Jerusalem as a Second Language by Rochelle Distelheim #BookReview #BlogTour #Aubade #OverTheRiverPR #4*

It is 1998. The old Soviet Union is dead, and the new Russia is awash in corruption and despair. 

Manya and Yuri Zalinikov, secular Jews — he, a gifted mathematician recently dismissed from the Academy; she, a talented concert pianist — sell black market electronics in a market stall, until threatened with a gun by a mafioso in search of protection money. Yuri sinks into a Chekhovian melancholy, emerging to announce that he wants to “live as a Jew” in Israel. Manya and their daughter, Galina, are desolate, asking, “How does one do that, and why?”

And thus begins their odyssey — part tragedy, part comedy, always surprising. Struggling against loneliness, language, and danger, in a place Manya calls “more cousin’s club than country,” Yuri finds a Talmudic teacher equally addicted to religion and luxury; Manya finds a job playing the piano at The White Nights supper club, owned by a wealthy, flamboyant Russian with a murky history, who offers lust disguised as love. Galina, enrolled at Hebrew University, finds dance clubs and pizza emporiums and a string of young men, one of whom Manya hopes will save her from the Israeli Army by marrying her.

Against a potpourri of marriage wigs, matchmaking television shows, disastrous investment schemes, and a suicide bombing, the Zalinikovs confront the thin line between religious faith and skepticism, as they try to answer: What does it mean to be fully human, what does it mean to be Jewish? And what role in all of this does the mazel gene play?

Both Interesting & Entertaining!

There is no doubt that the late Rochelle Distelheim is a massive loss to the writing community; this is a really interesting and informative book, with a good splash of humour!

Manya and Yuri Zalinikov are Russian Jews, both highly skilled in their fields. Manya is a concert pianist and Yuri, a mathematician was recently dismissed from his position and now runs a (black) market stall where the couple, along with their adult daughter, receive a sinister visit from a threatening man with a gun. Deciding to leave their Russian home, Yuri decides to take the family to Israel, where they can freely practice their faith. Manya and Galina aren’t quite so convinced that all their problems will be solved by moving to Jerusalem but, nevertheless, they set out. That’s only the beginning of their journey, they have so much more to experience and suffer – not without a few laughs along the way!

This is a culture I thought I knew nothing about up until now, but this novel is bursting at the seams with lots of interesting details – some were vaguely familiar, others completely new. This isn’t a candy-coated tale; rather it’s an honest version of each member of the family struggling to fit in with a different way of practising their faith, in a new country where they should communicate in a different language to the one they are used to. I’m not sure how well I would fare doing the same, although I’d like to think I’d give it a good go! (Certainly my daughter embraced another culture and a second language easily.) Manya is a strong character, beautifully portrayed and I sympathised with her often. Yuri was shown as a bit stubborn, but trying to do the best for everyone and Galina was just being young! Their experiences make for a very entertaining read and I really have learned an awful lot about things new to me. A very worthwhile read which I’m happy to give four stars, and a recommendation to those happy to embrace new cultures through books.

My thanks to Midas PR for providing my copy and my spot on this tour; this is – as always – my honest, original and unbiased review.

Tags: Jewish fiction

Author Bio

Rochelle, who described language and writing as her “oxygen,” earned numerous short story literary awards, including The Katherine Anne Porter Prize; Illinois Arts Council Literary Awards and Fellowships; The Ragdale Foundation Fellowships; The Faulkner Society Gold Medal in Novel; The Gival Press 2017 Short Story Competition; Finalist, Glimmer Train’s Emerging Writers; and The Salamander Second Prize in Short Story. In addition, Rochelle’s short stories have earned nominations for The Best American Short Stories and The PushCart Press Prize.

As early as grade school, a ten year-old Rochelle knew that some day she would write a novel. Eight decades later, with the release of Sadie in Love, that dream has come true.

Rochelle honed her skills writing for her school newspapers from grade school onward to Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, where she earned a Bachelor of Science degree, and wrote a column about college life for the local newspaper. After college, Rochelle worked in advertising. Later, married and raising three children, she continued writing short stories and opinion pieces. Always eager to improve her craft, Rochelle joined a weekly writers’ workshop that she still attends. This was the 60’s, a decade of change. The Women’s Movement was gaining momentum, and the National Organization for Women was formed. After attending NOW’s first meeting in the Chicago suburbs, and raising her hand a few times too many, she was elected President. Empowered, and eager to be published, Rochelle convinced the editor of her suburban newspaper to let her write a weekly column, “The Liberated Woman.” In addition, Rochelle wrote satirical “Liberated Women-themed” poems, many of which were published in national magazines.

In the 70’s, Rochelle returned to school and earned an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Illinois. Shortly thereafter, she sold a story to McCall’s Magazine, catching the attention of one of McCall’s non-fiction editors. Soon Rochelle was flying around the country covering a wide range of “women’s stories” for McCall’s and other national magazines, such as Good Housekeeping, Ladies Home Journal, Glamour, Working Woman, and Working Mother.

Prior to Aubade’s purchase of Sadie in Love, Joyce and Byrne Piven, co-Directors of The Piven Theater in Evanston, Illinois, created a musical theater piece, Love Knots, based on Rochelle’s novel. Love Knots ran every weekend for an entire summer to standing-room-only audiences.

Rochelle lived in Highland Park and has three adult daughters. She loved the theatre, ballet, and owned an art gallery, The Distelheim Galleries, on Oak Street in Chicago with her late husband. Rochelle died in June 2020, aged 92.

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