A Hasidic Matriarch’s Decision in ‘On Division’
On Division: A Novel By Goldie Goldbloom (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 265 pp. $26)
The “division” in the title of Goldie Goldbloom’s complex and daring novel refers to the name of a street in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. It is where Surie Eckstein, a Hasidic matriarch, lives with her husband, Yidel, a venerated Torah scribe, and their 10 children—ranging in age from 13 to 39—her grandchildren and her elderly, Romanian-born in-laws. However, the true division in this moving narrative resides in Surie herself, whose life is at a divide of loyalties and faith as she faces agonizing choices that threaten her happy marriage and her allegiance to the insular community she has always loved.
The improbable, but biologically possible, pivot of this carefully constructed tale is that 57-year-old Surie, to her dismay, is pregnant with twins. Shocked and overwhelmed, she keeps her situation a secret, even from the devoted Yidel (an amazing feat accomplished, the author equivocates, not always convincingly, because of Surie’s extraordinary girth). Surie lives a bifurcated life as her pregnancy progresses. She remains a homemaker, a caregiver and a respected and devoted member of her community even as she spends hours away from Division Street, in the obstetrics department of a hospital. There she is both a patient and a newly trained assistant to Val, a non-Jewish midwife who is her friend as well as the sharer of her secret. (Though it is never articulated, it is obvious that Surie wishes there were something she could do to prevent the birth of her twins.)
Just as important and engrossing as Surie’s story is the rare portrait of a Hasidic enclave whose customs offer comfort and sustenance, even as harsh and narrow judgments result in tragedy and loss. There are poignant descriptions of holiday celebrations, Hanukkah menorahs gleaming in every window, joyous Purim feasts, ”gingerbread babies” baked for Shavuot by Surie “with pink bows and little blue yarmulkes.” The sick are cared for, the hungry are fed, legal difficulties are resolved by a seemingly inexhaustible fund—and yet intolerance and ignorance are pervasive.
Important questions are raised. How does this devout community confront homosexuality and sexual predation? How does Surie herself confront them? Anecdotes and incidents converge. Ghosts of the past will not be denied as the mysterious fate of Surie’s vanished son, Lipa, spurs her to action.
Suspense haunts every page of this engrossing story. Surie’s decisions as well as her indecision tease and taunt. The resolution of her dilemma—how to deal with her pregnancy—the shift in the dynamics of her marriage and her new and enlightened perception of her community all inform a conclusion laced with sadness and hope.
Goldie Goldbloom, who grew up in Australia in the Chabad community, is a queer, divorced mother of eight and a major advocate on behalf of Orthodox LGBTQ Jews. The recipient of numerous grants, including the prestigious National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, she has gifted her readers with both a compelling narrative and a window into a little-known world bonded by faith and ritual.
Gloria Goldreich’s latest book is After Melanie.