NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FINALIST • A NEW YORK TIMES NOTABLE BOOK
It is 1976. And the tiny upstate New York town of Kaaterskill Falls is bustling with summer people in dark coats, fedoras, and long, modest dresses. Living side by side with Yankee year-rounders, they are the disciples of Rav Elijah Kirshner.
Elizabeth Shulman is a restless wife and mother of five daughters; her imagination transcends her cloistered community. Across the street Andras Melish is drawn to Kaaterskill by his adoring older sisters. Comforted, yet crippled by his sisters’ love, he cannot overcome the ambivalence he feels toward his own children and his young wife. At the top of the hill, Rav Kirshner is nearing the end of his life. As he struggles to decide which of his sons should succeed him—the pious but stolid Isaiah or the brilliant but rebellious Jeremy—his followers wrestle with their future and their past.
With this community, Allegra Goodman weaves magic. The nationally bestselling author of The Family Markowitz crafts a tale of family and tradition—one that confirms this author’s place as a virtuoso of her generation.
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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."
Reading Group Guide
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.
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?