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.
Published by The Dial Press, 1998