral rites are described with a historian’s accuracy and a novelist’s percept ion.

Dinah’s romantic marriage to Edwin Salem, her ability to control the family business, her recognition oft he evils of opium and her ultimate exposure of her mother’s murderer present us with a woman who is at once vulnerable and daring.  But the book’s true strength is the author’s recreation of the world of Indian Jewry and the weaving of a tapestry threaded with fact and fiction that hot hi fascinates and in forms. Flowers in the Blood is a fictional triumph.

The Kaminskys, the Russian-Jewish family of Norma Harris’s Trumpets of  Silver, are at a remove from the Sassoons of Calcutta: Their lives are haunted by systemic anti-Semitism. The 1891 Odessa pogrom reduced them to poverty and impelled them to leave the hate-ridden land of their birth and seek separate destinies.  The lives of the Kaminsky siblings are portrayed within the historic context of the turbulent times—World War I, the Depression, the Holocaust and the creation of the State of Israel.  Joshua goes to Palestine with his wife, Yael, determined to create a Jewish homeland. He witnesses the sinking of the Struma and thinks of “the pasts, presents and futures ob­literated in a single moment of indifference. Sonia lives in Chicago, a prosperous but hitter woman trapped in a loveless marriage, resentful and rejecting her Jewishness. That rejection results in a life of aridity and denial, unredeemed even by the affection of a young niece.  It is Anya, born on the night of the pogrom, who emerges as the true heroine. Against all odds she remains consistently  loyal to her faith and her family, renouncing her love for handsome Sasha, a gentile whose suit is charming hut highly improbable.

Unfortunately, Harris takes liberty with historic sequence and even more unfortunate, she departs from her role as a storyteller and intrudes as historian, thereby diluting her narrative thrust. Trumpets of Silver  lacks fictional authority and although the author notes in a foreword that historic inaccuracies are a result of her desire ‘‘to enhance the dramatic circumstances the story,”she would have done well to recognize that such inaccuracies inevitably test the reader’s credulity and weaken the writer’s credibility.

In The Woman in His Life Barbara Bradford, the reigning queen of the bestseller list, focuses on the Jewish community of Berlin at t lie onset of the Hitler era. Her hero, Max West, international financier, was horn Maxim Westheirn, the only son of distinguished members of the Jewish aristocracy of prewar Berlin, Ursula and Sigmund. With great sympathy and careful attention to historic detail, the author re-creates the ambience of a Germany obsessed with anti-Semitism. She describes the heartbreaking events of Krisiallnacht and Maxim’s escape across the border into France and then England.

Among I lie women who give this hook its title are Maxim’s mother, who is martyred in a camp, his governess, Theodora, a Jewish woman who is his link to his past, as well as his various wives and mistresses. The author follows him through the years, as schoolboy and entrepreneur, husband and fattier until at last he confronts his past and is thus able to decide his future.  Consistently romantic, ever addicted to superlatives (voices always “float’’ and eyes always “sparkle”) Bradford Taylor knows how to tell a story and hold the reader’s interest. The Woman in His Life is well researched and well constructed—and besides, it’s a lot of fun.

Wildflower; Rachel Pomerantz’s novel of the courtship and marriage of a young ba’hal teshuva couple, does not strictly speaking qualify as a saga. It spans only five years, although it does careen backward in time. However~ it provides a portrait of life within the yeshiva-oriented community of Jerusalem, a world as exotic and intriguing to the uninitiated as the world of Courter’s Indian Jews.

When Barbara Hirsch, an intelligent, introspective young woman from an assimilated American Jewish family, decides to spend time studying at a Jerusalem yeshiva, Immersion In the ultra-Orthodox community is far from her thoughts and expectations. She embarks on the yeshiva experience as though it were an adventure not unlike her stint on a kibbutz.  The social mores of that world—the immersion in study, the centrality of the family, strict observance and obedience to both doctrine and dogma—are carefully and accurately described. Unfortunately the author’s characters are too one-dimensional to command our sympathy.

Barbara is introduced to Chaim, a young American who is an accomplished pianist and a dedicated yeshiva student. Like Barbara, Chaim has been searching for meaning and he has found it in the world of the yeshiva. When they meet and decide to marry, Chaim’s spiritual odyssey is complete Perhaps more interesting than the somewhat self-absorbed couple is Mrs. Levinson, the shadkhan who introduces them, advises them and oversees the intricacies of their courtship.  Over the objections of both their families (who are of course assimilated and thus spiritually bankrupt—the author’s prejudices are predictable and her lack of subtlety a detriment to her narrative) the young couple marries and enters into Torah life, always submissive to the dictates of the community.  They become the custodial parents of Ronny, an infant born to a dysfunctional secular family. Their involvement with Ronny, Barbara’s difficulty conceiving and the eventual birth of their daughter, Naomi, are all recounted with an insouciance that fails to engage the reader. While Pomerantz occasionally writes with an almost poetic fluency, she is too mired in ideology to allow her story to flow.

Wildflower is a valuable book because it transports us to a world beyond our own; it would have been more effective had the author’s beliefs been less intrusive and her intolerance less obvious. Novelists must tell a story. No one wants to curl up on a rainy day with a good sermon.