Allegra Goodman: ‘Kaaterskill Falls’

Kaaterskill Falls reminded me a lot of The Outside World by Tova Mirvis, which I blogged about recently. They deal with Modern Orthodox and Orthodox Jews from New York and their diverse personal relationships with religion and their small community. But much of this book was centered outside the city, in the upstate New York town of Kaaterskill Falls, where community congregates for the summer. The book takes place in the late 1970s.

As books with many characters usually are, it was a bit hard to get into. It jumps from one character to another frequently, and is much easier to follow once you have them all down. Like The Outside World, everyone is struggling with their Jewishness–whether they’re trying to live a more Jewish life or feel the urge to explore outside their community. In fact, “the outside world” is mentioned a few times. There’s a scene where a man named Isaac is listening to his new head rabbi, the “Rav” speak: “There is a sense in which Isaac expects his Rav to be a soldier and to maintain a defense against the outside world.”

It’s a harsh view this Rav has. “There is no room for compromise, there is no sustenance outside the community,” he tells his congregants.

In both books, we especially see the struggles of the women. In Kaaterskill Falls, we see the suffocating gender roles through Elizabeth, who has a sixth child, a sixth girl. “She feels it more than she used to, the difficulty with girls, the confining of expectations. The difficulty that they are expected to be careful always and responsible, practical, nothing more.”

I think the severity of this way of life is what has drawn authors to explore its boundaries in fiction. But Orthodox Jews aren’t the only ones who struggle with the community they’ve been born into. Whether it’s religion, geography, economics or politics, most of us at some point assess our inherited place in life and what we want or are willing to do about it. For some people that may be nothing–you might be perfectly happy following the footsteps of those before you. Or maybe you divorced yourself of everything about the way you were raised when you were 18.

I think I’ve weaved in and out of the lines of how I was brought up in small ways. I grew up in Boston, but have lived in other states, the farthest being California. Then again, I’m back to where I started now, in Boston. I wouldn’t say I’ve veered too far from what I know in terms of religion or politics, but I have struggled with my own definitions of these things. Being in a serious relationship with someone of another religion was a big deal for me, and ultimately it didn’t work out.

Whether we end up where we began, or in a different time zone (literally or figuratively) I think it’s important to evaluate what our beliefs are, and whether they align with what we were told growing up. In what ways do you struggle to stay within or to reach beyond the invisible lines that have been drawn in your life?

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