“Holy Lands” by Amanda Sthers— To Love and Accept

Sthers, Amanda. “Holy Lands”, Bloomsbury, 2019. To Love and Accept Amos Lassen I am a very lucky guy in that there are publishers that know me so well, they know exactly what kind of books to send me. I used to laugh about how in Israel pigs are raised even though eating pork is a violation of Jewish dietary laws. What the pig farmers do is fix the stys on wooden platforms so that the pigs’ feet will not touch the holy ground. Now I am not exactly sure how to define the term holy ground because I am sure that in the centuries that the ground has existed, it has been touched by something that has violated the dietary laws. Anyway… this is “a witty, heartwarming, and heart-wrenching epistolary novel, soon to be a major motion picture starring James Caan, Rosanna Arquette, and Jonathan Rhys Meyers.” It is about a dysfunctional family (led by a Jewish pig farmer in Israel)  that is struggling to love and accept each other. (Now throw in a gay Jewish character and you got me). What I find so amazing in this little book of just 160 pages is that it is both very moving and highly humorous at the same time. Basically we read about an estranged family of colorful eccentrics. There is the patriarch, Harry Rosenmerck, an aging Jewish cardiologist who has left his thriving medical practice in New York to raise pigs in Israel. His ex-wife, Monique dwells on their once happy marriage even as she is quietly at war with an aggressive illness. Their son, David is an earnest and successful playwright who has vowed to reconnect with his father since coming out. Annabelle, their daughter, finds herself in Paris with no direction as she deals with the aftermath of a breakup. Harry does not like technology and the only way the family communicates is via snail mail. Their correspondence is fun to read and we see them grappling with challenges as they really go at each other. The book wonderfully captures an a dult family in all og its poignancy and craziness. Here is a family that strives to be connected even though they all have different and radical perspectives on life. The dialogue and the jokes are caustic and gentle and deal with important topics such as Israel’s militarized security, Jewish identity, and the dysfunction of Harry’s family. Writer Sthers manages to keep it balanced between sensitivity and ribald humor. We are irreverently and endearingly reminded that “blood is thicker than water.” Those of you who are familiar with Jewish humor know that it is laced with “ironic taunts, familial reprimands, and cries from the heart”. Each of the letters we read in this novel has a new secret in it each of the letters that form this gripping novel reveals a new secret or asks a new question on the topics of sex, love, friendship, religion and/or connection. We also realize that conciliation is best when based on truth and that the letters we write are intense whether we mean for them to be so or not. Each character goes through life-altering experiences as they question crucial matters of religion, morality, inheritance, compassion, and love. “Holy Lands” is set in Nazereth, Israel (because today it is one of the few places in Israel where pigs can be raised) and New York City, Marrakesh and Paris. The characters move  between places but as individuals and not as  a family. They simply do not get along like many other many other families. The inability to communicate in modern terms is tearing the Rosenmerck family apart more than it is already. The parents are divorced parents and the two adult children are somewhat caricatures of today’s dysfunctional family members. David who is gay and brilliant has problems communicating with his father who has practically disowned him (I resemble that remark). Annabelle is the 30 year old “child”, who goes through life not wanting to settle down and become an adult. We see characters like these in almost every book about dysfunctional families but we have something a bit extra here and that is “being the child of a father-who-has-a-pig-farm-in-Israel can’t be too helpful to family dynamics…”
The novel is written in the form of letters and messages among family members and others. It is set in the spring of 200 and the  idea of a pig farm in the Holy Land, where many people won’t eat pork or ham sets the backdrop. Harry receives many letters from a local rabbi concerning the pigs, the morality of having the pig farm, and so on. Then there is Harry’s son David who is gay and there is some confusion, particularly on Harry’s part about accepting David as he is. This is a family that does nothing together and cannot seem to do anything together.

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