This fascinating book tells the story of Rose and Pearl Weiss, two sisters in an ultra-orthodox Jewish family in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, starting in 1959.
Rose, the elder sister, is fascinated by the broader American culture, esp. photo-heavy magazines like Life and Look. In grade school, Rose’s class is encouraged to open a bank account and Rose saves enough to receive a free, but not very good, camera. This sets her on a path that leads her to run away from home at the age of seventeen on the evening of her arranged marriage. She eventually becomes a renowned photographer.
The second section of the book is about Rivka, Pearl’s daughter, and the sins of the past are repeated. Rivka, too, yearns for freedom and, inspired by the aunt she has never met, runs away, again on her wedding night. She finds Rose who now must relive and confront her own rebellion as well as her unresolved feelings about what she did to her parents and sister. In the end, things come more or less full circle.
I enjoyed the depiction of life for women in the Orthodox community, though I was often horrified. The women are not just expected to be wives and mothers but also have to work to support their scholar husbands. The misogyny is particularly striking in The Sisters Weiss because of the contemporary setting. The lives of the Weiss girls are so different from my own upbringing during the same period. I was amused to learn that orthodox girls were prohibited from frequenting that den of iniquity known as the public library! Who would have thought the library could be subversive, yet that is where Rose finds books like Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, neither of whom are good role models for an Orthodox girl.
I read this book immediately after finishing Peony by Pearl S. Buck, reviewed last month, and found the contrast between the two books to be very interesting. In the former, the Jewish community mixes with the Chinese community at large and is eventually subsumed. In the latter, the Orthodox community protects its culture with stringent rules and punitive behavior toward those who stray. The first approach is kinder, but in the long run does little to preserve the community. I am not sure which is best, but I hope there is some middle ground that preserves traditions without alienating a community from the larger culture in which they live.
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