“Combining the role of writer and mother is like swimming upstream,” writes Malka Zipora in Rather Laugh than Cry: Stories from a Hassidic Household (Véhicule Press, $15.95). Zipora is not the first to describe the balancing act faced by mothers pursuing a writing career. But what sets her apart is that she combines her creative talents with her Hasidic religious values. The daughter of Hungarian Holocaust survivors, Zipora (a pseudonym) is the mother of 12 children, ranging from nine to 30 years old.
For years, Zipora has been writing stories in local Jewish magazines in Outremont, the heart of Montreal’s Hasidic community. Her work remained unknown to the outside world until Pierre Anctil, a Canadian scholar and translator, noticed the appeal of her stories and encouraged her to publish for a diverse readership. The result is Rather Laugh Than Cry, a collection filled with warmth and humor about everything from child-rearing to making kreplach to the craft of writing.
Pulling aside the curtains into a Hasidic family’s life and making these stories accessible to a wider and non- Jewish readership is no small feat. With a French translation published earlier to critical acclaim, Zipora’s book may even be a first in Quebec, where recent debates about “reasonable accommodation” have caused tensions between the province and religious minorities, particularly on issues of government support for religious schools. Outremont is often the focus of this discussion, with its long history of clashes between Hasidim and the largely French-speaking non-Jewish population.
Zipora shows her skill as a writer when describing the essence of these cultural clashes. In “Squeezing in a Sukkah,” she reflects poignantly on Jewish and non-Jewish relations, contrasting her excitement as Sukkot approaches with the bafflement of non-Jewish neighbors as the holiday’s temporary hut-like structures crop up on front lawns.
“There is no way,” she laments while looking at a crudely built sukkah, “the neighborhood of Outremont will accept the thing as anything but trash. Eight days of this eyesore [for them] is too much.” Although tinged with sadness, the candor in Zipora’s writing is a significant step towards tackling some of the misconceptions she has observed about Hasidic life.
Some stories are driven by the author’s unshakable convictions about upholding religious tradition. “The most stable foothold is, through good times and bad,” she explains, “to cling to the tried and true values handed down to us by our parents.” In “Memories, Memorials and Shavuot,” she reflects soberly on the plight of Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust, and the triumph of preserving traditions despite terrible loss.
Zipora’s voice is compassionate, humorous, and lyrical. Rather Laugh than Cry is intriguing, because its stories are told by an insider in a community that stands apart from the rhythm of modern life.
Deborah Ostrovsky is a Montreal freelance writer. She writes for Maisonneuve Magazine (www.maisonneuve.org) and was a 2007 Literary Journalism Fellow at the Banff Centre for the Arts in Alberta.