For­giv­ing Max­i­mo Rothman

By – May 13, 2013

This nov­el switch­es between a detec­tive sto­ry set in present day Wash­ing­ton Heights, NYC and the com­mu­ni­ty of Sosua in the Domini­can Repub­lic in the ear­ly 1940s. Detec­tive Tolya Kurchenko is called in to solve the mur­der of Max Red­mond, an elder­ly man found dead in his apart­ment by his Do­minican maid. Max’s sur­viv­ing son, Shalom Roth­man, and his wife, Rachel, have had a dif­fi­cult rela­tion­ship with Max, though their autis­tic son Baruch spent qual­i­ty time with his grand­fa­ther. Shalom and Rachel have become very reli­gious, ba’alei teshu­va, while Max turned away from obser­vance in his younger days. Max escaped Hun­gary dur­ing the war by get­ting visas for him­self and his wife to the Domini­can Repub­lic. Pres­i­dent Tru­jil­lo opened the doors of his coun­try to Jews flee­ing East­ern Europe on con­di­tion that they set­tle and farm the land in the jun­gle, in a new­ly formed com­mu­ni­ty called Sosua.

When Tolya finds Max’s diaries he thinks he has the key to solve the mur­der case. We learn about the tragedy of Jew­ish life in Sosua through these diaries. Though the Jews of Sosua were sur­vivors giv­en a sec­ond chance, they faced much hard­ship relo­cat­ing to their new home and many of them lost most of their fam­i­ly left behind in Europe. We also read about Tolya’s child­hood in com­mu­nist Rus­sia in the 1970s. Tolya and Max both endured dif­fi­cult pasts with some sim­i­lar expe­ri­ences which help Tolya to under­stand Max and to move on in his own life. The author describes the clash­ing cul­tures of Wash­ing­ton Heights, Ortho­dox Jews and Lati­nos uneasi­ly shar­ing their neigh­bor­hood. This book is a great read with an inter­est­ing mys­tery and fas­ci­nat­ing infor­ma­tion about the lit­tle known his­to­ry of Sosua and its residents.

Miri­am Brad­man Abra­hams, mom, grand­mom, avid read­er, some­time writer, born in Havana, raised in Brook­lyn, resid­ing in Long Beach on Long Island. Long­time for­mer One Region One Book chair and JBC liai­son for Nas­sau Hadas­sah, cur­rent­ly pre­sent­ing Inci­dent at San Miguel with author AJ Sidran­sky who wrote the his­tor­i­cal fic­tion based on her Cuban Jew­ish refugee family’s expe­ri­ences dur­ing the rev­o­lu­tion. Flu­ent in Span­ish and Hebrew, cer­ti­fied hatha yoga instructor.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Berwick Court Publishing

  • Why do you think Max and Helen drift­ed apart in Sosúa? Was one of them more respon­si­ble for the break­down of their mar­riage than the other?

  • Imag­ine Tolya had found Helen’s diary instead of Max’s. How might her per­spec­tive change your under­stand­ing of their expe­ri­ence and of Sosúa in gen­er­al? Did you find your­self want­i­ng her per­spec­tive while you were reading?

  • More than just fit­ting in with the locals, Max forges a new iden­ti­ty and becomes Max­i­mo. What aspects of Max, his past and per­son­al­i­ty, con­tributed to this trans­for­ma­tion that was unique among the set­tlers? Was he try­ing to find him­self, or for­get his past?

  • It could be said that Judaism is the only con­stant set­ting of the nov­el. Why do the Jew­ish char­ac­ters all strug­gle with their own Jew­ish iden­ti­ty? Are there aspects of Judaism that con­tribute to this strug­gle for iden­ti­ty, or is this com­mon to peo­ple of all faiths? Whose rela­tion­ship with faith — or lack there­of — do you relate with most?

  • What is your take on Rachel’s jus­ti­fi­ca­tions for her actions? Did her faith and/​or cul­ture play a role, or was she just crazy?

  • Tolya’s fear of father­hood is deep and abid­ing. Are his fears rea­son­able and/​or nat­ur­al? Shalom sug­gests: Per­haps your ret­i­cence about father­hood has more to do with your actions as a son than his as a par­ent.” Is Shalom right?

  • What par­al­lels did you notice between Max, Shalom and Tolya?

  • Why does Tolya want to name the baby after Max? How did read­ing the diaries change him?

  • The kind­ness and gen­eros­i­ty of the Domini­can peo­ple toward the Jew­ish set­tlers allowed two dis­tinct cul­tures to estab­lish con­nec­tions and cre­ate a pock­et of human­i­ty. Was this rela­tion­ship built in spite of the inhu­man­i­ty both peo­ples had wit­nessed, or because of it?

  • The his­to­ry of the Sosúa set­tle­ment is unknown to most Jews and Domini­cans alike. Giv­en the exten­sive bod­ies of lit­er­a­ture, art and research focused on the Holo­caust, why do you think the sto­ry of Sosúa has received so lit­tle atten­tion? What can we gain by learn­ing about this history?

  • As the nov­el por­trays, the Jew­ish and Domini­can com­mu­ni­ties in Wash­ing­ton Heights do not co-exist as ami­ca­bly as their ances­tors did in Sosúa. Many con­flicts have arisen over the years, often stem­ming from mutu­al dis­dain and dis­trust. Why are these two com­mu­ni­ties, which share a his­to­ry of accep­tance, at odds in Man­hat­tan? Is it due to a change in their respec­tive cul­tures, or a change in their rel­a­tive circumstance?