A Profound Posthumous Novel from a Very Late Bloomer

Jerusalem as a Second Language, Distelheim’s second novel, is out from Audbade on September 29, 2020 but sadly, Distelheim died on June 1 and didn’t get to savor the praise that is sure to come for her sophomore effort. If Sadie created a rosy, nostalgic glow, this second novel is closer in time—and mood—to the present.  The year is 1998. The old Soviet Union is dead, and the new Russia is awash in corruption and despair. Manya and Yuri Zalinikov, secular Jews—he, a gifted mathematician recently dismissed from the Academy; she, a concert pianist—sell black market electronics in a market stall, until threatened with a gun by a mafioso in search of protection money. Yuri sinks into a Chekhovian melancholy, emerging to announce that he wants to “live as a Jew” in Israel. Manya and their daughter, Galina, are bewildered by his choice but follow him across the world to a place they don’t believe will ever feel like home.

Thus begins their odyssey—part tragedy, part comedy, always surprising. Struggling against loneliness, and unfamiliar language, and danger,  Yuri finds a Talmudic teacher equally addicted to religion and luxury; Manya finds a job playing the piano at The White Nights supper club, owned by a wealthy, flamboyant Russian with a murky past. Galina, enrolled at Hebrew University, finds dance clubs and pizza emporiums and a string of young men, one of whom Manya hopes will save her from the Israeli army by marrying her.  As they stumble and shamble along, the Zalinikovs confront the thin line between religious faith and skepticism, as they try to answer: what does it mean to be fully human, what does it mean to be Jewish?

Although Distelheim published only two novels, she wasn’t short on accomplishments.  A woman who described language and writing as her “oxygen,” she earned numerous short story literary awards, including The Katherine Anne Porter Prize; Illinois Arts Council Literary Awards and Fellowships; The Ragdale Foundation Fellowships; The Faulkner Society Gold Medal in Novel; The Gival Press 2017 Short Story Competition; Finalist, Glimmer Train’s Emerging Writers; and The Salamander Second Prize in Short Story. In addition, her short stories have earned nominations for The Best American Short Stories and The PushCart Press Prize.

As early as grade school, a ten year-old Rochelle knew that some day she would write a novel. She honed her skills writing for her school newspapers from grade school onward to Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, where she earned a Bachelor of Science degree, and wrote a column about college life for the local newspaper. After college, she worked in advertising.

Later, while she married and raising three children, she continued writing short stories and opinion pieces. Eager to refine her craft, she joined a weekly writers’ group that sustained her throughout her life.  This was the during the tumultuous 60’s, a decade of change. The Women’s Movement was gaining momentum, and the National Organization for Women was formed. After attending NOW’s first meeting in the Chicago suburbs, and raising her hand a few times too many, she was elected President. Empowered, and eager to be published, Distilheim convinced the editor of her suburban newspaper to let her write a weekly column, “The Liberated Woman.”

In the 70’s, she returned to school and earned an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Illinois. Shortly thereafter, she sold a story to McCall’s Magazine.  Soon she was flying around the country covering a wide range of “women’s stories” for McCall’s and other national magazines, such as Good Housekeeping, Ladies Home Journal, Glamour, Working Woman, and Working Mother.  Prior to Aubade’s purchase of Sadie in Love, Joyce and Byrne Piven, co-Directors of The Piven Theater in Evanston, Illinois, created a musical theater piece, Love Knots, based on the novel. Love Knots ran every weekend for an entire summer to standing-room-only audiences.

It would seem that Jerusalem as a Second Language is destined for acclaim as well—it received both the William Faulkner Gold Medal for Novel-in-Progress and the William Faulkner Gold Medal for Novel.  Though shot through with humor, the themes it grapples with are serious and abiding ones and readers will no doubt appreciate both its light tone and its unexpected depth.

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