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September 21, 2020 in Library Corner
By Robin Jacobson.
Goldie Goldbloom’s novel On Division is a rarity among books about the Hasidic world. Unlike many books on Hasidic life, it is not a bitter exposé by an ex-community member. Nor is it an admiring outsider’s romanticized view of an exotic culture. Instead Goldbloom, a Hasidic Jew writing from within the community, set herself the task of portraying honestly and accurately the satisfactions and frustrations experienced by Hasidic women. The result is an illuminating, richly humane book – often funny, sometimes sad, and occasionally infuriating.
When the novel opens, we meet Surie Eckstein, the proud mother of 10 children, a grandmother to 32, and a soon-to-be great-grandmother. Now age 57, Surie has just received disquieting news – she is pregnant with twins. She is not in a mood to rejoice. Her body is tired and achy; she is considering knee-replacement surgery. Moreover, after long years of child-rearing, she is looking forward to some free time.
Surie postpones telling the big news to her husband. Yidel, a skilled scribe, is normally keenly observant, and Surie hopes he will guess that she is pregnant. Her children do not guess, except to worry that Surie, always overweight, is becoming obese. One daughter, Tzila Ruchel, quietly hands Surie a brochure about Weight Watchers. Ironically, the only person who realizes that Surie is pregnant is her blind mother-in-law, humorously called Dead Onyu (Hungarian for great-grandmother).
Surie’s reluctance to tell Yidel about her pregnancy has something to do with the tragic death of their gay son, Lipa, four years earlier. Within the family, Lipa is never discussed; Tzila Ruchel has even removed all of Lipa’s photographs from the family albums. Yet Surie broods over his death, inwardly replaying her interactions with Lipa and wondering if it’s really so awful for a man to love a man.
Surie makes up excuses for her frequent visits to the hospital maternity clinic, telling Yidel that she is visiting the sick. Before long, Surie actually does start to help at the hospital, translating for Yiddish-speaking women at their appointments. She borrows a medical textbook, reveling in the stimulation of learning.
Although Yidel adores Surie and is comfortable with small deviations from Hasidic norms, he is horrified when he finds the textbook and appalled to hear her muse that she might like to train as a midwife. He upbraids her for talking about “me, me, me instead of we, we, we.” Anxiously, he warns Surie that if she recklessly pursues her personal ambitions, she could stigmatize the family, blighting marriage prospects for their unmarried children and school options for their grandchildren.
About Goldie Goldbloom
Born in Australia, Goldbloom gravitated to Hasidism at an early age, studying at seminaries in Melbourne and New York before marrying and becoming the mother of eight children. After more than 20 years of marriage, she divorced her husband and later self-identified as queer. Shocked, her Chicago Lubavitch community expected her to leave, but she didn’t; today, she says that about half the community is friendly towards her. She is a founding member of Eshel, an advocacy organization for Orthodox LGBTQ individuals.
Professionally, Goldbloom teaches creative writing at Northwestern University and the University of Chicago. At the start of her writing career, when her children were young, she did most of her writing after midnight in her dry bathtub, which she cozily lined with a quilt. Goldbloom hopes On Division can serve as a bridge between readers and the Hasidic world. She wants Jews and non-Jews to recognize themselves in Surie and perhaps decide that Hasidic Jews are not so alien and “other” after all.