Early in As Close to Us as Breathing, the quietly moving new novel by Elizabeth Poliner, there is a remarkable scene of a group of men praying at a Conservative synagogue’s morning minyan. For eight pages, Poliner follows Mort Leibritsky, a department-store owner in Middletown, Connecticut, as he makes his way through the order of the service—the Barechu, the Shema, the Amidah. It is not that anything very imposing or grand happens. On the contrary, we see Mort striving for a feeling of transcendence, but then falling back into the internal monologue of memories and anxieties that makes up most of daily life.
The scene is remarkable, rather, because it is so very rare for American Jewish novelists to write about prayer. Of all the genres of American Jewish fiction—the nostalgic and the dysfunctional, the satiric and the elegiac—few have much interest in the prayers that are supposed to define Jewish life and practice. Perhaps that is because prayer gets right to the heart of the contradictions of our Jewish identity, exposing the gap between God as He is imagined in the ancient liturgy and the way most American Jews think about God today. Or perhaps it is because prayer is simply too routine, a duty rather than an encounter. “My father could almost glide through them, saying each Kaddish without even knowing he was saying them,” observes Molly, the novel’s narrator and one of Mort’s three children. “In fact, if he didn’t snap himself out of it he could get through the entire morning service that way, waking up at the end as if from a nap.”
Spirituality is difficult terrain for American Jewish fiction; family is where the action is. And so it proves for Mort, who says the words of the prayer but is mainly thinking about his father and his son. His son Howard is supposed to show up to the service, but he’s late, and this sign of lax commitment bothers Mort. It puts him in mind of his own father, Zelik, and how as a boy Mort once tried to skip Shabbat in order to play baseball. “This is how you were born: Jewish. This is the family you were born into: of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. You can’t change that,” Zelik told him, and Mort means to pass on the same message to Howard. We learn what it means to be Jewish from our families, and what it means is precisely to be part of a family. In the Bible and the prayers, Jews call themselves not Jews but b’nei Yisrael, the children of Israel.
As Close to Us As Breathing, whose title is taken from a line in the old Reform prayer book, is a closely imagined exploration of one such Jewish family, at a time when the bonds of obligation are starting to be dissolved by the possibilities of American life. The focal point of the book is the summer of 1948—a few years after the Holocaust, just months after the founding of Israel—when anti-Semitism in America is on the wane, and the future looks hopeful. We see this new freedom at work in two generations of an extended family, a large cast that Poliner manages to differentiate and keep in motion quite effectively. Mort and his wife, Ada, are parents to three children—18-year-old Howard, 12-year-old Molly, and 8-year-old Davy. Ada herself is one of three sisters; along with Vivie, who has a teenage daughter Nina, and the unmarried Bec, she owns a summer cabin in a Jewish section of Woodmont, a Connecticut beach town. Every year, the clan returns to “Bagel Beach” for a holiday, while the men remain in Middletown to run the family’s department store.
But this summer, a tragic accident forces a rupture in the family’s traditions and relationships: Davy, the adored younger child, is killed in a car accident. This is not a spoiler, since it is announced in the novel’s very first sentence, though we don’t see the accident actually take place until the end of the book. In between, Poliner shifts time-frames frequently, alternating between the weeks before Davy’s death and the years and decades afterward. At a leisurely pace, she builds up her portrait of how the family came to be the way it was in 1948 and then how the disaster sent all their lives into unexpected new directions.
All deaths carry some symbolic weight, but Davy’s is especially fraught: He is run over by a Good Humor truck, driven by the friendly and good-natured Sal Luccino. Accidentally, but indelibly, it is an “outsider” who shatters the security of the Jewish enclave at Bagel Beach, a place where Jews withdraw to be among themselves. This turn of events, Poliner shows, not only heightens Ada’s suspicion and resentment of all gentiles—“The man was Italian, and for my mother … that was explanation enough for why he was a killer. Had he been Irish, she would have said the same,” Molly observes. It also creates a burden of guilt that all the family members must bear and that deforms all their future relationships, especially with the “outside,” non-Jewish world.
Poliner says in her acknowledgments that her own parents used to summer in Woodmont and that she did historical research to recreate the place as it existed in the late 1940s. This gives her a natural feel for the small beach town, with its Irish, Italian, and Jewish sections, its overstuffed cabins by the shore, its farm stand and one restaurant. It is a very ordinary place, and the Leibritskys are ordinary people, almost aggressively so; but Poliner excels at finding the drama in their quiet lives. The book is narrated by Molly, but it does not stick closely to Molly’s point of view, and many scenes are informed by knowledge that Molly herself couldn’t have, or at least not until much later. The effect is to make Molly a kind of family detective, unearthing the real stories of her parents and aunts and cousins—the griefs and loves that were hidden from her as a child.
In the process, Poliner writes insightfully about the texture and trajectory of women’s lives in midcentury Jewish America. Ada is the queen bee among her sisters, partly because of her personality, but also because she was the first to get a husband—Mort, who was originally the suitor of her sister Vivie. This betrayal creates a permanent tension between Ada and Vivie, which is liable to surface at unexpected moments even decades later. Bec, meanwhile, is jilted by her fiance, and becomes a career woman—a ladies’ tailor, working for a man named Tyler McMannus. She is excited by this independent, self-sufficient life, but Poliner also evokes its loneliness, the sense that Bec has missed out on her female destiny.
When Tyler, who is both a gentile and married, falls in love with her, she is granted happiness—but only clandestinely, since Bec can’t imagine exposing her relationship to her sisters. How could she bring her lover to Shabbat dinner? “That was the image that shattered her heart. A stranger at Shabbos. A married Catholic man sitting at the sisters’ beautifully laid table, not knowing what in the world was going on as they lit the candles, blessed the wine and bread, chanted the ancient Hebrew prayers. There was a sanctity to their ritual that an outside presence would simply violate.”
If Jewishness is to function as a home—like the house at Bagel Beach—it must be closed to outsiders. But maybe this harsh exclusivity is the price of the warmth and mutuality that Mort experiences at prayer, when he momentarily feels ill and his fellow Jews come immediately to his aid: “He looked up at the concerned men surrounding him. How lucky he was to know them, he thought, scanning the familiar faces. How lucky each morning to be right there with them. … Howard, he would tell his son when he saw him, gently and wisely teaching him, just as his father had once taught him: This Jewishness is no game. It’s nothing to toy with. It’s your essence, he’d say, simply enough. It’s your very soul.”
Jewishness is a fate, as family is a fate; and in both cases it may be impossible to know whether it is a good or bad one. If it shelters against some blows, it is powerless against others and can even make them worse. Poliner’s sense of how this fate unfolds across decades and generations makes her a wise and compassionate writer and As Close to Us as Breathing an unusually perceptive novel.
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