Review by Naomi Myrvaagnes
Hortense Calisher’s Sunday Jews (2002) is a group portrait of late 20th-century American Jewry, centered in the large family of an intermarried Manhattan couple: Zipporah Zangwill, who hails from a line of Reform German Jews, and Peter Duffy, a lapsed Roman Catholic. Through the course of this 700-page novel, the reader meets six children and assorted in-laws, grandchildren, friends, cousins, and—through stories— ancestors. Until illness strikes in their sixties, the Zangwill-Duffys have hosted Sunday-afternoon clan gatherings in their apartment, extending a tradition maintained by Zipporah’s Reform parents and grandparents in Boston. The novel opens at what will be the last of these gatherings.
On a basic level, the story is a family saga. But it is much more. It is a poignant, understated account of married love in the face of degenerative illness and loss. It probes the place of God and belief among those who practice religion. Questions of what it means to be Jewish, why one might wish to identify as a Jew in a culture of religious freedom, and why one might opt to assume the responsibilities of a Jewish religious practice recur; answers are myriad and complex.
Yet Calisher’s writing gifts shine in this, her last novel, published when the author was 90 (Calisher died in 2009, at the age of 97). The opening sentence, too long to quote here, unspools in a shapely cascade of suspensions. The writing throughout is fresh, sharp, and graceful. Take this brief description of a scene in the Duffy kitchen, where “paper wrappings crackle, serving dishes clatter; the air has a cereal warmth; someone’s dropped a spoon.”
In no way short on anguish, Sunday Jews is nonetheless permeated by warmth and optimism. Its catalogue of observations on Jewish life seems to be offered in a spirit of connection and hope. For Zipporah— and, we feel, for Calisher herself—intermarriage is not only inevitable in America among Reform and non-practicing Jews; it also enriches the Jewish project of survival. Notably, it is Peter, the lapsed Catholic in this marriage, who affixes the household mezuzah. In one of her extended musings on Jewish identity , Zipporah asks,“Can’t the rabbis who mourn the rise of interfaith marriage see . . . that more and more people might have a bit of Jew in them?” Calisher’s creations suggest that Judaism manifests not only in one’s genes, but also in one’s consciousness: One of Zipporah’s grandsons, inspired largely by the honest, subtle mind of his Duffy grandfather, becomes a Conservative rabbi infused with a universalist outlook. In contrast, the novel’s religious are hard-headed traditionalists who invoke the Law to oppress others.
Sunday Jews sold well. It is strange—and dismaying—to sense that the prolific Calisher, so much in the public eye and so active in the world of letters (president of PEN and of the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters), and recipient of numerous prestigious awards, has lost her readership. With her keen and ever-relevant observations, her masterful construction of varied and original novels, memoirs, and stories, and her stylistic virtuosity , Calisher offers much that delights and informs. We will do well to keep her work before us.
Bio: Naomi Myrvaagnes has recently completed The Third Street Temple, a novel manuscript about a rabbi and her congregation. She is a Resident Scholar in the Women’s Studies Research Center at Brandeis University. Her poems, stories, and essays have appeared in publications including the Forward and Harvard Review.