A life of stories

Julie Zuckerman’s ‘Book of Jeremiah’ paints a picture of the Jewish experience across decades.

May 8, 2019 13:46
4 minute read.
A life of stories

THE READER gets to know Jeremiah through all of his life stages.. (photo credit: TNS)

Jeremiah Gerstler is a sensitive and brilliant man, devoted to his family and his career. He is always trying to be the best at everything he does, while at the same time he is constantly struggling with a feeling that he is never quite good enough.
In 13 skillfully crafted stories, Julie Zuckerman, a native of Connecticut who now lives in Modiin, introduces us to Jeremiah Gerstler – the son, the father, the husband, the political science professor and the Jew. Spanning eight decades of Jeremiah’s life, from the pre-World War II years through the first decade of the new millennium, The Book of Jeremiah: A Novel in Stories draws the reader into the life of a colorful and unforgettable character and the people close to him. There is something familiar about Jeremiah, as if he is someone you know – perhaps a cousin, uncle, or friend. From Jeremiah as a child who dresses up as a shochet (ritual slaughterer) for Purim, to Jeremiah at 82 as he struggles to deal with his wife’s absence following her death after many years of marriage, the author brings us into Jeremiah’s world through her stories. Each story can be read as a separate entity and indeed, most of them were previously published as short stories in literary journals. Bound together they form a moving and delightful novel that not only tells Jeremiah’s story but also paints a picture of the Jewish experience across the decades.
As a child, Jeremiah is bright, energetic, and mischievous and his immigrant parents Abe and Rikki (who changed her name from “Rivki” to sound more American) cannot always help comparing him to his well-behaved older brother, Lenny. In “A Strong Hand and Outstretched Arm,” Rikki loses her cool with 11-year-old Jeremiah when she sends him to the fishmonger to buy carp so that she can make gefilte fish for the Seder, and he comes home with pike instead. Lenny tells his mother why he thinks Jeremiah brought home the pike.
“I’ll tell you why he got the pike, Ma,” Lenny says, appearing at the door of the kitchen. “Because it costs two pennies less per pound. I’ll bet you a dime he took the change and bought himself some licorice at Finkle’s.” When Rikki notices a thin black line around Jeremiah’s lips, she realizes that Lenny was right.
“Come here,” she commands, but he stays rooted to the floor. “Don’t you know how lucky you are to have a Papa who provides for you? That is how you thank us, with lies and stealing?”
He looks at the ground, his cheeks flushed.

THE BOOK OF JEREMIAH By Julie Zuckerman (Credit: courtesy)

“Don’t you ever think of other people? Look how helpful Ruthie (Jeremiah’s younger sister) is being. And look how Lenny studies! We’re scrimping and saving for him to go to college. And you, selfishly wasting money on candy! Come here.”
Since Abe is too lenient with the children, Rikki decides that she has to be the one to teach Jeremiah a lesson and gives him four smacks across his tuchus.
In one story, Jeremiah is a child, in another he is a retired professor, and yet another he is serving in the US army during World War II.
The novel jumps back and forth in time, but instead of confusing the reader, the stories move from one to the other seamlessly. In each story, another stage of Jeremiah’s life unfolds and we learn more about him. His brother Lenny was killed in World War II, leaving Jeremiah with a hole of grief in his heart and a sense of regret that they had not been closer. He meets and falls in love with Molly as a graduate student and cannot believe his amazing luck when she agrees to marry him.
Later, they have two children, Hannah and Stuart, and as he does with everything that is important to him, Jeremiah works hard to be the best father he can be.
In the title story, “The Book of Jeremiah,” the author describes the atmosphere at the local Jewish community center when Jeremiah goes for a swim at 80. “The façade of the Jewish community center is a diamond lattice grid meant to look like a repeating Star of David, though in Jeremiah’s mind it resembles an egg carton. Six and seven-year-olds from Camp JCC race past Jeremiah, their counselors trailing behind and admonishing them not to run in the halls. The building buzzes with activity; the walls are decorated with pictures from nursery school graduation and recent swim team meets.”
As Jeremiah goes into the men’s locker room the tiles on the walls are described as “lizard-like, pukish green and scaly” and the smell as “the familiar, comforting odors of mildew and body sweat.” Anyone who ever spent time in a JCC can relate to these descriptions.
Jeremiah is a person who could be described as “wearing his heart on his sleeve.” He is also aware of his own tendency to get carried away with emotion and say things that maybe he should have kept to himself. He is funny, a bit crazy, an all-around “good guy,” and just wants people to understand him and love him.
The Book of Jeremiah is Julie Zuckerman’s debut collection of stories and it is a winner. Zuckerman is a talented writer who artfully creates just the right balance and flow in her narrative. She develops her characters so that they come alive and her descriptions make the reader feel like he or she is right there with Jeremiah and his family across the years. I look forward to reading her next book.

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