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Grief and Guilt in a Jewish Family

This postwar Jewish family is splintered by a child's death in Elizabeth Poliner's As Close to Us As Breathing

As Close to Us As Breathing

Publisher: Lee Boudreaux
Length: 368 pages
Author: Elizabeth Poliner
Price: $27.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2016-03

As Close to Us As Breathing opens with eight-year-old Davy Leibritsky's death. With that, Elizabeth Poliner begins a sprawling story of a postwar Jewish American family.

Although Davy's sister Molly is the narrator, the viewpoint shifts through a sizable cast: their elder brother Howard, parents Ada and Mort, Ada's sisters, Vivie and Bec. Mort's brother Nelson and Vivie's adult daughter Nina each get a few pages. Curiously, the novel's final portion returns to Bec. The resulting narrative, occurring in multiple times and places, depicts a family fragmented by guilt and grief.

The novels opens in 1948. Ada, Vivie, and Bec arrive at Connecticut's Bagel Beach with their respective children. This all-Jewish enclave is a place where the women can relax until Friday, when the Sabbath looms. A frenzy of housecleaning and bathing ensues, often finishing just as Ada's husband Mort pulls into the driveway.

Years ago, the flirtatious Ada stole Mort from Vivie, only to find herself unhappy, for the man she was so eager to marry proves dourly observant, more interested in being a dutiful Jew than in enjoying life. One afternoon, Mort arrives to find the house unkempt and the dinner unmade. Ada asks:

Can't we have an easy summer, Mort? Can't we all have a little fun?

(Mort answers) What are you asking for, Ada -- a whole summer of seventh days? Look, I don't make the rules. God does.

Vivie has found marital happiness with the frail, bookish Leo. Bec, a talented seamstress, has a longtime affair with her married boss, Tyler McMannus. Tyler, a Catholic, cannot divorce any more than the Jewish Bec can marry him. Although the couple discusses moving in together, a daring choice for unmarrieds of the era, their plans never materialize.

As Close to Us As Breathing is novel of painful choices. Poliner's characters are often divided between family loyalty and romantic love. In an era when unmarried cohabitation is commonplace, religious intermarriage widespread, and gay marriage increasingly legalized, it can be difficult to recall how divisive decisions to live together or intermarry once were.

Poliner successfully evokes a time when the Holocaust was a recent horror and being an observant Jew carried the weight of keenly felt duty. When the Leibritsky family listens to the radio for news of newly born Israeli state, it is with feelings of mixed anxiety and pride. Mort's daily davening (prayers) at shul signify responsibility transcending even family:

"This is the family you were born into: of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. You can't change that, and this is how it comes: with responsibilities."

Poliner doesn't hesitate to show Judaism's more insular, suffocating aspects: fat, kindly Uncle Nelson, with his Tootsie Rolls and terrible business sense, made enormous sacrifices for his indifferent family. Saddest of all is Howard. Immature, annoying, irritating Howard, whose chief entertainments are teasing bookish cousin Nina and sailing with his buddy Mark Fishbein, takes full blame for a death that is nobody's fault. Every decision Howard makes, all under the auspices of being "a good Jewish son", are predicated on a mistaken assumption of guilt. The wisecracking teen vanishes, replaced by a deeply unhappy man.

Poliner is a loquacious writer who teeters at times into the verbose. The initial arrival at the beach house takes 14 pages. Ada, Vivie and Bec taking their early morning "dunk" requires three pages. Here Poliner describes the adult Molly, coming into Bec's house after sitting on the porch:

"I had my sit, waved to a neighbor whom I've yet to officially meet, a middle-aged woman like myself lifting groceries from her car and rushing them inside, and then I came inside too to warm up."

Another visit to Bec's home:

"Throughout this fall about once weekly I've stopped by Bec's house to continue exploring it, piecing the past together as I do as if it were here, in the walls and floors, notebooks and photograph albums, of this youngest Syrkin daughter."

For all this, As Close to Us As Breathing is a bittersweet glimpse into a past life. The all-Jewish resorts of the American East Coast are vanished, save for memory. Jews are marrying out at such high rates that the synagogues in my area advertise their welcome to non-Jewish spouses. Grief, guilt, and angst over family, however, are timeless.


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