By Robin Jacobson.
Every day we eat. During Jewish holidays and celebrations we eat more. After all, the Talmud itself links eating and drinking with rejoicing (Pesachim 109a). So it comes as no surprise that many books on the Jewish bookshelf, besides cookbooks, relate to food in some way. Two recently-published examples are The Middlesteins, a novel by Jami Attenberg, and Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, a memoir by Anya von Bremzen (both in our library).
Too Much Food
Initially, one might wonder why anyone would want to read The Middlesteins. Why spend time on a sad-sounding novel about an obese woman who eats nonstop, even as she endangers her health, loses her job, and alienates her family? But readers who persevere will discover a poignant, wise, and often funny story. Attenberg is a witty, perceptive writer who offers astute insights into the ways a crisis reverberates through a family.
The Middlesteins are Midwestern American Jews living in the Chicago suburbs. The family consists of Edie and Richard Middlestein; their grown-up children, Benny and Robin; Benny’s wife Rachelle; and twin grandchildren, Josh and Emily, who have an upcoming b’nai mitzvah. Over the course of the book, we hear individually from the characters and wind up sympathizing with each of them, even when their viewpoints are opposed.
As a child, Edie was overweight, a condition her parents enabled, believing that “love was made of food.” By middle age, Edie weighed more than 300 pounds and had developed diabetes and arterial disease; she needed surgical stents in both legs to restore her circulation. Her husband gives up on her and moves out, declaring that he can’t watch her kill herself anymore. The family is outraged by Richard’s disloyalty. Richard counters that Edie left him years before he left her.
Attenberg lightens the family drama with some gentle spoofing of Jewish American culture. While we worry that Edie may die, we also fret over Edie’s twin grandchildren – will they be able to pull off the professionally choreographed hip-hop routine their mother wants them to perform at their b’nai mitvah? The comic commentary of the Middlesteins’ longtime shul friends – the Cohns, the Grodsteins, the Weinmans, and the Frankens (who speak as a bloc) – adds to the fun of this engaging book.
Too Little Food
While living in the Soviet Union, Anya von Bremzen and her mother were as obsessed with food as Edie Middlestein. These two Moscow Jews’ obsession stemmed from food scarcity rather than abundance. In Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, von Bremzen, an award-winning food writer, relates her family’s Soviet history, decade by decade, in terms of the food they ate and (more often) yearned for. “Inevitably,” she admits, “a story about Soviet food is a chronicle of longing, of unrequited desire.” Von Bremzen mixes reminiscences with an account of the Soviet Union’s disastrous agricultural policies and food shortages, which led to millions dying from hunger. Even in better times, Soviets spent hours each day waiting in line for food that was barely edible. The disappointed shoppers might then return home, as von Bremzen’s family did, to a communal apartment where 18 families shared one kitchen.
The memoir is uneven, more interesting in some parts than others. But, at its best, it offers a unique window into Soviet life. One fascinating tidbit concerns the employment of von Bremzen’s father, Sergei. He worked in the prestigious laboratory charged with preserving the embalmed corpse of Lenin, on public display in a Red Square mausoleum. Sergei’s particular responsibility? To ensure that the revered leader’s dead skin never changed color.