Charlotte Mendelson’s novel, When We Were Bad (Houghton Mifflin, $24) is a compelling depiction of a Jewish family on the verge of collapse. Rabbi Claudia Rubin is the almost-60 matriarch of a seemingly perfect family that, “everyone agrees, seems doomed to happiness.” Powerful, beautiful and brilliant, we meet her as she is poised to greet the guests for the wedding of her son Leo under the envying gaze of the community. Yet the anticipated glitter of the event quickly shifts into scandal as the groom defects at the altar, hand in hand with the wife of a local [male] rabbi, triggering a series of events that betrays any façade of functionality, and setting the Rubin clan in turmoil.
Mendelson creates a host of hugely engaging characters: desire-stricken Leo, who must choose between launching his family into permanent disrepute and denying true love; Claudia’s beleaguered husband Norman, with secrets of his own that could thwart his wife’s literary ambition; Claudia and Norman’s obedient daughter Frances, who must confront her ambivalence towards her staid husband and her own children; Emily, about to embark on an affair with a man who turns out to be… a woman; and finally Simeon, who seems incapable of emerging from a drug-induced fog.
Readers who are expecting a feminist portrait of a spiritual leader able to challenge existing religious norms will be surprised. Although unquestioningly committed to the needs of her community, Rabbi Claudia Rubin is characterized by unflinching ambition and a desperate need to keep up appearances: her lavish dinners are contrived to court the media, as well as feed the needy. With “slick dark hair like an otter, breasts and shoulders shining; too monumental to be beautiful but beautiful all the same,” she is almost unsympathetic and untouchable, even supporting her weedy son-in-law against Frances’ determined attempt to take her child. However, Claudia Rubin remains a compelling character, redeemed and made vulnerable in the end by her efforts to withhold knowledge of her spreading illness from her crumbling household. She must further embark on a particularly “English” fight, to be “sharper and surer than any man” and ward off all those who “do not want her to be successful: the competitive, the bigoted, the envious,” including “the new generation of female rabbis, unfrumpy, feminist, charming to the last… hungry to dethrone her.”
When We Were Bad also paints a convincing picture of the world of Anglo Jewry: of British Jews who persist in that “crouching self-loathing way she cannot stand.” From the congregant who ashamedly hides her tiger prawns in her shopping basket, to the vicissitudes of Brent Cross Shopping Centre and the polite anti-Semitism that, although barely perceptible, undoubtedly lurks, the novel deftly captures the flavor of North West Jewish London.
The narrative’s success — and it does succeed — is not in championing the contribution women have made to Jewish life. Many readers will have little sympathy for a rabbi who is more concerned with the scope of her own power than the emotional needs of her family. However, Mendelson has also accurately portrayed the incessant demands made on public figures which so often corrupt and exhaust. All in all, When We Were Bad is a wonderfully entertaining, witty depiction of family life which is generous, realistic, comic and clever.
Clare Hedwat is a Jewish educator who has worked in the UK, Israel and America. She is currently teaching at Beit Rabban Day School in New York.