The Sis­ters Weiss

By – November 7, 2013

This is a riv­et­ing nov­el about a con­flict­ed young Ortho­dox Jew­ish girl grow­ing up in the late 50s in Williams­burg, Brook­lyn. She faces two prob­lems: the high­ly restric­tive rit­u­als of a rigid fam­i­ly and the con­de­scend­ing atti­tude of the Williams­burg Ortho­dox world toward girls. Her awak­en­ing and break­ing of the chains hold­ing her down is the focus of the book. Rose, the old­er of two daugh­ters, seems to become aware of gen­der prej­u­dice at the age of four when her younger sis­ter attempts to repeat the bless­ing her father is mak­ing over wine at the seder. Instead of being charmed by this three-year-old’s attempt to recite a prayer, the fam­i­ly is out­raged. Ragen explains it this way:

Had she been a boy, the sce­nario would have been quite dif­fer­ent. Per­haps one of the men would have lift­ed him up onto a stool. Per­haps Rab­bi Weiss would have allowed him to touch his arm, look­ing at him encour­ag­ing­ly, and every­one would have been delight­ed at this dis­play of ear­ly saint­li­ness on the part of a child so young and so eager to per­form a reli­gious oblig­a­tion. But as it was, it was viewed as a sign of bad char­ac­ter and even worse, bad upbring­ing, a female putting her­self in front of a room full of men in a wan­ton and naked dis­play of desire to be the cen­ter of atten­tion — an anath­e­ma to any tru­ly reli­gious girl from a tru­ly reli­gious family.”

And when she spills the wine she attempts to drink after say­ing the bless­ing, she is hit and runs to her sis­ter, whose head is cov­ered with wine. Then, when she attempts to dry it with a nap­kin, she is told it is for­bid­den to use cloth on the Sab­bath. She keeps com­plain­ing about the sticky hair she sees but to no avail. This is only one instance when the rit­u­als of a nar­row-mind­ed fam­i­ly con­tra­dict com­mon sense. 

Through­out the book, Ragen pro­vides many oth­er instances of harsh­ness based on a very nar­row view of reli­gion, such as Pearl’s hav­ing to wear thick gray tights to school start­ing at the age of six, because of mod­esty” even in 90 degree weath­er, and being expelled from school for look­ing at a book of pho­tographs deemed inap­pro­pri­ate by her par­ents and their rab­bi. She is pun­ished harsh­ly by being sent away to her grandmother’s house in a neigh­bor­hood where she knows no one and by not hav­ing her par­ents com­mu­ni­cate with her for a year. Rose ques­tions her par­ents about who is the boss over her, the rab­bi or her par­ents but to no avail. Ragen’s mem­o­ry for details of life in the 50s is incom­pa­ra­ble. She describes the way in which Rose’s love of pho­tog­ra­phy came about from a vis­it to her class­room by a bank rep­re­sen­ta­tive who explained the ben­e­fits of hav­ing a sav­ings account and dis­trib­uted a pass­book to each mem­ber of the class, along with a gift of a cam­era. In those days, banks recruit­ed peo­ple from poor neigh­bor­hoods by going into schools to encour­age the poor to save mon­ey. The con­de­scend­ing rea­son­ing behind this was that the poor wast­ed their money.

This event is the begin­ning of lib­er­a­tion for Rose. She begins tak­ing pic­tures, joins the library where she can bor­row pho­tog­ra­phy books, and secret­ly takes a pho­tog­ra­phy class at night at a uni­ver­si­ty. When this is dis­cov­ered, the fam­i­ly decides the only solu­tion to her brazen­ness is to mar­ry her off. Since she is con­sid­ered dam­aged goods, they arrange match­es with sim­ple­tons, or arro­gant males, and Rose goes along with this until she can­not bear the thought of mar­ried life with any of their choic­es and runs away the night before her arranged mar­riage. The sec­ond half of the book takes place forty years lat­er and relates Rose’s new life as a famous pho­tog­ra­ph­er, her guilt about every law she know­ing­ly breaks, and her sud­den rela­tion­ship with a niece who shows up unex­pect­ed­ly at her door and who breaks the long silence of her family.

This book is edu­ca­tion­al for those who do not know the laws of strict Ortho­dox life, as Ragen explains more than two dozen of them with­in the con­text of the nov­el. It is also riv­et­ing, as Ragen is an accom­plished sto­ry teller.

Cour­tesy of Nao­mi Ragen 
Eleanor Ehrenkranz received her Ph.D. from NYU and has taught at Stern Col­lege, NYU, Mer­cy Col­lege, and at Pace Uni­ver­si­ty. She has lec­tured wide­ly on Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture and recent­ly pub­lished anthol­o­gy of Jew­ish poet­ry, Explain­ing Life: The Wis­dom of Mod­ern Jew­ish Poet­ry, 1960 – 2010.

Discussion Questions

  1. How are Rose and Pearl brought up? What are the ele­ments you find pos­i­tive, negative?

  2. How would you describe the rela­tion­ship of the par­ents to their chil­dren? What do they expect from them? In what way is this dif­fer­ent, sim­i­lar to the way in which you were brought up?

  3. Giv­en her upbring­ing, can you envi­sion Rose’s life hav­ing turned out very dif­fer­ent­ly? In what way would this have been bet­ter for her? In what way would it have been worse?

  4. What rela­tion­ship does Rose have with the men in her life? In what way does her upbring­ing play a role in these rela­tion­ships, and in what way is it very different?

  5. How would you describe the rela­tion­ship between Rose and Pearl as chil­dren, and then as adults? In what way does this evolve, and in what way does it stay the same?

  6. How would you describe the role reli­gion plays in the way the sis­ters’ lives play out?

  7. How would you describe the role of the Kavod Har­av in this sto­ry? What do you see as the real moti­va­tion behind his behavior?

  8. In what way are Han­nah and her cousin Riv­ka the same, dif­fer­ent? In what way does their rela­tion­ship mim­ic that of their moth­ers? In what way is it different?

  9. What is Han­nah’s the­sis try­ing to say about women? In what way does it relate to the novel?

  10. How did you feel about the end­ing of this book? In what way would you have changed it? In what way did you find it satisfying?