Matzot to Tortillas (Extract)

Extract of an article in Issue 8, August 4, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. A young German-Jewish woman in flight from her past finds misery, then triumph, in the unlikely surroundings of Nineteenth-Century New Mexico Joanna Hershon's "The German Bride" is a tale of two worlds: the opulence and culture of mid-19th century Berlin and the rawness of the Wild West. It tells how Eva Frank moves from her coddled life in Germany to a rough existence in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and how she survives and ultimately grows through this extreme change. The opening scene provides the first clue to Eva's character: The traditional Passover eve search for leaven is under way in the Franks' lavish home, and as the last crumb is burning on the embers outside, the teenaged Eva furtively munches a carefully hidden cookie, inaugurating the novel's theme of concealment and secrets. The "chalky and bitter" taste of this "illicit cookie" foreshadows the bitter aftermath of a secret affair that Eva has with a gentile artist. While Henriette, Eva's beloved older sister, follows the conventional path to marriage, Eva is secretly meeting Heinrich, a portrait painter, for forbidden romance. But when tragedy strikes as an indirect result of one of these trysts, Eva, bogged down by guilt and misery, feels compelled to flee her beloved family and city. In a hasty act of self-flagellation she marries Abraham Shein, a German-Jewish businessman from America, for no better reason than the escape route he provides. Although her father does not approve of the match, he is too steeped in grief to actively oppose it. Shein, while charming, is full of talk. And Eva discovers that frontier America falls far from his descriptions. More devastating, is that Shein turns out to be a gambling and philandering drunk and the Shein Brothers' dry goods store in Santa Fe survives only because of his brother's diligence. Abraham and Eva's home is a claustrophobic hovel with a mud floor, adobe walls and no stove. Eva's Steinway piano, the bathtub she insisted on purchasing en route in New York, her "Kosher Gastronomy" cookbook and opulent dresses seem ridiculous here, and only serve to emphasize the distance she has fallen. She persuades her husband to build her a better house, but his gambling, philandering and pilfering escalate and he falls deeper and deeper into debt and declines into utter unscrupulousness. Eva is forced to cope with the loss of a pregnancy and a stillbirth, before giving birth to a baby that survives. She becomes desperately lonely, and finds solace neither in memories of the past nor visions of her future. For Hershon, this foray into historical fiction marks a departure from her two previous, well-received novels, "Swimming" and "The Outside of August," which both probe (mostly dysfunctional) family relationships in contemporary America. While the setting of her third book is completely different, her psychological exploration of family relationships, loss, secrets and identity run through all three books. In "The German Bride" she prevents Eva's tragic saga from turning into a dirge by peppering her narrative with colorful characters. We wish we could read more of Eva's Orthodox father and her artistic but sickly mother, of her larger-than-life sister and her artist-lover, but though Eva longs for them while in America, even wearing her sister's blouse down to its threads, they essentially vanish after the first few chapters. Santa Fe too offers its share of vivid personalities: the ruthless saloon owner Dona Cuca, the intriguing Mr. Ehrenberg, another German-Jew who arrives gravely ill in Santa Fe; a French bishop and a trio of severe nuns. Stoically and with an inner strength, Eva navigates her way through the rough terrain of her life. Sometimes it seems that Eva is too resigned to her fate and the reader feels frustration at her passive acceptance of her husband's ways. In her favor, it must be said that she is self-aware. She admits when she does not have the energy to deal with Abraham and recognizes the bitterness and resignation within her. Extract of an article in Issue 8, August 4, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.