Sunday Jews

by Hortense Calisher

In this family of six grown children is a clan as united in its blood yet scattered wide-like the elder son Charles, hoping to be a Supreme Court Judge; the family beauty and District Attorney Nell with children by different lovers; the art-expert sister Erika-Freddi whose altered nose hasn't kept her from being custodian of their Jewishness; or Zach, artist and manipulator with two wives at home.

Over all is their mother, Zipporah-Zoe: infamous in Israel, American academic, born of a "well-to-do" Boston background but not nowadays rich. She is intellectualised, yet bound in memory to all the "embroidery past" of the women in the family, which never quite dies. Zipporah-Zoe is married in an eternally sexual love-match, to a non-Jew and archetypal father.

Challenging them is Bert the grandson, who will become ordained as a rabbi yet hang back from the synagogue. Interspersed throughout is the buried history of their most significant Sunday visitor, Lev. He will ultimately bring Debra, the young Sabra nurse and war veteran, to them as his wife-and will vanish.

This is the reality book for thousands of modern U.S. Jews now. Some generations away from the shtetl, college-educated, observing or non-observing but all of them with the mezuzah of the Jewish spirit over the door.

  • Format: Paperback
  • ISBN-13/ EAN: 9780156027458
  • ISBN-10: 0156027453
  • Pages: 712
  • Publication Date: 03/01/2003
  • Carton Quantity: 20
About the Book
About the Author
Excerpts
Reviews
  • About the Book

    Hortense Calisher has been hailed as "stand[ing] vividly with Cather and Fitzgerald" (Cynthia Ozick). In this, her latest and most lauded novel, she explores a family united in blood yet divided by ideas. Son Charles hopes to be a Supreme Court justice; family beauty Nell has children by different lovers; art expert Erika has a nose job; and artist Zach has two wives. Their mother, infamous in Israel, born of a well-to-do Boston background but no longer rich, is bound to a past that never quite dies. The buried history of this extraordinary--and very American--family comes to light unexpectedly when grandson Bert brings home as a wife the woman who, years ago, joined the family circle, then mysteriously disappeared.

    Told with wit and deep acuity, Sunday Jews is a tour de force from a writer whose fiction has justly been compared with that of Eudora Welty and Henry James, and whose ability to delineate our lives is unparalleled.

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  • About the Author
  • Excerpts

    In her mid-sixties, Zipporah Zangwill, born in Boston to longtime residents of that name, for over forty years married to Peter Duffy, who teaches philosophy in New York, and herself well-known as a "social" anthropologist, has informed her family, a large clan, that from now on she wishes to be known as Zoe-sending out cards to that effect, along with an invitation to a celebratory party.

    To Peter, who has perhaps been aware of her progress toward some decision that will mortally affect their lives, if not this one, she has merely shown the cards, ordered from the same stationer who had always supplied the formal announcements the years had required: engagements and weddings of the children, anniversaries of all kinds, plus bids to those coveted "theme parties" she threw when some professional or affectionate interest erupted. And of course the two change-of-address announcements, of yore.

    These newest cards, thinner than any of those and modest in size, say simply "One of our Sundays," giving the date. The time would be known by custom as afternoon, the eats to straggle along with individual noshing, and focus hard as dusk falls. A footnote, lower left, in small but legible print, says: "From now on Zipporah asks to be known as Zoe..." It's not certain whether the reason for the party is this.

    Few phone to inquire. For some grateful elders in the circle, she is their only fount of surprise. The Duffy children-Gerald, Charles, Nell, Erika, and Zachary, all grown now-do mildly mention it, in no order of age status except whoever had the smarts and the sass to speak up first. They chat constantly, over a sibling network maintained either coast to coast from their homes or now and then from sites no longer as strange as those their mother had all their young lives gone to. Their feeling on her travels had long since been expressed by Mickey, a former youngest son, whose age was fixed, he having died at twelve: "She never really leaves us. And she always comes back."

    The network isn't kept out of duty. All the Duffys have the kind of family feeling that filches away their attention even from those they are married to. Charles, an academic always somewhere in the middle of the country, is also their median voice. "They're so close a pair. They never skimped us. But it helped us close ranks." His puns, as a part-time lawyer as well as a physicist, make Nell sigh. "A pun should be more illegal, Chuck. But I hear you."

    Nobody in their immediate family is a naysayer, though Erika tends to marry them. "Maybe Ma just wants to shed her identity. I do now and then."

    Gerald, who has a wife who does that constantly, keeps quiet.

    Zach, now the youngest, speaks for all of them. "Hope not."

    Peter, when shown the cheaper cards, merely quirks: "Wise of you, not to jump to Tiffany."

    "One hundred sixty-four of them? Would've cost the earth."

    "Will you tell them why?" He's looking at the footnote.

    Her answer, with her handsome eyes wide: "I don't have to tell you."

    "No."

    They kiss. She's as intense, he as genial, as on the day they met in front of the Alma Mater statue on the Columbia campus, where she'd lost the very high heel of one shoe, and he'd picked it up. The legend is that in trying to fit the heel on her shoe again, he'd knelt, but saying carefully, "This means nothing." Yet then offered his arm, so that she could hop to the shoe-repair shop across Broadway. Instead, she ran barefoot across the hot macadam, he following.

    Waiting for the shoemaker, they exchanged:

    "Zangwill? Any relation to Israel Zangwill who wrote the Melting Pot? English Jew, 1914."

    If they were, her father had said, they were very collateral. "No. But we did come from England, and are Jewish, of course...You in History?"..."No. Philo." By that time they were outside the shop door. "And you?" he'd said..."Anthro. So I can travel." Three years older than she, he had already done some, promising himself more..."You're Catholic, of course," she'd said; "'Duffy.'"...A smile from Peter. "Of course. Lapsed." Wiggling the foot in the repaired shoe, she'd said to that, half-smiling: "Lace curtain?" A Boston term he hadn't known, having grown up in the Bronx. "We're 'lace curtain Jewish,'" she'd joked. "Still morally Jewish, though we don't go to synagogue more than once a year. And we don't say 'lapsed.' Our word for it is 'reformed.'"

    Before they slept together that very night, a fact not in the legend, they'd agreed that whatever their families had or had not declined to, it was impossible for either an anthropologist or a philosopher to believe in God. "Not a personal one," Peter had said. "We must leave ourselves some room. For-uh." He'd meant to spend the rest of his career defining that "uh."

    "Oh sure," she'd said. "Impersonality is in."

    The family, as all within refer to it, is now very large, but considers itself to be the opposite of that chill term "extended."

    The outsiders' opinion of the Duffy-Zangwill ménage is: "Close. Ve-ry close. By joint intention, no doubt. But the flavor is Jewish. Peter's the one living son of a stray Irish couple emigrated from Dublin. Had a brother who died. After Peter's marriage, the two older maiden sisters wouldn't speak to him. But you know Zipporah." Or Zippy or Zee. "She's won them over, don't ask me how...Ever been to one of her and Peter's Sundays? Friends welcome."

    "Not a lot of our Duffys in the States when I was your age," Peter says to his youngest grandson, Bert, on one of those Sunday afternoons. "All must have stayed back home. You might see your very earliest ancestors in some remains at the British Museum. Called 'the Sutton Hoo treasure,' if you really want to check."

    "But there're lots of us Duffys now," Bert said.

    "Did my best." She and he had had four early on, then two more, when near that age called "menopause" by the less sexually interested.

    The Boston Zangwills had been amused. The Long Island and Westchester ones, younger connections in Roslyn, Manhasset, Mamaroneck, had been appalled. Such large broods were out of fashion, and not practical if a woman wanted to keep her waistline or a man hoped to send his kids to private school. And hadn't past generations of Zangwills done well enough? Since Zipporah's own maternal grandparents had had nine, she'd had nearly that many surviving aunts and uncles and fourteen first cousins. Her own children were providing young Bertram with nearly the same.

    "If we still did math with multiplication tables," Bertram says, looking over the crowded living room he has known since a toddler, "I could just multiply cousins. But that wouldn't be very modern either, would it."

    "I'm leaving room for you to say what's modern, m'boy."

    "You never called me that before." Bert is now past sixteen.

    "Seen it coming," his gramps said.

    When Bert got his card from Zipporah, some weeks before the party, he'd brought it to Peter's attention that next Sunday.

    "You seen this coming, Gramps?" He never uses first names for his elders in the informal style parents like his encouraged. He had campaigned to attend a public school, but had lost.

    "You know the story, brother. Your grandmother runs. She can't hop."

    'Brother'?" Bert says. "I find this family very confusing. But reading the Bible has helped." Although he had said, "Nah, never mind," when the possibility of a bar mitzvah was faintly dangled, he has elected to go to Hebrew school, which some in the room consider odd, or even retrograde.

    "Old Testament or New?"

    "Both. On my own. Hebrew class, they just do the commentaries."

    "Just like at my university," Peter sighed. "And?"

    "The New Testament? Very late stuff. The Old has the bang."

    "The creation, yes," his ...

  • Reviews

    PRAISE FOR SUNDAY JEWS

    "Wonderful . . . It is at once an old-fashioned family saga, with plot twists worthy of George Eliot's Daniel Deronda, and, like that novel, a delicate, compassionate meditation on the inheritance and creation of religious, familial, and individual identity."--The New York Times Book Review

    "Summons a genuinely affecting lyrical elegiac voice, celebrating lives and ways of life as they pass into something else."-- Newsday

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