“On Division: A Novel” by Goldie Goldbloom— Looking In

Goldbloom, Goldie. “On Division: A Novel”,  Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019.

Looking In

Amos Lassen

Goldie Goldbloom’s “On Division” is a  rare look inside Brooklyn’s Chasidic community”. Surie Eckstein who is soon to be a great-grandmother in Williamsburg, Brooklyn where she lives on Division Avenue. She is mother to ten children who range in age from thirteen to thirty-nine. Her in-laws are postwar immigrants from Romania and live on the first floor of their house. Her daughter Tzila Ruchel lives on the second floor and on the third floor live Surie and Yidel, her husband who is a scribe in such high demand that he only writes a few Torah scrolls a year. They married when Surie was sixteen and have had a good and happy marriage and full lives. Now, at the ages of fifty-seven and sixty-two, they are looking forward to spend some quiet time together.

But that does not look like it will happen since Surie is pregnant again and at her age, pregnancy is thought to be “an aberration, a shift in the proper order of things, and a public display of private life.”  Suddenly Surie feels exposed and ashamed and she is unable to tell anyone the news, not even her husband. Her secret slowly separates her from the community.

Here is her story and we see that she is experiencing a new beginning during middle age. This is  also  a look at the dynamics of self and collective identity as we look at an insular community. But that is not all. Surie’s secret becomes enmeshed with another, earlier secret—about her son Lipa, who is gay.

Not only is Surie, a wife, mother, grandmother, and great grandmother, she is an upstanding citizen in her community where conformity is the only way of life. She knows that her friends and neighbors will turn their backs on her and her children if anybody finds out that she is pregnant and she doesn’t know how to tell her husband the news and fears the results when he finds out. 

As we learn about Surie, we also learn about the strengths and weaknesses of the Chassidic community. Goldie Goldbloom shares this with us and she does so with dignity and respect. I found it interesting that pregnancy which is usually seen as a blessing is seen here as something else. A woman in Surie’s position is bound to have to deal with unpleasantries because of it.  

This is the story of a woman’s struggle for her identity as she deals with family secrets, cultural expectations and gender roles. It is the story of Suri a 57 year old woman from Brooklyn’s strict Chasidic Jewish sect. Suri lives a life that is fairly regimented and revolves around structure built by her religious beliefs and customs. When  we learn the Suri is pregnant, well past menopause, we understand what she must deal with and because of her age and the fact that she is carrying two babies, yes twins, she is high risk. This means that she must visit the clinic every week. During these visits, she develops relationships with the staff of the clinic even though her culture forbids her to do so. She eventually begins to volunteer first as a translator and then as an assistant to midwives and she finds great happiness in this.  She still manages to hide the news of her pregnancy from her husband and her family. In fact she puts the fact that she is pregnant in the back of her mind and allows past issues in the family come forward.

Surie knows  it  is selfish for her to want to keep the babies because, bringing them into the world will bring shame on her family and expose the private intimacy she shares with her husband. (After all, women in their 50’s do not have sex?).

There are no options. She becomes close to Val, a midwife who was actually present at the birth of all of Surie’s children. This  bond allows Val a chance to see the  Chassidic community close up, and it allows Surie to step away from her community for the first time.

I love that writer Goldbloom uses great detail to describe life in the community as well as the celebrations of the Jewish holidays. Along with that  we see how those who do not fit into the demands of the community are regarded. Community can be both a comfort and it can also cause fear and if there is something important to be learned from the entertaining read that the book provides is that we all must be open to and accepting of others and to live your life within a ghetto is not to live a full life.

I so enjoyed this book and it brought back so many memories of how I was raised. “On Division” covers many topics from religion and love, loss and families, marriage and traditions and the choices we make. The scenes of Surie with her son Lipa are heart wrenching and beautiful.
The characters live according to the many rules and regulations that have been handed down in her sect for generations. They live by the same rules that did their ancestors and there is poignant beauty in that.

What is really interesting is that Goldbloom lives on Chicago’s North Side near Skokie, and has eight children, most of whom are now adults. Her children swore her to secrecy when she decided to become a writer and she is not allowed to write stories about them or speak about them to the press. Originally from a farm in Australia, she says that the reason she stayed in Chicago is because she likes Lake Michigan and she loves the “wonderfully kind and funny and real Midwesterners.”

Aside from writing, Goldbloom works for queer visibility in the Chicago Chasidic community. She says, “I am the only out queer person that I know who is still living a Chasidic life in the community.” “Queer Orthodox Jews with unaccepting families face a loss of God, hope and community.”

The novel affected me deeply,probably because I identified with so much in it. When I tell people how I grew up living like that,  they are stunned that I indeed got through it and that I am willing to talk about it. We the joy of belonging to a community as well as the feelings of frustration at its rules and laws. Goldbloom explores complicated questions about community and individuality and she does so with great wit, humor and sensitivity.

Surie grabbed me early on and I could tell she was not going to let go. I laughed with her and I ached with her and felt the pains of being included and excluded, the wonders and joys of tradition, and the difficulties of coming to terms with oneself. This is “a novel of wisdom and uncertainty, of love in its greater and lesser forms, and of the struggle between how it should be and how it is.” ―Amy Bloom, author of “White Houses”.

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