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Nonagenarian author Hortense Calisher explores
a family united in blood but divided by ideas.
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Special to the Jewish News
ou have a Jewish meniory," Zipporah Zangwill
Duffy's father told her, as they spoke of inter-
marriage, assimilation and Jewish identity, topics
frequently bubbling to the surface in Hortense
Calisher's latest novel, Sunday Jews (Harcourt; $28).
She recalls her father's words —"still the best said to her
on the subject, by anyone" — many years later, as an
anthropologist and matriarch of a large family with many
of mixed backgrounds.
Calisher is often described as a
"writer's writer" for her stylish prose,
with long sentences that take their time,
moving to a graceful literary beat. A past
president of the American Academy of
Arts and Letters and of PEN, she states,
"I write for a reader I respect."
Over a long and distinguished career,
Calisher, who is 90, has written many
novels, novellas, short stories, essays and
two autobiographical works, comprising
more than 20 volumes, many of them
set in New York City. Sunday Jews is her
first novel to deal with Jewish themes.
her anthropological research.
The truth is that he is suffering the beginning stages of
dementia and doesn't want his family, friends and col-
leagues to see him in this ever-deteriorating state.
On that Sunday, they learn of the murder of Lev, a fre-
quent guest whose late wife was a Boston cousin of the
family. And then they meet Debra, his fiancee, who ulti-
mately travels with Zipporah and Peter, and then mysteri-
ously disappears, to appear again later on in the novel, years
later, when she is tracked down by a favorite Duffy grand-
son who has become a rabbi.
Zipporah's Boston parents were Reform
Jews, secure in their heritage; they
"wouldn't deny what they were, but they
were flattered if you had to ask."
While Zipporah is at the center of the
novel, her children, grandchildren and
friends are also portrayed, in the details
of their lives and their Jewish identifica-
tion, or lack of.
One son, Charles, whose wife is
Chinese, is a physicist and a judge who
hopes to be named to the Supreme Court.
Another son, Gerald, is a banker who's
very involved with his synagogue; his wife
Feigele insists on being called Kitty.
In an interview in her Manhattan home,
Zach, the youngest, who's an artist, has
Calisher explains that among the things
two wives. Erika, a museum curator who
that prompted her to think about writ-
works with Judaica, is the keeper of the
ing Sunday Jews were "comments, fairly
family's Jewish heritage, and Nell is an
invidious, from Orthodox Jews about
Calisher's work has been compared
attorney and single mother whose chil-
assimilated Jews, that we would prove
with that of Eudora Welty and
dren have different Jewish fathers.
the annihilation of the race."
The Duffys' neighbor and close friend
"I know about as much about assimi-
Norman, an attorney who's a widower, is
lated Jews as anyone else would. My family has been here
at once self-conscious and confident in his Jewish identity:
for a long time. We have intermarried and we have not. By
He never goes to synagogue but plays cards with those who
and large, we're still Jewish," she says.
do, and leaves a considerable sum in his will to the temple
As a novelist, she continues, "what you do is you see a
he left. He gets very annoyed when the word "assimilated"
world and you want to write about it." She says the book is
is applied to him or to Jews with habits like his.
not autobiographical, but this is a milieu she knows.
Throughout the novel, there's much conversation, reflec-
The bold title refers to Zipporah's habit of gathering her
tion and argument about issues of aging, relationships,
intergenerational clan for informal Sunday afternoons in
family ties, faith and Jewish continuity. -
the West End Avenue Manhattan townhouse where she and
"All cases of assimilation are special. That, Zipporah
her husband Peter, a philosopher and self-described lapsed
reflects, is what distinguishes us from the Orthodox."
Catholic, raised their six children, one of whom died.
The phrase is also used "half-fondly" by an Israeli woman
named Debra; for her, "Sunday Jews" is a reproach obser-
vant Jews might direct toward their less observant co-reli-
As the plot moves ahead, it also spreads deeper, as Calisher
plumbs the inner lives and thoughts of her characters. The
At close to 700 pages, the novel is an old-fashioned fami-
book has the feel of a painting in process, with details filled
ly saga. It opens on one of Zipporah's Sundays, with all of
in with a nonlinear style of strokes both subtle and intense.
the family gathered. Soon after, she and Peter will depart,
There is humor too. The whole work of art is visible at
with plans to revisit many of the sites where she has done
the end. Its impact is life affirming.