The Weiss Sisters by Naomi Ragen (MacMillan, 2013)
Naomi Ragen made her mark in the literary world with the wonderful novel, Sotah, published in 2001. Since then I have followed her career, reading every work. Ragen’s novels are generally about the complicated lives of Orthodox Jews and the decisions that plague some of them trying to balance a religious existence in a world that is constantly bombarding them with mixed signals about the meaning of a quality life in the 21st century.
Ragen’s themes are often about women who are struggling to create an identity for themselves in a culture in which women, who are loved and appreciated for what they are supposed to do (cook, clean, rear multiple offspring, and work so that their husbands can study) frequently find themselves needing more of a personal identity than they are allowed.
When I read a Ragen, however, I am always conscious of the fact that although her frame of reference is Orthodox Judaism, one could just as easily substitute women in the Pennsylvania Dutch culture, some of the strict Muslim cultures, or any other group in which women have been repressed.
The Weiss Sisters begins with a scene that sets the tone for the story that unfolds. When four year old Pearl, baby sister of Rose, demands to say a blessing over the wine at a Passover seder, she is reprimanded and humiliated by the shocked assembly of guests. Rose becomes aware in the moment of her sister’s disgrace that had she been a male child, she would have been heralded as brilliant and charming for wanting to partake of the religious service.
“As it was,” Ragen writes, “it was viewed as a sign of bad character and even worse, bad upbringing, a female putting herself in front of a room full of men in a wanton and naked display of desire to be the center of attention---an anathema to any truly religious girl from a truly religious family.”
This moment crystalizes for Rose that something is not right here. Why should girls learn to pray, if not to be allowed to lead prayer? Questions about her life continue to develop when she is told to bring a quarter to school without being told why. The story is set in the 1950s when for many people, 25 cents was quite a bit of money for a child to want. However, Rose’s parents do give her the money. It turns out that a representative from a local bank has come to teach the indigent children how to be responsible for saving money at an early age. (Having grown up in the 50s, I remember bringing in money every week to save for United States Savings bonds to help pay for college. It took me several years of elementary school to purchase an $18 dollar bond that ultimately matured to $25 by the time I went to college, but I was very proud of that bond).
The reward for the children who manage to make weekly payments to the bank is that they win a camera, which Rose is thrilled to earn. The world changes for her when she takes a grainy photo of her mother and father with a camera that is little more than a toy. Rose begins to see the possibilities to another world outside of Williamsburg.
Becoming more rebellious from her religious life, Rose’s parents make a last ditch effort to rein her in by arranging for a marriage with a very nice young man. Although she likes her prospective groom, Rose takes a step that estranges her forever from her family . . . she bolts the night before her wedding and struggles to find herself in a strange and new world. Her sister, who cannot understand what Rose has been experiencing, blames herself for Rose’s departure, and the once close relationship between the girls is broken.
The novel is told from present to future and future to past so that the narrative is split in an interesting and artful way. By using this approach, Ragen a shows how life choices often repeat themselves in ironic ways within a family.
Forty years after Rose has left the fold, her daughter, Hannah, meets an unexpected guest, her teenage cousin, Rivka, who has repeated Rose’s escape from the Orthodox life. The struggles in family relationships that develop as a result of Rivka’s defection underscore the painful rift between Pearl and Rose.
Despite Rose’s shunning of her culture and family, and her success as a world renowned photographer, she can never stop longing for her family. Ragen includes many great passages in this painful and fascinating story about weighing the value of modern life against the value of deeply ingrained traditions that lie within a family. Ragen’s greatest strength as an author is creating complex characters, whom we understand and think about long after concluding one of her books. The Weiss Sisters is a rewarding story that will leave the reader ruminating about the meaning of family long after the novel is read.