Sara Smolinsky is a young Jewish immigrant living in a poor area of New York City with her family in the early 20th century. Her father, a scholar of the Torah, rules his house like a “tyrant more terrible than the Tsar from Russia,” using quotes from scripture to justify his every decision and personal belief (on women being allowed admittance into Heaven: “Only if they cooked for men, and washed for men, and didn’t nag and curse the men out of their homes, only if they let the men study the Torah in peace, then, maybe, they could push themselves into heaven with the men, to wait on them there.”).
Sara’s three sisters are weak-willed in the face of their father’s tyranny and bend eventually to his desires (mostly concerning marriage), and as Sara grows up in this environment, she deeply senses the unfairness and the cruelty of her father and sees the unhappiness that stems from his decisions. While she is a good, hardworking, (mostly) dutiful (she has a habit of back talk) daughter, she finally finds the strength to break free from her father’s reign and his Old World values and attempt to transition into a daughter of the New World, an educated woman, not in fear of being labeled an old maid.
Skimming through the introduction, I learned that this novel is partially autobiographical, which I had assumed, but had had doubts about it. I never really connected with Sara. Of course I wanted her to achieve her dreams, but I never doubted she would escape her father and find her place in the world. And I cringed at a great number of things her father said to his family. But these characters never felt real to me, I couldn’t feel them breathing, they were predictable and almost stock-like. Perhaps this is because of the over saturation of these types of tales in society today: parents are unreasonable and stuck in their own ways, so child rebels and starts out on his or her own. Perhaps it’s because I’m not Jewish or very well versed in that culture. (However, I can see that this novel would lend itself particularly well to a teaching setting, from middle school up.)