A review from The Washington Post, 3 January 1999
Paradise, New York: A Novel
Reviewed by Judith Bolton-Fasman
When the legendary Concord Hotel in the Catskills finally closed its doors last month, the impact was felt like a death in the family. The hotel's four hundred employees were both physically and psychologically displaced, its regulars bereft of their second home.
That attachment to places like the concord in the Catskills' Borscht Belt is what made the region so special to American Jewish culture. Eileen Pollack instinctively knows this about her native place and conveys it to great effect in her fiction. That uncanny ability was evident in her debut book, The Rabbi in the Attic, a collection of short stories notable for their insight and humanity, and for Pollack's gifts for language and observation.
Pollack will not disappoint readers with her fist novel, Paradise, New York, also set in her beloved Borscht Belt. It is a stark and precise depiction of the psychological and cultural states of American Jewry, a narrative challenge that Pollack meets with legend, parable, sociology, history and old-fashioned storytelling.
It is 1979, and 19-year-old Lucy Applebaum, the novel's narrator, has dropped out of her sophomore year at New York University, answering a call to become the proprietor and ultimately the savior of the Eden, her family's dilapidated Catskills hotel. Among the things Lucy must contend with are a bumbling staff and an assortment of eccentric guests; the latter include a group of elderly communists who incite the staff to stage an unsuccessful strike.
Pollack occasionally verges on stereotypes, and the Eden becomes a less interesting place where anthropologists and historians trudge through, treating it as a world on the edge of extinction. She does, however, succeed in portraying the Eden as distinctive. Here is a place where biblical allusions to the original Eden, as reflected in the town's name (Paradise) and even Lucy's surname (which translates as apple tree), are ironic rather than cloying. And yet this is a world in which sentiment and nostalgia are intrinsic features. Lucy uses both to attract new guests with brochures that beckon them to "find out what your grandparents saw in the Catskills." At first, a number of people do just that and the Eden is booked solid.
But I am not spoiling any surprises by revealing that filling the rooms is not enough. Repackaging nostalgia for a younger generation cannot sustain the Eden, nor Jewish life in general. Lucy describes her Judaism, on the threshold of the millennium, as "no more than nostalgia, a warm toasty marshmallow stuck in my throat." It is a subtle, original, painfully relevant observation that comes at an unprecedented time of security for Jews, particularly Jews in America, who no longer feel threatened by anti-Semitism. Lucy, therefore, has the luxury to conclude that "being Jewish meant more than being fearful, as my parents believed. It doesn't mean you've been chosen. If anything, it means that you have to keep choosing. You need to pay attention, to see the world as it is, to bless what needs blessing. Other religions may teach these same things. But I was born Jewish. You have to start with who you are."
As with most of Lucy's epiphanies, this one is inspired by her intense but platonic relationship with Thomas Jefferson, the Eden's lifetime, African-American handyman. The mysterious, self-educated Thomas is a man who translates psalms from the Hebrew as if doing a crossword puzzle, falls easily into conversation about the classics and quotes from Faust as readily as others quote pop lyrics. He is also the novel's moral center, reminiscent of what is known in Jewish legend as a "Lamed Vavnik." Together the two Hebrew letters lamed and vaw represent the number 36, traditionally the number of people present in every generation who are truly righteous; although their identity is secret even to themselves, their good deeds redeem everyone else and dissuade God from destroying the world. Thomas's extraordinary skill keeps the Eden running against all odds. And in the guise of a spectator, he identifies with the kind of holiness that Hasidim (which he pronounces "Ah seed 'em") commemorate in the most routine acts. He tells Lucy:
"Ah seed-ism goes deeper than coats. Deeper than wigs. What sets the Ah-seed-em apart . . . is believing you can't know God only by reading about Him in some book. You've got to pray to Him. Got to dance as hard as you can until you lift yourself up and stand right there beside Him. Imagine that Lucy. Right beside God! Got to bring so much attention and joy to each little thingeating and drinking, even washing your handsyou make that thing holy."
Thomas inspires Lucy to accept that resurrecting the Eden, even for one brief season, "was better than nothing. Who cared if the Eden was a faint, distorted echo of life in Crown Heights? Wasn't an echo better than silence?"
Not necessarily. An intricate book like Paradise, New York could have supported and ultimately benefited from moments of silence. At times, Eileen Pollack's novel feels too crowded with characters and themes. But maybe that's the intentionto present the contemporary American-Jewish landscape in all of its noisy and glorious complexity. Still, in the spirit of Jewish commentary or midrash, a few well-placed silence could have inspired imaginative riffs from the reader.