Kaaterskill Falls

( 7 )

Overview

In the summer of '76, the Shulmans and the Melishes migrate to Kaaterskill, the tiny town in upstate New York where Orthodox Jews and Yankee year-rounders live side by side from June through August. Elizabeth Shulman, a devout follower of Rav Elijah Kirshner and the mother of five daughters, is restless. She needs a project of her own, outside her family and her cloistered community. Across the street, Andras Melish is drawn to Kaaterskill by his adoring older sisters, bound to him by their loss and wrenching ...

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Kaaterskill Falls

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Overview

In the summer of '76, the Shulmans and the Melishes migrate to Kaaterskill, the tiny town in upstate New York where Orthodox Jews and Yankee year-rounders live side by side from June through August. Elizabeth Shulman, a devout follower of Rav Elijah Kirshner and the mother of five daughters, is restless. She needs a project of her own, outside her family and her cloistered community. Across the street, Andras Melish is drawn to Kaaterskill by his adoring older sisters, bound to him by their loss and wrenching escape from the Holocaust. Both comforted and crippled by his sisters' love, Andras cannot overcome the ambivalence he feels toward his children and his own beautiful wife. At the top of the hill, Rav Kirshner is coming to the end of his life, and he struggles to decide which of his sons should succeed him: the pious but stolid Isaiah, or the brilliant but worldly Jeremy. Behind the scenes, alarmed as his beloved Kaaterskill is overdeveloped by Michael King, the local real estate broker, Judge Miles Taylor keeps an old secret in check, biding his time....

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Praise for Allegra Goodman:

"The brushstrokes seemingly casual yet sure, always the exact—and unlikely—equivalent of a shadow or reflected gleam."—Anna Shapiro, New York Newsday

"An astonishing display of virtuosity."—Los Angeles Times on Total Immersion

"Exceptionally well written: funny, wise, keenly observed....One of the most maddening and recognizable families to come along in years...an enchanting book."—Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times on The Family Markowitz

Newsday
This young Mozart of Jewish fiction has pulled off another major feat.
Miami Herald
The kind of story that matters.
Baltimore Sun
A thoroughly engrossing tale.
Daphne Merkin
Allegra Goodman is young, poised and fearless . . . Kaaterskill Falls continues where her last book, The Family Markowitz, left off -- and then goes farther, cutting new ground. -- The New York Times Book Review
Ruth R. Wisse
How very clever of Allegra Goodman to perceive in contemporary America the place and time in which a small group of Jews could finally be casual enough about the wrath of both God and history, yet attentive enough to social discipline instilled by their religion, to produce a context for the novel of manners.
Commentary
Vanessa V. Friedman
Unsensational though its action isKaaterskill Falls is a sneaky celebration of the American dream. —Entertainment Weekly
LA Times Book Review
Not since Chaim Potok's The Chosen have readers been treated to such an intimate look at a closed Orthodox community. . . .A richly textured portrait.
People Magazine
Like the late Nobel laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer, Goodman wrings ineffable strands of passion from the quietest of hopes and disappointments. It is a carefully observed and haunting world.
Washington Post Book World
Kaaterskill Falls manages the tricky business of giving equal weight to substance and style — and does so brilliantly. . . .What will strike readers is the way Goodman's novel makes the ultra Orthodox look simultaneously exotic and familiar.
Gail Caldwell
She has wrought an entire world. . . .Goodman has taken a fecundity of insights to her first novel which depicts a panoply of characters — most of them Orthodox Jews — in their summer community in upstate New York.
The Boston Sunday Globe
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The quiet wisdom expressed in this novel and the clear lucidity of its prose would make it a remarkable achievement for any writer. What is perhaps most impressive here is that its author is only in her early 30s and has already acquired the psychological perceptiveness and philosophic composure of someone of more mature years. The world that Goodman conjures here -- a small Orthodox Jewish sect who migrate every summer with their leader from New York's Washington Heights to the upstate community of Kaaterskill -- may initially seem exotic and remote to most readers, but the scrupulously rendered background of religious observance is the stage on which Goodman dramatizes the universality of human behavior.

Beginning her narrative in July 1976 and ending it two years later, Goodman chronicles the small oscillations in the lives of some two dozen characters. There are other Jewish summer residents, more secular and of higher social status, whose families came to Kaaterskill before the advent of their more observant brethren. The old Yankee families watch with dismay the gradual loss of their property and the town's identity to these strange interlopers. And there are marginal figures who stand between them, notably an ambitious real estate developer who changed his name from Klein to King and is scorned by both communities. With insight, affection and gentle humor, Goodman builds her narrative with scenes of marital relationships, domestic routines, generational conflict, new love and old scandals. Quiet heartbreak occurs, too. Elizabeth Schulman, the much-admired, calmly devout mother of five daughters, almost enjoys the fulfillment of her ambition to do something special with her life until her business project is forbidden by rabbinical decree and she gains a new understanding of a woman's possibilities and limitations among her people. The dying Rav sees clearly the limitations of Isaiah, the dutiful son who will be his successor, and the brilliance of his prodigal son, Jeremy, who in turn finds that his intellectual rebellion has left him spiritually desolate. On the other hand, Holocaust survivor Andras Melish breaks through his anomie to a peaceful contemplation of his blessings.<>p>Goodman conveys her characters' religious convictions with a respectful but slightly skeptical eye. Her tenderly ironic understanding of human needs, ambitions and follies, of the stress between unbending moral laws and turbulent personal aspirations, gives the narrative perspective and balance. In knitting the minutiae of individual lives into the fabric of community, she produces a vibrant story of good people accommodating their spiritual and temporal needs to the realities of contemporary life. She does so with the virtuosic assurance of a prose stylist of the first rank.

Vanessa V. Friedman
Unsensational though its action is, Kaaterskill Falls is a sneaky celebration of the American dream. -- Entertainment Weekly
Laura Green
In Kaaterskill Falls, Allegra Goodman has moved away from the sparkling vignettes of her two previous books, Total Immersion (1989) and The Family Markowitz (1996), to focus on the accumulation of small changes in the lives of three Jewish families over the course of two summers in the Catskills. Kaaterskill Falls both re-creates a special place -- a rural Yankee community enlivened once a year by the arrival of the Jewish "summer people" -- and explores different ways of negotiating a Jewish heritage of tradition and loss.

As the novel begins, Isaac Shulman and Andras Melish leave the heat of the city and wind their way into the Catskills until "the city is gone and the world is green." Isaac, his wife, Elizabeth, and their five daughters are followers of Rav Kirshner, the rabbi and charismatic leader of a strict Orthodox community. Elizabeth Shulman, although devout, has, at 34, begun to chafe gently against Kirshner's strictures. Andras Melish is a skeptical immigrant from Budapest, quietly estranged from his young, enthusiastic Argentine wife, who does not understand the allure of the secular, cultured, Eastern European past Andras shares with his older sisters. Forbidding old Rav Kirshner himself is failing in health, cared for with increasing difficulty by his dutiful but unimaginative son Isaiah and Isaiah's loyal wife; Kirshner must decide whether Isaiah or his other son, the brilliant but secular Jeremy, will inherit the leadership of the community.

The reader enters into the variously questioning minds not only of Elizabeth, Andras and the Rav, but also of Isaac, Isaiah, Jeremy, Andras' daughter Renee and the Shulmans' daughter Chani. Although this kaleidoscopic method echoes the diverse viewpoints in The Family Markowitz, Goodman artfully overlaps her characters' conflicts to ensure that this variety will create an impression of fullness, rather than fragmentation. For example, when Elizabeth's quest for a project of her own brings her up against the absolute authority of the Rav, it is the agnostic Andras who finds the words to help her. Only a late, melodramatic plot development involving an ambitious real estate developer and the local judge seems out of place.

The broad canvas does mute the reader's response to individual characters; we feel interest in many, but allegiance to none. To the extent that Goodman chooses a primary consciousness, it's Elizabeth's; most readers will easily sympathize with her desire for "the quick and subtle negotiations of the outside world." But Goodman refuses to make Kaaterskill Falls a story of individual triumph over stifling communal norms. At the novel's end, a minor character summarizes the lasting appeal of Kaaterskill: "We always felt safe here. We thought the summers would last forever. I remember looking up at the falls, and everything rushing and white and beautiful. You looked up there and you felt that you could do anything. That absolutely nothing could ever stop you." Goodman acknowledges the demands and rigidities of the Orthodox world, but Kaaterskill Falls celebrates the safety, comfort and quiet beauty of a community bound by tradition. Salon July 31, 1998

Ruth R. Wisse
How very clever of Allegra Goodman to perceive in contemporary America the place and time in which a small group of Jews could finally be casual enough about the wrath of both God and history, yet attentive enough to social discipline instilled by their religion, to produce a context for the novel of manners. -- Commentary
Washington Post Book World
Kaaterskill Falls manages the tricky business of giving equal weight to substance and style -- and does so brilliantly. . . .What will strike readers is the way Goodman's novel makes the ultra Orthodox look simultaneously exotic and familiar.
San Diego Union
Goodman's clear writing recalls Fielding, Austen, Balzac, Tolstoy.
The Philadelphia Inquirer
This work is as broad and sweeping as a 19th century panoramic novel. Goodman reveals the torrent of feelings cloaked in somber vestments. Every line in this marvelous creation rings true.
Wall Street Journal
Allegra Goodman is a prodigy. . . .She writes with such winning grace, such deftly evocative intimacy of detail.
Michiko Kakutani
Kaaterskill Falls announces the debut of a gifted novelist. So authoritative is her storytelling. . .the reader comes to understand the hopes and fears of each character. -- The New York Times
The Baltimore Sun
A thoroughly engrossing tale.
The Miami Herald
The kind of story that matters.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385323901
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 8/28/1999
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 559,417
  • Product dimensions: 5.27 (w) x 7.96 (h) x 0.93 (d)

Meet the Author

Allegra Goodman's work has appeared in The New Yorker, Allure, Food and Wine, Vogue, Commentary, and Slate. She is the recipient of a Whiting Award, and the Salon Magazine award for fiction. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where she is at work on a second novel.

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Read an Excerpt

The synagogue is crowded with men, and warm despite the November chill outside. When Isaac arrives for services on Friday evening, he sees neighbors and friends all clustered together in the entryway. The Kollel students are coming in from the little chapel where they study. Dressed alike in their rumpled black suits, carrying their great black-bound books, they pass through the crowd into the main sanctuary where the older men are arriving, businessmen coming from downtown, the storekeepers from the neighborhood, the retired grandfathers. Young and old mix together, and their languages mix: English and German, a little Hebrew, a little Yiddish. Isaac does not notice the mixture; he grew up with it, and he understands all the languages equally.

"Did you hear that the Rav is holding his office hours again?"

"No, I didn't know."

"He's holding them on Tuesdays again."

"The same hours?"

"Yes. Of course, he's limiting his visitors, but baruch hashem, he's well enough."

The men speak cheerfully. For of course this is good news. Isaac is annoyed at himself for being troubled by it. He walks into the sanctuary; and, as the service begins, he tries to put the talk out of his mind. He stares intently at the pages in front of him, although he knows the prayers by heart. He closes his eyes as he sings and tries to concentrate on the words. Lechah dodi likras kallah, pinei Shabbas nikabelah.  Come, my friend, to meet the bride; let us welcome the Sabbath. And he turns with the other men toward the door of the synagogue. All of them bow to the door expectantly, as if, like a bride in white, the Sabbath were coming to walk down the aisle between them. They sing as if to make it so.

When the short Kabbalat Shabbat service ends, Isaac closes his tiny siddur and puts it into its blue velvet tallis bag. Quickly he walks out into the chilly evening, the air filled with voices, "Good Shabbes, good Shabbes," the streetlights shining brighter than stars, filling the night with their dusty light. The men are walking home to their waiting families. They are hurrying along the tar-black city streets, past fire hydrants and blue mailboxes, telephone booths, shop windows covered with roll-down steel grids. All the Kirshner stores are closed, dimly lit only for security. The butcher, the florist, the bakery, and the specialty groceries, Grimaldi's with its pyramids of fruit, Eisen's Bookshop with its hand-lettered placard, GIANT SEFORIM SALE. They are all closed for Shabbes; the shul closed and locked until morning. But the night is filled with the sounds of the city, the sirens, the thumping beat of music pouring out of cars. The screech of taxis, the rumble of the trains.

Hands in the pockets of his good coat, Isaac walks on. He feels distracted and a little nervous. He knows Elizabeth will want to go to the Rav's office hours, now that they have begun again. She is still thinking about the store. Isaac has not spoken about it to Elizabeth or even told her he called Andras. Still, Elizabeth's idea weighs on his mind, his doubts chafing with his desire to make Elizabeth's store possible. Impractical as it seems, beginning her own project would be such a joy to her. Of course he must tell her that the Rav is holding audiences again. Perhaps he should say that he will go with her to see the Rav. The question tugs at him as he hurries, almost runs, home. Above him the apartment buildings crowd against the sky, not tall and slender like the buildings in midtown, but stocky, shouldering against each other like people in a crowded room.

Isaac lets himself into his building. Loosening his scarf as he goes, he runs up the three flights of stairs to the apartment. Then, at last, he opens the door and steps into the warmth of the living room. It's so warm and bright, the table dazzling white, the toys put away, the candles lit. Every Friday he is amazed at the transformation. The apartment is more than clean; it glows with warmth and safety. In Kaaterskill, Shabbes is somehow not such a surprise. It's beautiful there on all the ordinary days. But in the city, and especially in winter, Isaac is amazed at the way Elizabeth makes their home shine against the black streets. Against the sirens and traffic, the dirty ice outside, the apartment seems to rise like a great yellow moon.

The children are scrubbed pink and clean, dressed in their Shabbes clothes. They are playing Chinese checkers on the coffee table. In the kitchen Brocha stands on a chair and tries to wash the pots.

"That's enough soap," Elizabeth tells her.

"But the bubbles are all gone," Brocha protests.

"The soap is still there in the water. It's hiding."

"Hiding?" Brocha echoes dubiously. "Daddy!  Daddy!  Daddy! I'm washing the dishes."

"Yes, I see," says Isaac.

"Brocha, you aren't supposed to use soap," Malki calls out from the living room. "You aren't supposed to use soap on Shabbes."

"She's just playing," Elizabeth assures Malki. "And it's liquid soap." Isaac puts his arm around Elizabeth. He can hear through the wall their neighbors the Steins, already singing. In Kaaterskill the Steins have a place on Maple. The Buchsbaums upstairs will be singing too. They are old, and bought a big house in Kaaterskill early on, a huge place with a circular drive, and neat symmetrical flower beds and fir trees. The building is full of Kirshner families, and their Shabbes guests, hearing kiddush and drinking the wine. Somehow, their faint voices reassure Isaac. Of course, if Elizabeth opened her store in Kaaterskill it wouldn't be a store outside the community, it would be a business among neighbors, a service rendered among friends.

At the table Isaac and the girls stand next to their chairs and sing toElizabeth, as all the Kirshner families serenade the mother of the house on Friday night. "Ashes chayil miyimtza?  V'rachok mipninim michrah. . . ." Who can find a virtuous wife?  She is more precious than rubies. . . . She seeks out wool and flax, and works with eager hands. Isaac smiles as he sings the verses from Proverbs. He is thinking about the words. Is it really such a question whether a woman can start a business?  This is the work of the virtuous wife, the "Ashes Chayil" in the ancient song: "She considers a field and buys it; / With her earnings she plants a vineyard." And "Ta'ama ki tov sachrah; / Lo yichbeh balaila nerah. She finds that her trade is profitable; / Her lamp is not snuffed at night." That could be Elizabeth, his wife, his businesswoman.

The children are standing at their places, the gold-rimmed plates in front of them. Chani and Malki tall and thin on one side of the table, Ruchel and Sorah on the other side, much shorter, their hair in their eyes, their faces still chubby, and Brocha is standing next to Elizabeth, only her head showing above the table, her Peter Rabbit plate in front of her. "She makes a garment and sells it, and delivers a belt to the merchant. . . . Let her have the fruits of her hands. . . ." The children are singing, although, of course, they aren't listening to the words; no one really listens. But tonight Isaac sees Elizabeth in that poem, the song everyone sings. He sees that the poem is not simply about the ideal wife, but about Elizabeth in particular. For Elizabeth is the woman who would plant a business, buy and sell, create something with her industry. She is the woman who deserves the fruit of her hands.

The song warms him. Magically, the words open up to him. He grasps them with recognition and relief. At the yeshiva, mastery of halachic arguments never came easily to Isaac, nor did quick recall of the narrative texts. But in his daily studies he still strives to understand, identify, take a text to heart, to reach through the centuries of commentary, those layers of responsa, and grasp a meaning that is strong, believable. And when it happens, and the words unfold for him and touch his life, this is a moment of great joy. The burden of decision falls away, and he is free, for he knows what he should do.

Isaac looks at Elizabeth at the foot of the table. She is clear eyed, smiling and half laughing at them as they sing to her. He is going to tell her that they should ask to see the Rav. After dinner he'll tell her. He will promise to go with her and help her. She will jump up to hear him say it. Even now, standing at the table, Isaac can see her, spinning on her heels. He can already feel it. He is dancing with her in his mind, spinning with her in delight.

Their appointment is November twenty-second, just before Thanksgiving. Isaac wears his best black suit and his Shabbes hat; and Elizabeth, a good but plain dress, navy blue. The Rav doesn't approve of women who attract attention with their clothes.

They don't speak as they stand at the Rav's door. They wait there, not afraid, exactly, but apprehensive, excited, as if they were about to go up on a stage and perform. Quiet and pale, the Rav's son Isaiah opens the door. In the cool entrance hall he takes their coats. Isaac has been once before to see the Rav, but Elizabeth never. She notices every detail, the black-and-white-tiled floor, the old-fashioned brass knobs and keyholes on the doors, the scent of furniture polish.

Isaiah leads Elizabeth and Isaac through the front parlor into the library's back room. Now they see the Rav's great desk, a table royal in scale, its top covered in red leather, and stacked with folio volumes of the law, covered with cardboard manuscript boxes, and a row of three fountain pens, neatly arranged, lined up behind three glass bottles of blue-black ink. Elizabeth and Isaac stand at some distance from the great desk where the Rav sits wearing his black suit. He is small and bent, but he holds his head up, keeping abreast of the books around him.

Isaiah walks around to the Rav's side of the desk and bends down to his father's ear like a translator. "This is Isaac Shulman and his wife," he announces.

The Rav looks straight at Isaac with keen dark eyes. "Very good," he says clearly, his voice remarkably steady. His voice is bearing up.

Isaac comes forward. "Rav Kirshner," he says, "my wife and I would like to ask your permission to open a small store in Kaaterskill."

Here again, Isaiah bends down as if to translate, but the Rav waves him away with a blue-veined hand. "I hear this," he says. "Now, again, Mr. Shulman, the facts. Who?"

"My wife and I," Isaac replies, gesturing to Elizabeth, who stands at a little distance.

"Your wife," the Rav says. "In addition your wife. And what will be her role?"

Elizabeth shivers at the question.

"What will she do?" the Rav asks.

"Mimerchak tavi lachma," Isaac quotes.

Elizabeth nearly forgets herself and laughs. It's such a lucky reference for him to happen on, a cardinal virtue of the virtuous wife in "Ayshes Chayil," the song sung on Friday nights. She bringeth food from afar.

"She wants to bring up food from the city to Kaaterskill," Isaac says, "so the women can shop during the week, instead of waiting for us to come up on weekends with all the groceries in the car."

The Rav nods with a pursed-lip smile. "We have who and what," he says. "Now, how?"

Isaac explains about the back room in Hamilton's store, and gives the names of the stores in Washington Heights from whom they will buy wholesale. The Rav gives his patent to no others.

By the end of this the Rav is leaning back in his leather desk chair. The explanations tire him, Elizabeth thinks. He was more interested in Isaac's textual defense. He pauses now, and seems to forget them for a minute as they stand there, Isaac in front of the desk, Elizabeth nearer the door. Then in an instant he makes his decision.

"Isaiah, the typewriter."

Wordlessly Isaiah rolls two sheets of the Rav's letterhead and carbon paper into the gleaming black manual typewriter. Hammer-hard, Isaiah hits the silver keys as his father dictates a letter of permission:

I, the Reverend Doctor Elijah Kirshner, have examined the business proposals of Isaac Shulman and his family, to purvey kosher food from the city up to Kaaterskill, and to bring this food up to the mountain, packaged and unaltered in any way, and to be sold unchanged.

The proposal seems to me without any harm to the Kehilla.

Isaiah unrolls the letter and puts it on the desk in front of the Rav. "My pen," the Rav says.

Isaiah opens a desk drawer and takes a pen out of its case. It is a black pen, glossy black trimmed with gold, but not, Elizabeth notices, a fountain pen like those on top of the desk. This is a fancy Waterman ballpoint.

The Rav puts on reading glasses and reads the letter. The paper quivers in his hands. With trembling fingers the Rav puts down the letter and signs his name. He writes firmly, almost too firmly, so that his signature is crabbed with his efforts to control it. Then he pushes the paper toward them. "That is all," he says.

They stand there a moment looking at him. "Thank you," Isaac says. "Thank you for seeing us."

The Rav doesn't answer; he just nods to Isaiah to see them out.

Isaiah opens the door for them. Only as they are walking out the door does the Rav's voice drift after them. "Isaac Shulman." Startled, Isaac and Elizabeth turn to where the Rav sits at the leather covered desk with his books all around him. The Rav is smiling faintly, almost imperceptibly. "Isaac Shulman."

"Yes," says Isaac from the doorway.

"I remember your father."

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First Chapter

Chapter One

FRIDAY afternoon, Edelman's Bakery in Washington Heights is like the stock exchange--paper numbers strewn across the floor, everybody shouting orders: "Give me two! Seedless! No, make that four."

    "A dozen onion!"

    "What?"

    "A dozen onion rolls--and I'm in a rush."

    "Six challahs!" Isaac calls out. Suit jacket slung over his shoulder, he leans against the glass counter where Mrs. Edelman presides at the cash register. Isaac's white shirt is drenched with sweat, his tie folded in the pocket. The air conditioner is feeble, and the bakery is mobbed with sweating customers: the women, in their long skirts and long sleeves, all covered up, even in the heat. The men, just off from work, their faces flushed under their black hats. The bakery floor, and even the walls, are scuffed and dirty, the glass cases empty except for a few babkas on curled wax paper. Edelman's is rich only in the fragrance of its bread.

    Plucked from wire bins, Isaac's challahs are so fresh that Mrs. Edelman's fingers dent them. The loaves are magnificent, over a foot long, artfully braided, glossy with painted egg white, but time is short. Mrs. Edelman dumps them unceremoniously into brown paper bags. Isaac snatches them up with his change and runs out to his station wagon.

    He drops the bread and his suit jacket into the scorching-hot backseat and starts the car. He does not take off his bat; Isaac wears a black felt fedora, even in the summer. He is a small man, slightly built. His eyes are not dark, but light brown, and luminous like amber. His hair is brown, too, and like all the men in Washington Heights' Kirshner community, he is clean shaven, almost modern looking, with neither beard nor peyyes. Isaac rolls up his shirtsleeves, and the veins stand out on his bare forearms. The steering wheel burns his fingers, but he has a wiry strength, a commuter's stamina.

    Easing out into the traffic, Isaac passes shop windows armored with metal grilles, cement walls spray-painted pink. He drives past Auerbach's butcher shop, Schwartz's kosher cheese, Grimaldi's corner store, and the Kirshner synagogue with its barred windows and combination locks. In 1976 the neighborhood is small and shabby and tight. The Kirshners' apartment buildings are built close together of red brick, their few stores clustered as if for safety. Flights of stairs, hundreds of cement steps, provide shortcuts from the streets above to those below, and always, on the cement stairs, mothers and their babies, grandparents and teenagers, are passing each other. Everyone takes these stairs to get up and down, as if the neighborhood were a single house. There are no stairs, however, to the top of the Heights. No Kirshners climb up to Fort Tryon Park or go to the museum there, the Cloisters, with its icons and crucifixes, its medieval sculpture carved in cool gray stone. The Kirshners never think of the Cloisters. They are absorbed in their own religion. Although they have no paintings, or stained glass, or sculpture, they array themselves with gorgeous words.

PULLING into the upper Port Authority, Isaac sits with the engine running and scans the crowds for his car pooler, Andras Melish. Loudspeakers in the bus terminal blare destinations in New York State: Syracuse, Albany, Schenectady. Isaac is surprised not to see Andras standing there, waiting. He does not think he could be overlooking him. Andras is not easily overlooked. He always stands out, much taller than the others in the waiting crowd.

    A shadow darkens the passenger side window. Andras climbs into the car and slams the door behind him.

    "Where were you? I was trying to phone you," Andras says. Despite his fifty-seven years he has the challenging voice and arrogant black eyes of his youth.

    "I got held up at the bakery." Isaac is polite but unapologetic.

    They had hoped to beat the rush-hour traffic, but at two o'clock they're crawling over the silver George Washington Bridge. Isaac's Mercury does not have air conditioning. Stuck in traffic, the car gets so hot, it hurts to breathe. As if to taunt them, the Hudson below glistens in the sun. Through the bars and cables of the bridge Isaac watches sailboats puff up with the river breeze.

    "Why don't you try the other lane?" Andras asks. He is a stickler for punctuality. Habitually, as if to hold it against Isaac, he times their commute.

    "This lane is fine," Isaac replies.

    There is still a distance between them left over from the winter. In the city the men almost never see each other; they lead such different lives. Isaac's gritty neighborhood is nothing like Andras's on the Upper West Side. Isaac's clerical job in the Department of Public Works is far from Andras's position as head of his own import company. And, of course, Isaac's upbringing and convictions are nothing like Andras's. Young and fervent in his observance, Isaac was born into the separatist Kirshners in Washington Heights. But Andras is twenty, years older, an immigrant from Budapest. He comes from an expansive, assimilated Jewish community that, like Andras's belief in God, has scarcely existed since the war.

    By the time the gray Thruway spreads out before them, and the station wagon picks up speed, Isaac is exhausted. His legs ache. He wishes away the two hours ahead. His wife will be waiting for him. He hasn't seen Elizabeth all week. She will come out to the car and help him carry in the armfuls of fresh bread. The girls will be playing in the yard. Soccer, hopscotch, tetherball, jump rope. They will jump up to see him.

    Through the open window, in the dry breeze, Andras watches trucks heaving past--eighteen-wheelers with smokestacks of their own. He's brought in a new line of toy trucks at the warehouse. Tonka trucks, blue and white, logger trucks loaded with miniature pine logs, orange U-Hauls with detachable six-inch trailers. They've even got tiny SPIRIT OF 76 bumper stickers for the Bicentennial. What Andras really needs is a second car. His wife won't hear of it, of course. It would be a waste of gas, she says. Nina's conserving energy for the whole country, carpooling.

    Often Andras thinks that he wouldn't mind spending a few weekends alone in the city. He could use the time to do his books. But his sisters, Eva and Maja, are waiting for him in their brick house in Kaaterskill. Even now, as he and Isaac are driving up, Andras's older sisters are baking rugelach, prune cake, and mandelbrot. They still bake for him, just as they did when he was a boy.

    "Our exit," Andras says suddenly.

    Isaac turns off, at the last minute, onto 23A.

    "You didn't see it, did you?" Audras asks.

    Isaac smiles, a lightning-quick smile. "I was waiting for you to remind me." He can tease Andras now that they are past the heavy traffic and making better time. They are closer to Kaaterskill. Everything is easier.

    Even as they take the exit, the wind softens. The Thruway is now four lanes instead of eight. Billboards for Catskill Game Farm appear, ads for the petting zoo with pictures of goats and lambs blown up giant-size against the trees. The hills on either side are green, thick with oak and pine. Nothing but trees on either side, and the broad road slowly rising. The wind seems to comb the trees upright so that they stand thick and straight.

    Turning onto Washington Irving Highway, they enter the forest. They exchange the sunny afternoon for shade, and the light breeze for damper, stiller air. The highway cuts around Cole Mountain, peeling away in a slow spiral from the trees. As the road rises, the lanes narrow, pressed together by the heavy woods. Transmission humming, the car climbs past shattered boulders, enormous shards of rock. Old oaks overhang the road, roots flung up from the ground, while younger birches shoot up toward the light in thin stalks, like grass. And yet there are houses here behind the trees. One on the right with peeling white paint, another freshly painted turquoise with a baby barn, and an enormous mailbox. This is Palenville. The mountain villages announce themselves with motels and signs: WELCOME TO PHOENICIA, and ENTERING COOKSBURG. Sudden flashes of sun, Floyd's Motel and Cooksburg's main street radiate light as clearings in the shade.

    Isaac's car hugs the tightly coiled road. The low safety rail bolted to the road's edge isn't much to keep a car from tumbling down into the deep gorges, hundreds of feet below. Isaac drives above the gorge called Devil's Kitchen, and the ravine called Devil's Dam. There are car wrecks rusting down there under the leaves, and boulders bigger than the wrecked cars. And there is the sound of water, the rustling water, to Isaac's ears, like a thousand men praying together, davening and turning pages. Little by little the rustling water gathers strength, the gathering of voices growing louder and louder, until, as the road turns toward Kaaterskill Falls, the water begins to roar.

    The road is high, clinging to the mountain. The rapids rush white over the green rocks, then tumble down into pools far below. From the car Isaac and Andras can't see the swimmers playing and diving in the rock pools. Only the falls pouring down over the upper face of the rock, a blasting of all the long spring's rains and winter's melted snow.

    It's darker and greener here than anywhere else. The gorges and ravines broaden into a deep valley, and across the valley, far away in the trees, are Victorian mansions, tiny in the distance. Fairyland, Isaac's girls call the hillside, and the faraway houses do look like fairy palaces, delicate as chess pieces, exquisitely carved rooks.

    Past Fairyland, past Kendall Falls and Bear Mountain, Isaac drives. Past the roadside spring bubbling into its mossy barrel, past granite boulders, past thousands upon thousands of trees standing together, the young and old in congregation, until, at last, he enters the town of Kaaterskill, bright with white houses set against dark trees.

    Kaaterskill's Main Street is five blocks long. The buildings are all clapboard with porches, except for the brick firehouse, just built to replace the old station that burned down a year ago. Rubin's Hotel is the biggest building on Main Street. The line of rocking chairs on the hotel porch is positioned for a view of the whole town. Across the way the post office also has a porch, and is freshly painted Williamsburg-blue with cream trim. Then there is the Taylor Building, where the Taylor brothers practice law, and trade in real estate; Hamilton's shingled general store; King Real Estate; Boyd's Garage, with its dusty, glassed-in office at the back; the Orpheum, showing The Godfather Part II. The Main Street buildings nestle together companionably, as they have for years. They match each other, with their shutters and twelve-paned windows, and their creaky front steps. Only near the end of the street does the old style give way to the new. Here, like the village dragon, the chrome-and-glass A & P sprawls in its black-paved parking lot.

    Isaac turns off Main Street just before the A & P, and drives down Maple Street, gently sloping, broad, and gracious. The trees on Maple are gigantic, so old, they arc over the road in a canopy of leaves. Their shade extends to every house, from the big summer places like Andras's with sweeping lawns in back, to the rental bungalows like Isaac's, small and square. Under the trees Isaac parks the car, and he and Andras step out. The city is gone and the world is green. Green trees, and green grass, and green leaves all around.

As he does every Friday, Andras goes directly to see his sisters, but Isaac walks across the street. A crowd is gathering at the Curtis place. Will Curtis's new house has finally arrived. It has come in two sections, preassembled, and mounted on an enormous flatbed truck. A white-sided rectangular shoe box of a house with a green front door and matching ornamental green shutters.

    "Daddy!" Three-year-old Brocha runs toward Isaac. "Up!" He hoists up his youngest daughter onto his shoulders and they watch as the huge truck backs into the Curtis lot with half the house clamped on its back.

    Isaac's wife, Elizabeth, makes her way to him through the crowd. She doesn't kiss him. Not in front of all these people. But Isaac stands so close to her that her skirt brushes against him. Elizabeth is wearing a long twill skirt and a pinstriped man-tailored shirt buttoned all the way up. In summer she is so covered up in her long sleeves, long skirts, and white stockings that only the backs of her hands are freckled, and her face. She wears small gold-rimmed glasses. Her cheek is curved in a smile, her hazel eyes green in the shade.

    "Isn't it marvelous?" Elizabeth says to Isaac. Her voice is distinctive. Her accent English. "Look, even the carpet is down in the rooms already!" She watches the men maneuver the second half of the house into place.

    "Well, it's just a prefab, Elizabeth," says Isaac, amused.

    "Oh, I know that," she says, eyes on the closing seam between the two halves. "But it's marvelous. It's like a doll's house."

    Nearly the whole town has come to watch. The year-rounders and the summer people, who are mostly from the city, Kirshners from Washington Heights, families from Borough Park, Lubavichers from Crown Heights. They all stand together, chattering excitedly, watching the delivery of the new house. The old place is gone, burned to the ground, and now the insurance money's come in. Everyone's busy pointing and shouting out directions to the movers and the trucks. "A little more, a little more," urges one of the teenagers from town.

    "You've got a mile!" screams a Talmud scholar, up for a week's vacation.

    The trucks pull the two halves of the house in close, but there is still a gap between the walls. The crowd stirs, frustrated, surging forward to give advice--fair-haired children along with young men in black hats.

    "Nu? What gives?" demands a silver-bearded man in a frock coat. And just then the seam vanishes and the house is finished. The whole town and the summer people break into applause.

    "More. More," protests Brocha from Isaac's shoulders.

    "It's all done," he tells her. "It's time to go home."

    "Again!" she says, pointing to the house, but Elizabeth is already crossing the street, and Isaac follows with Brocha swaying on his shoulders. He puts her down on the porch.

    "Go on," Elizabeth tells him. "Go on inside." And she calls the children to help her unload the car. "Ruchel? Sorah? Take the bags. Chani?" She looks over to the tire swing, where their oldest daughter stands, storklike, watching the trucks pull out across the street. "Chani, could you bring your sisters back? They're still out with Pammy Curtis."

    Elizabeth's English accent hasn't rubbed off on her daughters, but they all have English names. No one ever uses them. To their friends they're just the Shulman girls, five rattled off in a row: Chani, Malki, Ruchel, Sorah, and Brocha. But Elizabeth gave them other names, and she repeats them to herself: Annette and Margot, Rowena, Sabrina, and Bernice. These are her daughters' real names; the ones on their birth certificates; extraordinary and graceful--princesses and dancers. It's true, of course, the nickname Malki by itself means "queen," and Sorah means a "princess." But those are words the children drag around the house. There must be twenty Sorahs at the Kirshner school. Elizabeth wanted something remarkable and elegant--beyond the usual expectations. She didn't name her daughters to be rattled off. She named them to have imagination.

    As a girl in Manchester, Elizabeth played tennis. When she was sixteen, she even got a job teaching it to younger children at her school. But the interschool matches in the district were all on Saturdays, and she couldn't play on Shabbes. Hers was a small school built by the Kehilla of observant families. Her father taught Talmud in the upper division. Elizabeth had prepared to teach Hebrew herself, and took her certificate at Carmel College in Henley before she married. Then she settled down to raising children. None of this was unexpected. Meeting Isaac in New York was not arranged, but it was natural. Elizabeth was twenty, and her parents said she ought to move about and see things. Not exactly travel, but visit the family, her aunt's family in New York. And there was Shayni's wedding that summer anyway. Elizabeth would be their emissary.

    She is unusual in her community, an Englishwoman among the Kirshners of Washington Heights. She reads Milton on her own. She's spent her pregnancies with Austen and Tolstoy. With Brocha she was the most ambitious and tried to read all of Sandburg's biography of Lincoln. She should get back to that one, she thinks, as she sets the table for their late dinner. They don't have a separate dining room, of course. It's a small bungalow. Just three bedrooms. The gifts' rooms are so narrow, there is barely any space between their beds. They don't mind, though, because they spend their time outside. The living room is shadowy, with only one dim ceiling fixture and two windows. Elizabeth keeps the front door open to let in more light.

    In the evening the trees rustle together. Not a single car passes by. Elizabeth prays, standing in the living room, with her tiny siddur, its pages thin as flaky pastry. She recites the Friday-night service to herself, rapidly, under her breath. She is not tall, only tire foot six, but she holds herself straight. In the way she holds herself, in the way she moves, she has a kind of athletic grace. She is slender, although she has five children. She grew up early, marrying young, having her first child at twenty-one. Still, at thirty-four, she is excitable, eager to speak, and quick to laugh. She is, more than anything, curious, delighted by paradoxes, odd characters, anything out of the ordinary. She looks forward every year to Kaaterskill and the people there: Andras Melish and his South American wife; Professor Cecil Birnbaum; the Curtises with their tomboy daughter, Pammy; the Landauer family, Lubavichers from Crown Heights. In the summers she can sec these friends again, and they are both exotic and familiar, like distant relatives.

    Both Brocha and Sorah are asleep by the time Isaac comes home from services, and so Elizabeth and Isaac sit down for blintzes with the older girls. Twelve-year-old Chani looks most like her mother, with her fair skin and hazel eyes. She has Elizabeth's black hair, though a stranger wouldn't know. All Elizabeth's sheitels are auburn. She'd always loved auburn hair, and so when she married and had to cut hers short she decided she might as well become auburn haired. She bought auburn wigs in different styles: pageboy, straight, short, and wavy. Most often in Kaaterskill she wears a kerchief over her hair, but she brings the sheitels up, and keeps them on the top shelf of her closet on faceless white Styrofoam heads.

    Next to Chani at the table, Malki eats her blintzes without sour cream or jam. Ever since she could talk it was always "plain, plain" for her food. No jam on blintzes, no gravy on her meat, no mustard on her salami sandwiches. She's a solemn gift: light brown hair, brown eyes, a little wall-eyed even. A quiet child, not a biker like Chani or a tree climber like chattering nine-year-old Ruchel. Ruchel's legs are scratched from her expeditions climbing birches. She comes home covered with mud. She and Sorah and Para Curtis with her red wagon seem to be dredging Bramble Creek behind the Birnbaum place.

    "Daddy," Ruchel says now, "you know down there at the creek?"

    "Yes."

    "The blackberries down there are the biggest ones I've ever seen in my life. But Mr. King came out with his dog."

    Elizabeth laughs. "You mean his poodle?"

    Ruchel keeps talking. "He said we were trespassing on his property and we had to get off. But he doesn't own the creek, and I was standing in the creek."

    "But the bushes belong to him," Elizabeth points out. "You shouldn't pick from his bushes."

    "He's a Norka," Ruchel says oddly. She's been reading the Red Fairy Tale Book.

    "He's a real estate developer," Isaac says. "Do you know what else he owns? He owns this house."

    Ruchel dismisses this. "I don't believe you."

    "When we went up to the lake I squashed the tire on my bike," says Chani.

    "Sh. We'll talk about it later," Isaac tells her. Drowsily he leans back in his chair. Across from him Malki cuts her blintz and Ruchel chatters about bicycle pumps.

    "Cecil Birnbaum brought his wife up," Elizabeth tells Isaac. Cecil is the Brooklyn College professor who summers across the street. "And do you remember Regina from Los Angeles?"

    "Cecil's sister."

    "She came up for the week. She's having a wedding reception for Cecil and Beatrix tomorrow. His wife's name is Beatrix."

    "Cecil and Beatrix Birnbaum," Isaac says, trying out the names.

    "Yes. I said we'd come."

    "We'll see," says Isaac. He can barely keep his eyes open.

    Isaac goes to bed right after dinner, and Elizabeth tucks in the children and washes the dishes alone. The candles are burning down in the little silver travel candlesticks. Elizabeth wipes the crumbs off the counter and then walks out onto the front porch stacked with bicycles. The house, small and close, is filled with the rhythmic breathing of Isaac and the children, but the air outside is cold, and it wakes her. She peers through the thick maple leaves, trying to glimpse the stars. What are they dreaming about inside? Blackberries and poodles, speckled newts, "The Twelve Dancing Princesses" in Ruchel's Red Fairy Tale Book. Are her daughters now tiptoeing down the secret staircase to the enchanted lake? Perhaps now they are dreaming of the silver wood with the trees spangled in silver, and the golden wood where the trees are spangled with gold, and at last the diamond wood where the trees are hung with drops of diamonds. They are wearing out their shoes dancing. Elizabeth had loved that story when she was a child, and the idea that there are secret forests where you can become someone else.

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Introduction

The questions, discussion topics, and author biography that follow are intended to enhance your group's reading of Allegra Goodman's Kaaterskill Falls. We hope they will enrich your understanding of this wonderful novel of faith, families, and ancient tradition—a story of passionate love and passionate conflict that confirms Goodman as one of the singular writers of her generation.

It is the summer of 1976. In the beautiful country of upstate New York lies Kaaterskill, a tiny town where Jewish Orthodox summer people and Yankee year-rounders live side by side from June to August. Elizabeth Shulman, mother of five daughters, needs a project of her own outside her cloistered community. Across the street, Andras Melish cannot overcome the ambivalence he feels toward his own children and his beautiful young wife. At the top of the hill, Rav Elijah Kirshner is nearing the end of his life, and he struggles to decide which of his sons should succeed him. Behind the scenes, alarmed as his beloved Kaaterskill is overdeveloped by the local real estate broker, Judge Miles Taylor keeps an old secret in check, biding his time...

Within this community Allegra Goodman weaves magic. From first word that she was at work on her debut novel, a genuine buzz began to build as the literary community awaited her results. Met with universal acclaim, Kaaterskill Falls, a national bestseller, fulfilled the promise and became a finalist for the National Book Award.

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Foreword

1. The community of the Kirschners takes everything the Rav Elijah says to be the final word in how they live their lives—and treats him as someone very close to God. Does the Rav see himself that way?

2. Why do the members of this orthodox community stay so close to the teachings of Rav Elijah—even when they go against their own inclinations or desires? What is so important to them about this community?

3. Why is Elizabeth so dependent on Isaac's support to open her store? If she could have seen the Rav by herself, would she still need Isaac's blessing?

4. Why is Isaac so ready to support Elizabeth in a new job—after her store has been shut down and she gives birth? What does this say about the way he views her—and her role in their family?

5. Andras and Nina's marriage was also of their own choice, yet it has been unhappy for many years. Why?

6. How has Andras's relationship with his sisters both helped and harmed him over the years? Was he too dependent on them to become a true part of his own family—with his wife and children?

7. Jeremy has been a confirmed bachelor throughout his adult life. How much of that is out of rebellion to his family and community?

8. Isaiah's wife, Rachel, is more vocal about the Rav's mistreatment of her husband. Her ambitions for her husband are high—but she still holds the position of Rav in reverence. How can she respect someone she's so angry with? How does she reconcile those feelings—or does she?

9. How are Cecil's rebellions—marrying Beatrix, speaking out for Zionism, having a naming ceremony for his daughter—different from Jeremy's? Why dopeople accept his behavior more readily than Jeremy's, and why is he happier?

10. Elizabeth and her daughter Chani are both rebelling against the conventions of the community in their own ways. Will this make it easier on Chani if she decides to go to Israel?

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Reading Group Guide

1. The community of the Kirschners takes everything the Rav Elijah says to be the final word in how they live their lives—and treats him as someone very close to God. Does the Rav see himself that way?

2. Why do the members of this orthodox community stay so close to the teachings of Rav Elijah—even when they go against their own inclinations or desires? What is so important to them about this community?

3. Why is Elizabeth so dependent on Isaac's support to open her store? If she could have seen the Rav by herself, would she still need Isaac's blessing?

4. Why is Isaac so ready to support Elizabeth in a new job—after her store has been shut down and she gives birth? What does this say about the way he views her—and her role in their family?

5. Andras and Nina's marriage was also of their own choice, yet it has been unhappy for many years. Why?

6. How has Andras's relationship with his sisters both helped and harmed him over the years? Was he too dependent on them to become a true part of his own family—with his wife and children?

7. Jeremy has been a confirmed bachelor throughout his adult life. How much of that is out of rebellion to his family and community?

8. Isaiah's wife, Rachel, is more vocal about the Rav's mistreatment of her husband. Her ambitions for her husband are high—but she still holds the position of Rav in reverence. How can she respect someone she's so angry with? How does she reconcile those feelings—or does she?

9. How are Cecil's rebellions—marrying Beatrix, speaking out for Zionism, having a naming ceremony for his daughter—different from Jeremy's? Why do people accept his behavior more readily than Jeremy's, and why is he happier?

10. Elizabeth and her daughter Chani are both rebelling against the conventions of the community in their own ways. Will this make it easier on Chani if she decides to go to Israel?

Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 7 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 7 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted April 30, 2007

    An excellent book

    Allegra writes some of the most complex and interesting characters I've ever read. I loved the book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 2, 2005

    Subtle extrodinary story

    This book is not a page turner, yet I tore through this book over the weekend. It is a delicate story of a group of Jews that have similar observances and cultural practices as orthodox Jews. One reviewer complains there may be no tense climaxes, but there is great character development and the characters do have their own struggles, joys, and woes to work through. A brilliant story and a gentle relaxing novel to read.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 29, 2002

    Interesting, but not memorable

    There is a lot going on in this novel. A careful study of orthodox Jewish values; an almost biblical study of the relationship between father and sons; a woman's quest to realize personal goals; the struggle to maintain the sanctity of a community (both religious and not) - to grapple with these many ideas, the author introduces a Dickensian-list of characters. Some of these portraits are stronger (especially the description of Renee and her non-Jewish friend), but too often, the reader feels that only the surface is touched upon, and wants to know more. In this story, the parts are not greater than the whole.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 22, 2000

    An excellent read with information on the Jewish religion.

    This was an excellent read in the fact that the author puts you into the life of a Jewish community. Although the plot was not exciting the story held me because I was in a situation and life that I had never been into before. This book will make you think and feel things differently even long after you have put it down.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 12, 2000

    Six Characters in Search of a Plot

    This is probably the longest short story you'll ever read, but a novel it is not. There is no plot, no climax, no resolution, no dramatic tension, just a few interesting characters, just not the ones who hang around long enough to move the story along. About 100 pages from the end I ran into a member of my book club who had finished the book and asked her if anything was going to be resolved by the end. I promise not to spoil the ending for anyone ...if only there were one to spoil.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 19, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted July 7, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

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