In Sick­ness and in Health / Yom Kip­pur in a Gym

  • Review
By – March 20, 2024

This new book by award-win­ning writer Nora Gold is com­posed of two novel­las: In Sick­ness and in Health and Yom Kip­pur in a Gym.

In Sick­ness and in Health is an intro­spec­tive nar­ra­tive writ­ten in the sec­ond per­son. It fol­lows five days in the life of a woman named Lily, who suf­fers from an undi­ag­nosed ail­ment that leaves her bedrid­den for near­ly a week every month. Despite the seri­ous­ness of Lily’s ill­ness — and the stress she feels as a result of doc­tors being unable to deter­mine exact­ly what is wrong with her — Gold writes about this pain with a sense of humor. When­ev­er Lily has a series of awful sick days and can’t get out of bed, her mind goes down a rab­bit hole: she assumes that her hus­band is hav­ing an affair with his female col­league, who often comes to their house for work meet­ings. She is cer­tain that her hus­band is hid­ing things from her, and, to express this anger, Lily learns how to say ridicu­lous curs­es and angry phras­es in oth­er lan­guages. She regur­gi­tates them in a list, momen­tar­i­ly light­en­ing the seri­ous­ness of her con­di­tion. Then, as soon as she regains her strength and health, she real­izes that her wor­ries were ridiculous.

Because Lily’s ill­ness comes and goes reg­u­lar­ly, she describes feel­ing like two dif­fer­ent peo­ple who can­not coex­ist: It’s as if there are two of you: the healthy, nor­mal you, and the sick abnor­mal you, and nev­er the twain shall meet … when­ev­er you are sick, you can­not under­stand, or even recall, what the healthy you felt like, or thought, or want­ed — and vice-ver­sa. You watch the oth­er like observ­ing a com­plete stranger.” Gold writes clear­ly about how frus­trat­ing the health care sys­tem can be, and how women’s ill­ness­es and dis­abil­i­ties often go untreat­ed. Lily describes being unable to move when she is sick — yet doc­tors don’t believe the sever­i­ty of her con­di­tion, because she appears to be back to nor­mal” when she arrives for appoint­ments: “‘Well, you’re fine right now,’ [the doc­tor] said.”

In addi­tion to explain­ing the stress that her ill­ness puts on her mar­riage and her teach­ing and art career, Lily shares details about her child­hood, which was rid­dled with bouts of seizures. Her epilep­sy influ­enced her school­ing, her rela­tion­ships, and her abil­i­ty to gain auton­o­my as she grew old­er. She strug­gled with bul­ly­ing and taunt­ing after hav­ing seizures at par­ties and in oth­er pub­lic spaces. When think­ing about the trau­mat­ic moments of her child­hood, includ­ing expe­ri­ences in which she almost died, Lily con­tem­plates how peo­ple in the present — specif­i­cal­ly her hus­band — will nev­er ful­ly get her if they don’t have a deep under­stand­ing of her child­hood strug­gles with epilepsy.

Yom Kip­pur in a Gym is com­plete­ly sep­a­rate from In Sick­ness and in Health, but it’s sim­i­lar in that it’s med­i­ta­tive and lasts a short span of time. It takes place in a com­mu­ni­ty cen­ter gym­na­si­um dur­ing the evening ser­vice on Yom Kip­pur, just before the fast ends. It’s told from the per­spec­tives of a hand­ful of char­ac­ters, whose wor­ries, pre­oc­cu­pa­tions, and secrets read­ers will empathize with. Through­out the sto­ry, these char­ac­ters hope to be for­giv­en by their com­mu­ni­ty, their fam­i­lies, G‑d, and them­selves. Tom is strug­gling to main­tain a rela­tion­ship with his sib­lings, espe­cial­ly after the death of his abu­sive father. Ira suf­fers from men­tal ill­ness and con­tem­plates sui­cide. Lucy is find­ing it dif­fi­cult to accept her husband’s Parkinson’s diag­no­sis. Ezra con­tem­plates the fail­ure of his art career, caused by a mis­take he made many years ago that he hasn’t been able to for­give him­self for.

The rab­bi reminds all the con­gre­gants that human beings were cre­at­ed in the image of G‑d, and that even though the focus of Yom Kip­pur is on repen­tance, they should also acknowl­edge [their] good qual­i­ties too” to avoid feel­ings of dis­cour­age­ment and despair. Weak and tired after a day of fast­ing, every­one is eager for the ser­vice to end. All of a sud­den, an emer­gency occurs that brings the var­i­ous nar­ra­tors togeth­er. Each char­ac­ter is thrown out of their prayers and reflec­tive thoughts and forced into a moment of action, pro­pelling them to real­ize the impor­tance of com­mu­ni­ty and their indi­vid­ual roles in it.

Both of Gold’s novel­las are cre­ative and pro­vide read­ers with oppor­tu­ni­ties to think deeply about dis­abil­i­ty, ill­ness, prayer, and forgiveness.

Jamie Wendt is the author of the poet­ry col­lec­tion Fruit of the Earth (Main Street Rag, 2018), which won the 2019 Nation­al Fed­er­a­tion of Press Women Book Award in Poet­ry. Her man­u­script, Laugh­ing in Yid­dish, was a final­ist for the 2022 Philip Levine Prize in Poet­ry. Her poems and essays have been pub­lished in var­i­ous lit­er­ary jour­nals and antholo­gies, includ­ing Fem­i­nine Ris­ingGreen Moun­tains Review, Lilith, Jet Fuel Review, the For­ward, Poet­i­ca Mag­a­zine, and oth­ers. She con­tributes book reviews to Jew­ish Book Coun­cil as well as to oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, includ­ing Lit­er­ary Mama and Mom Egg Review. She has received an Hon­or­able Men­tion Push­cart Prize and was nom­i­nat­ed for Best Spir­i­tu­al Lit­er­a­ture. She holds an MFA in Cre­ative Writ­ing from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Nebras­ka Oma­ha. She is a mid­dle school Human­i­ties teacher and lives in Chica­go with her hus­band and two kids. 

Discussion Questions