In search of something

Tova Reich’s latest novel features maternal themes, international travel and flashes of reckoning on the bounds of Jewish life.

A WOMAN walks along the beach in Mumbai as the sun sets. (photo credit: VIVEK PRAKASH/REUTERS)
A WOMAN walks along the beach in Mumbai as the sun sets.
There is a recent photograph of author Tova Reich in which she appears fearless and unbridled. We see a woman in her 70s with a hefty mane of disheveled gray hair that frames her regal face and piercing eyes that seem to see right through you. It seems to suggest that Reich has conquered her own demons and is reveling in the afterglow.
Yet, her latest narrative, Mother India, seems to say otherwise – and reveals an author still plagued by turmoil that seems to be pulsing through her. The book contains all of Reich’s customary ironic wit and bite about Jewish life and the demands of motherhood and daughterhood. It also zones in on the often corrosive effect of the men who rule over the Orthodoxy in which she was raised.
Reich is the sister of Rabbi Avi Weiss and the daughter of Rabbi Dr. Moshe Weiss, who become one of the most prominent Religious Zionists leaders in America. Her husband, psychiatrist Walter Reich, was the first director of the US Holocaust Museum. It is obvious Reich has spent much of her life immersed in the demands of others; as well as their dominating shadows, while perhaps bitterly swallowing festering resentments. Her compelling narrative often seems to tap into this anger in her fictional imagining of a young Orthodox woman named Meena who speaks to us in a searing first-person voice daring to challenge all that is expected of her. We can’t help but think Reich is present in Meena; and Meena in Reich; there is something about them that seems inseparable.
Reich’s story begins when Meena’s mother, an obese woman of seemingly inexhaustible strength who has borne nine children, is diagnosed with terminal cancer and suddenly decides to go to India to die in peace and be cremated; flouting sacred Jewish traditions regarding such things.
Her lesbian daughter, Meena, our narrator, is already there running a travel business that lures disenfranchised Jews to India in search of something they can’t find at home. Meena has recently been abandoned by her lesbian lover Geeta and is pouring her sadness into her already depressed young daughter Maya – who seems hell bent on self-destruction.
Meena is reluctant to help her mother, knowing it will enrage her father who has scorned her and her many siblings, but she consents and arranges living accommodations for her, which include a servant to tend to her needs. Her mother, much to Meena’s surprise, seems to blossom in India, dressing for the first time in pants and making new friends and seeming to lose the heaviness that hung around her neck for as long as Meena could remember.
It was ironic – since Meena had initially left for India in search of the same sort of freedom, but it had eluded her. She was lost in a maze of sadness; distressed about her lost lover, her daughter’s vulnerabilities, and her own thwarted desires.
Reich describes Meena’s mother’s transition with her usual dark satiric wittiness: “We’re talking here about an ultra-Orthodox Jewish woman closing in on the finish line of her eighth decade in a lifespan traditionally calculated at the three score ten, hanging on past the statute of limitations, living on borrowed time – the wife of a rabbi, a rebbetzin, mother of nine, grandmother to many. How many? Don’t ask. That’s a question she would never have answered. Jews do not count their own; God does not take kindly to that, it can be fatal. On top of that, she was stricken with stage four breast cancer, an Ashkenazi specialty like gefilte fish; it had occupied all her territory. Though you might never have guessed it by eyeballing her. As a proper religious matron, she had always worn a wig, well before she lost all hair from the chemo and she still weighed in at close to 250 pounds.”
BUT REICH’S comedic tone begins to plummet into a dark space where wit and satire seem misplaced; particularly when speaking of her daughter Maya – whose troubles have become overwhelming. Maya has taken to visiting the local Chabad House and is in love with one of the young men who talks to her, but soon leaves to marry, leaving her devastated. She begins to fall to the ground repeatedly for no apparent reason. Her mother takes her to a healer in the vague hope that something could restore her, but this encounter simply leads her down a more treacherous path; one with grave consequences.
Reich captures the feeling of failed motherhood; the helplessness of it; and the enormous burden. There are revealing passages on Meena’s heartfelt desire for her daughter’s recovery bouncing against more candid meditations about wanting to finally be free of her. She captures the zeitgeist of a woman who wants to do the right thing by her daughter and by her ailing mother; but it does not come easily to her. There are competing concerns; namely herself, an entity she has been raised to disregard.
Meena confesses that she came to India in the first place to escape; to purge herself “from the authoritarianism of the original Abrahamic faith that had messed so negatively with my head.” She originally thought India would be a place where spirituality and meaning would come into focus, but soon recognized that it, too, was filled with hucksters and con men masquerading as prophets. She was guilty of deception herself. Her travel business played on the “sad, human longing for meaning in this life, for relief from suffering by delivering all of those spiritually needy souls to feet of gurus.” In India, these forces were exotically dressed-up novelty performers, but performers nonetheless. The Promised Land she hoped for was an illusion everywhere.
Hovering over the narrative are memories of her twin brother Shmelke, who was once thought to be the reincarnation of Rabbi Nachman of Breslav, and was now an infamously well-known renegade rabbi who had landed in India himself after being chased out of everywhere else. He reaches out to Meena to help her with Maya, who has gone missing, and the twins get together once again in mutual desperation.
Reich provides some wondrous moments that catch you unaware with flashes of reckoning, but relies too heavily on her own cleverness and distraction to truly move you. It feels as if she is afraid to feel too much or reveal too much and instead hides behind a screen of sorts that defies penetration. Like in her earlier controversial work, My Holocaust – which ruffled feathers with its brazen descriptions of the Holocaust as a brass commercial enterprise devoid of substance – Reich shies away from the deepest human emotions; the confessional ones that make us shudder. Even the smells and sickness and poverty of India and its starving children are presented coarsely as a faceless backdrop of sorts to Jewish angst and not given full measure.
There was one passage near the end that caught me off guard. As Meena is sliding further and further into an abyss with her wheelchair-bound brother Shmelke in tow, she remembers a defining moment from long ago: “I must have lost my bearings and could not precisely follow the swift unfolding of events. It was as if I were a young girl again in Brooklyn at a wedding or a holiday celebration, dancing sedately with the women when a mass of men charged forward to lay claim to our floor space, forcing us to retreat, to scurry to the sidelines, pushing us against the wall as they took control of the center.”
There was an elegant and simple nakedness to this belated confession that was sadly missing from the rest of the book.