Can you ever move on?

First-time novelists tackle a heartbreaking tale of loss and searching for meaning that spans cultures.

A narrow bridge (illustrative) (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
A narrow bridge (illustrative)
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
What do you do when your entire world is blown to smithereens? In the case of Jacob Fisher, that question came quite literally, when he saw his wife and three children killed in an explosion in the heart of Brooklyn. This debut novel by co-authors Joyce Gittlin and Janet B. Fattal, who wrote under the pen name JJ Gesher (a Hebrew pun for those in the know), explores the aftermath of a horrific tragedy.
Jacob, an ultra-Orthodox Jew living in New York, had a bumpy upbringing, with periods of distance from both his family and religion. But he returned to the fold, settled down and had three kids, finding happiness and serenity in family life.
One day all that was wiped away, when a crazed ex-convict carrying a bomb in his backpack boarded a city bus right after Jacob watched his family do the same.
Then, before his eyes, the bus blew into pieces, killing everyone on board.
Jacob, barely able to comprehend what he just saw, begins going through the motions of traditional Jewish mourning.
But before the shiva is through, unable to handle it, Jacob gets up and walks out without a word, leaving his family and every possession behind, and in a daze boards a train that winds up in a small town in rural Alabama. There he begins to build connections to a fervently Christian family in the town, and tries to imagine whether he is even able to build a new life after such tragedy.
The book’s plot is stunningly original, offering a main character with deep complexities whose opacity seems understandable.
How could anyone come to terms with losing their entire family? What is the “normal” way to react to such a devastating loss? The book draws its title from the famed writings of Rabbi Nahman of Breslov: “All the world is a very narrow bridge, but the most important thing is not to be afraid.”
The words and the song feature throughout the novel, as Jacob rediscovers music as part of his healing process.
This debut novel is a fast-paced, riveting read. In fact, when it was over, I wanted more. And while normally that would be praise for any novel, here it is almost a criticism – threads left unfinished, characters left underdeveloped and plot lines cut off midstream.
Jacob becomes close to Rosie, a single mother living with her uncle and struggling to deal with her difficult ex-husband.
His mother, Hava, struggles to deal with losing not just her daughter-in-law and grandchildren, but her son as well. Torn between connecting with her hurting son, not straying from her faith and staying strong for her remaining family, Hava is one of the more complex characters in the book. I would have loved to see more of her as Jacob made his physical and emotional journey to recovery.
The ultra-Orthodox community is dealt with deftly for the most part, though there are a few missteps. While neither Jacob nor his wife had the most traditional haredi upbringing, they belonged to that community in Brooklyn as adults, and they wouldn’t have had a television in the middle of their living room. Even if they were to own a TV, which the majority of haredim do not, it would be hidden away, and not for use by children.
In addition, the authors write that “Orthodox Judaism required him to say kaddish daily for a year after his family’s death.” Actually, Halacha states that kaddish is said for a year (11 months, if we’re being picky) when a parent dies; it does not apply to losing a spouse or children.
Kaddish for siblings, spouses or children is limited to 30 days.
Nitpicking aside, Gittlin and Fattal have created a searingly unique and thought-provoking tale. The novel explores the limits of faith, the devastation of loss and the power of self-discovery without, for the most part, sinking into the easy clichés.