True Lives in Israel

Nobody knows better than a psychotherapist that every one of us has a story to tell. Adaia Shumsky, an Israeli psychotherapist and educator, now retired, has listened well to her clients and students. Building on their stories, she has created a memorable novel which casts light both on individual lives and on some of the large struggles roiling Israel: Orthodox vs. secular, progressives vs. traditionalists, attitudes toward lesbians, the painful pathologies in some Holocaust families, and—perhaps most poignantly—the conflicting theories about how to raise an autistic child.

Without Shame (Xlibris Books, $21.99) features Tamar and Orli, childhood friends living in Jerusalem in the early days of statehood. The two become lovers, separate, and then reunite—after Tamar’s husband Eli, abandoning their marriage, discovers several shocking truths: his son Raz is autistic, his wife is a lesbian, and the boy he thought of as his child is the product of a one-time union of Tamar and a beloved gay childhood friend.

But, much like life itself, these stories are even more complicated. Overshadowing the narrative is the problematic relationship between Tamar and her parents, Fred and Stella, both of whom were born in Germany and fled the Nazis. Like many other survivors, Fred and Stella do not discuss their experiences. Once they learn that they are eligible for reparations, they are reluctant to accept them. Tamar eventually learns a truth that has been kept from her all her life: her grandmother was not born Jewish and she never converted; neither did Stella or Tamar. Technically, therefore, they are not Jewish. Fred comes to think that he has sinned against God by not insisting upon their conversion, telling no one except finally Tamar that it is guilt that has caused his turning to Orthodox Judaism. And he sees Tamar’s lesbianism as another “sin.”

But this is a book more about mothers than fathers. Turning from Stella’s coldness, Tamar is drawn to Orli’s mother, the earthy and artistic Carmela. And finally, there is the mother Tamar eventually becomes to Raz. She understands his autism and learns to be a substitute mother and teacher to the children in the residential facility she eventually heads.

Like Tamar and Orli, Adaia Shumsky, who is also the author of A Bridge Across the Jordan, grew up in Jerusalem during the time Israel was becoming a state. In Without Shame she has created a fitting tribute to those whose stories she has transformed into fiction.

Julia Wolf Mazow edited the Woman Who Lost Her Names and teaches adult education courses on Jewish women writers in Houston.