Review of “Kaaterskill Falls” by Allegra Goodman

Kaaterskill Falls is a slice of life: a look at a tight-knit Jewish Orthodox community in the 1970’s that winters in New York’s Washington Heights and summers in a bungalow colony in Kaaterskill Falls. This group calls itself the Kirshners, after the rabbi they follow, Rav Elijah Kirshner, who escaped from Germany in the 1930’s and believes that only a disciplined, exclusionary approach to Judaism is the way to thrive in a hostile world.

As traditional as the Kirshners are, they are also forward-looking in some respects. They do not wear the sidelocks or beards as do many Orthodox Jews, and they are not prevented from interacting with the outside world as long as they exhibit a strict adherence to the rules and mores of their faith. But as the Rav ages, his rulings on community affairs have become more conservative and restrictive. And yet there is still joy in his followers. There are ritual celebrations and the comfort of prayer, and the comfort of always knowing your place in the world (and the world to come).

Nevertheless, it felt a bit frustrating to read about the Kirshners, especially the position of women, who must cut their hair and wear wigs or scarves when they marry, who must sit behind a curtain during religious services, and who are basically consigned to a life of child-bearing, cooking, and living in obeisance to the men.

Goodman’s portrayal is detailed and evocative; we come to know what life is like in all its domestic and social particulars for this reclusive group of people. And some of the characters are not as religious as others, but because they are related by family, they are accepted (albeit reluctantly) by the Kirshners.

The main focus of the book is Elizabeth Schulman, a 34-year-old mother of five girls who ardently wishes to be more than what her lot in life has assigned her. Elizabeth’s oldest daughter, 12-year-old Chani, dreams of going to Israel, the existence of which is not acknowledged by the Kirshners. (The Kirshners, like some Orthodox Jews, do not accept Israel “with its atheist socialists.” They wait for the “perfect” Israel when the Temple has been restored; when only Hebrew, the holy language, is spoken; and when there has been a “transformation of all the lives in every place in the world.”) We also get to know Rav Kirshner, who is old and dying, and his two sons: Jeremy – the intellectual, and Isaiah – more stolid and obedient. Jeremy is not married, but Isaiah is married to Rachel, ambitious for Isaiah and jealous and judgmental about others. One of the sons will presumably be the Rav’s “heir” in the Kirshner religious dynasty, as is common in Orthodox communities. Another character, Andras Melish, is more secular than his neighbors or even his South American wife, but is a part of the Kirshners largely because of his emotional dependence on his religious sisters, Eva and Maja. His daughter Renee, a teen, longs for excitement, and thinks she has found it with a Syrian Maronite Catholic friend who lives in the town. From all these different characters and more we learn about life among the Orthodox.

Evaluation: This is an ongoing story that doesn’t really come to a resolution. It’s not earth-shaking, but it’s a period portrait for us to observe. It has been compared to a novel of manners similar to those of Jane Austen, and I don’t find that to be an unwarranted observation. Goodman’s writing is just fine, and the book was a National Book Award Finalist.

Rating: 3/5

Published by The Dial Press, 1998

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14 Responses to Review of “Kaaterskill Falls” by Allegra Goodman

  1. diane says:

    This is one on my wish list as a read a few post where the readers loved it. Sorry it was just ok for you.

  2. bermudaonion says:

    I love the premise of the story, but I do like some kind of resolution to my books. I’ll have to think about this one.

  3. Steph says:

    I admit, this book doesn’t appeal to me at all, BUT I think Goodman is a fantastic writer. I read her book Intuition a few years ago and really loved it. I highly recommend it!

  4. Frances says:

    I had much the same “eh’ reaction to this one. As you state, the writing was fine, skilled but I think the subject matter became so trying for me that I had a hard time staying with it.

  5. Sandy says:

    I think I would be stoned to death if I had to live under these rules. I can be a stubborn little you-know-what sometimes. And even though it would be interesting to read about how these women live, I would want to rip my hair out.

  6. Julie P. says:

    I had the chance to see Ms. Goodman at the National Book Festival last weekend but ended up missing her. I’ve only read THE COOKBOOK COLLECTOR, but this does sound interesting.

  7. Meg says:

    I saw Allegra Goodman speak at the National Book Festival last weekend and was really interested in her stories of Jewish life, a theme which seems to run through her books! The Cookbook Collector has been recommended to me several times, and I have a feeling I would like that one a little more than Kaaterskill Falls.

  8. Jenners says:

    It seems like the type of book that you have to be interested in the topic first for you to really get into it. That is my guess.

  9. Trisha says:

    I adore that cover for some reason; it’s oddly appealing. Books where the women are so seriously subjugated are either painfully frustrating or evocative. It sounds like this falls into the evocative category!

  10. Trisha says:

    Wow, I totally meant the frustrating category, but my fingers got the best of me and I wrote evocative…..

  11. Margot says:

    I like stories of groups of people like this, sort of like a sociological study. Groups like this can have restrictive rules but they forget about human nature’s need to express themselves. The author is new to me but I’m going to have to check her out.

  12. Will add to my tbr list, thanks!

  13. Staci says:

    I’ve never heard of this one until I read your thoughts on it. I adore Austen and wonder about the comparison. This might be one I would pick up and read one day.

  14. Hmm…this one sounds interesting, but I think the lack of resolution would bother me. Thanks for the warning.

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