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The Wanderers

SUNDAY JEWS: A Novel, By Hortense Calisher, Harcourt: 694 pp., $28

June 02, 2002|JILL LAURIE GOODMAN | Jill Laurie Goodman is a New York lawyer and a book reviewer for various newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune and the Forward.

Are all upper middle-class academic families eccentric in the same way? Are all assimilated Jewish and half-Jewish families neurotic in their different ways? And can a novelist make of such families something not just engaging but important? These are questions suggested by "Sunday Jews" by nonagenarian and grande dame of New York letters Hortense Calisher. Beginning in 1951, Calisher, a quintessential New Yorker, has chronicled modern life in 14 novels, a host of memorable short stories and not one but two autobiographies.

At the emotional center of "Sunday Jews" is Zipporah Duffy, nee Zangwell. A New York matriarch in her mid-60s when the book opens, she is the woman who has had--and will continue to have throughout the next 30 years and in the course of this long novel--everything that life has to offer.

When we meet her, she is lithe and slender, often mistaken for her daughters' older sister. Zipporah presides with grace and ease over a large household and an adoring family from her huge Central Park West apartment. Money is never an object, and there is always plenty of loyal help to keep the cookie jar full, track down loved ones who have dropped out of sight or nurse the dying so they are spared hospitals and even pain in their final illnesses.

A social anthropologist without portfolio, Zipporah has been able to travel far and wide on a string of grants, visiting huts and hamlets in exotic locales and writing a study of images of God that is respectfully received. Peter, her husband of 40 years, is a professor of philosophy, adored by his students. He cheerfully allows Zipporah's secular brand of Judaism to prevail over his own lapsed Catholicism.

Zipporah's progeny also are preternaturally fortunate, although maybe a bit less so than the fabulous Zipporah. Zach, for example, the youngest, a successful artist, has a wife and an ex-wife who sweetly accept that he needs both of them in his life. These two women are fond not only of him but also of each other and the male twins each has borne him. Nell, the older daughter, described as "a Sephardic queen ... but with gentile gams" and as "a Renaissance madonna," is a lawyer with a brood of children by various fathers and a string of admiring lovers and ex-lovers. When she is told she needs a double mastectomy, she repairs to a "small, gnarled inn ... above Lake Como" where the townspeople believe she is a saint with magical powers. She apparently gets some treatment although, on her return to New York, the family is never quite sure.

"Sunday Jews" does have a plot, or at least the simulacrum of a plot. There are a murder (or maybe two), diamonds, a long-lost brother, a packet entrusted to Zipporah, then buried in a linen closet for 10 years and a widow who turns out to never have been a wife. Of course, there is the love angle. In fact, there are two: one for Zipporah, who loses Peter in the first third of the book to find a tall, courtly, mythically rich and endlessly accommodating consort with whom she maintains an erotic life into her late 80s, and one for her rabbi grandson Bert.

But the plot of "Sunday Jews" teases and suggests where the story should connect and satisfy. A murderer is never sought, let alone unmasked; the lost brother appears briefly and, unrecognized, quietly vanishes. Events that look as if they are meant to be momentous neither reverberate nor transform, but simply fade.

For the most part, plot is submerged in the plump cushions of leisurely digression. Luckily, Calisher's digressions are entertaining. As she weaves back and forth in time over Zipporah's long life, Calisher provides social commentary as dense as the Torah commentary that Zipporah's family, centuries ago, must have studied.

Zipporah finds hierarchies and telling distinction everywhere; in shoes, in noses (fixed and unfixed) and in various modes of New York City transport (subways versus cabs versus buses). Private schools are such significant markers of status in this world that Calisher suggests a childless couple is unreadable. "There's no way of knowing," Calisher writes, about Zipporah's neighbor Norman and his wife, "what schools they might have sent their children to--as yet one of the surest ways of measuring how far a couple might be straying from Judaism, and toward what."

The most thoroughly cataloged and dissected phenomenon in "Sunday Jews" is, of course, Jewish people. Calisher's cast of Jews and Jewish types is immense. Besides Zipporah's half-Jewish, entirely assimilated brood, there are a native-born Israeli army nurse and a Scottish convert. There is Philippe, a French Jew from a family of conversos, the converted Jews of Spain, whose family for several centuries continued to marry only other conversos. There is cousin Mord, "that recognizable Jew whose gloom is marketable, in the art world taken to be talent, on Wall Street assumed to signify foreknowledge and in a government job functions as prophecy."

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