Mazel: A Novel

Mazel: A Novel by Rebecca Goldstein, [Viking $23.95]

Do you remember how delicious it was to read E.L. Doctorow’s Ragtime? Here’s the Jewish, feminist, European-inflected equivalent–full of pleasure rather than dread, and I couldn’t put it down.

Goldstein–whose first novel, The Mind- Body Problem, I loved for its humor and its insights into the workings of brainy women always smitten by intellectual men–has given us, here, more of the women themselves. A newly religious young Princeton mathematics professor about to have her first baby. Her mother, a cerebral Columbia classics professor. Her grandmother, appearing on the scene in a newly-frum New Jersey town to await the appearance of the next generation.

It’s the grandmother who bolts us into our seats for the duration of the tale. Sasha believes in chance, not fate, and in the randomness of human events that makes for theater. She grew up in an Eastern European shtetl, imbedded in its mud as its Orthodox practices were imbedded in her own daily actions. (Saving a baby brother from drowning, she pulls at his trousers; they come off in her hand, so she immediately drops them to the ground, since it is forbidden to carry anything on Shabbos.)

And so it goes, until a sister’s tragedy, compellingly told in scenes that evoke gypsy life in the 1920’s so vividly that we can almost smell the treyf meat on the open fire, propels the family into the wider world of Warsaw. Our heroine meets her Judaized version of Auntie Mame, becomes a star of the experimental Yiddish theater and the center of a circle of European Jewish intellectuals, including (here’s the Doctorow touch), peripherally, Isaac Bashevis Singer. Sasha’s odyssey to the Upper West Side, even her waltzing at the Columbia University student sit-ins in the late 1960’s, all occur while she is trying to figure out the mazel, the luck or chance, that seems to be shaping her world.