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Kaaterskill Falls Paperback – August 10, 1999

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Editorial Reviews Review

Allegra Goodman's remarkable first novel intertwines the stories of three Orthodox Jewish families, each of whom is tugged between religious tradition and the secular world. The story takes place in the upstate New York town of Kaaterskill, summer Mecca for the tightly knit Kirshner sect. Model wife and mother Elizabeth Shulman pictures her community as a sort of Mont-Saint-Michel, an island both joined and separated from the outside world as if by rising and falling tides. Fascinated with what lies on the spiritual mainland, she hides behind the reassuring rhythms of religious observance, though she's inspired with a "desire, as intense as prayer," to create something all her own.

Despite her pious husband's doubts, she does, in the form of a store catering to Kaaterskill's "summer people"--a community Goodman brings memorably to life. The Shulmans' neighbor Andras Melish, a Hungarian who fled World War II and a vanished world of assimilated European Jewry, struggles to understand his young Argentinian wife Nina, whose need for tradition grows with each passing year. The ailing Rav Kirshner must decide which son will carry on in his shoes: dutiful but plodding Isaiah or his brilliant but secular brother Jeremy. Andras and Nina's daughter befriends an Arab girl, while Elizabeth and Isaac's daughter dreams in secret of Israel. Meanwhile, the town's year-round residents observe the Orthodox newcomers with bewilderment and occasional dismay.

As she proved in a warm and funny 1996 collection of stories, The Family Markowitz, Goodman is an unparalleled observer of human nature. Here, she charts with quiet assurance the daily rhythms of Kaaterskill: the meals prepared and eaten, the Holy Days observed, the ebb and flow of married life. Goodman gets all the important details right; her children's dialogue, for instance, is unerring. Above all, however, she brings to the subject of religious life a seriousness and subtlety rarely found in recent fiction. Wise was the word used again and again to describe The Family Markowitz. Applied to Kaaterskill Falls, it is no less apt. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

The quiet wisdom expressed in this novel and the clear lucidity of its prose would make it a remarkable achievement for any writer. What is perhaps most impressive here is that its author (who wrote the praised The Family Markowitz) is only in her early 30s and has already acquired the psychological perceptiveness and philosophic composure of someone of more mature years. The world that Goodman conjures hereAa small Orthodox Jewish sect who migrate every summer with their leader, Rav Kirschner, from New York's Washington Heights to the upstate old Dutch community of KaaterskillAmay initially seem exotic and remote to most readers, but the scrupulously rendered background of religious observance is the stage on which Goodman dramatizes the universality of human behavior. Beginning her narrative in July 1976 and ending it two years later, Goodman chronicles the small oscillations in the lives of some two-dozen characters. There are other Jewish summer residents, more secular and of higher social status, whose families came to Kaaterskill before the advent of their more observant brethren. The old Yankee families watch with dismay the gradual loss of their property and the town's identity to these strange interlopers. And there are marginal figures who stand between them, notably an ambitious real estate developer who changed his name from Klein to King and is scorned by both communities. With insight, affection and gentle humor, Goodman builds her narrative with scenes of marital relationships, domestic routines, generational conflict, new love and old scandals. Quiet heartbreak occurs, too. Elizabeth Schulman, the much-admired, calmly devout mother of five daughters, almost enjoys the fulfillment of her ambition to do something special with her life until her business project is forbidden by rabbinical decree and she gains a new understanding of a woman's possibilities and limitations among her people. The dying Rav sees clearly the limitations of Isaiah, the dutiful son who will be his successor, and the brilliance of his prodigal son, Jeremy, who in turn finds that his intellectual rebellion has left him spiritually desolate. On the other hand, Holocaust survivor Andras Melish breaks through his anomie to a peaceful contemplation of his blessings. Goodman conveys her characters' religious convictions with a respectful but slightly skeptical eye. Her tenderly ironic understanding of human needs, ambitions and follies, of the stress between unbending moral laws and turbulent personal aspirations, gives the narrative perspective and balance. In knitting the minutiae of individual lives into the fabric of community, she produces a vibrant story of good people accommodating their spiritual and temporal needs to the realities of contemporary life. She does so with the virtuosic assurance of a prose stylist of the first rank.
Copyright 1998 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Delta (August 10, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385323905
  • ISBN-13: 978-0733610639
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.9 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (74 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #598,381 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

I was born in Brooklyn in 1967, but grew up in Honolulu where I got to run around barefoot. I lived in Hawaii until I flew back east for college. I attended Harvard, where I stepped in my first slush puddle. Now I have waterproof boots because I live in Cambridge, Mass, with my family. Don't get me started on the winters here, and the snow days! When I'm not writing, I spend most of my time driving my four kids around, reading, thinking about getting some exercise (I like to swim), wondering what we should have for dinner, and occasionally indulging in some therapeutic vacuuming. Oh, and I keep a blog of my thoughts on the writing process, the books I'm reading and the literary life. You can find me at or join me on Facebook.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

17 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Peggy Vincent on September 23, 2003
Format: School & Library Binding
A small sect of Orthodox Jews comes each summer to a tiny town in upstate NY, supposedly the devout followers of Rav Elijah Kirshner. But all is not calm, all is not bright. Some struggle with ghosts from the past, with desires related to the modern world outside their restrictive sect. Elizabeth Shulman, mother of 5, is feeling the heebie-jeebies, restless as she craves something more than toiling at household chores day in and day out. Renee, whose father is a Holocaust survivor, becomes friends with a girl from `outside,' and all sorts of possibilities suddenly open to her.
This is a quiet book, a soft and subtle book, but the individual characters will captivate you and stay with you for a long time.
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17 of 20 people found the following review helpful By Alexandra Van Buren on August 31, 2000
Format: Paperback
As someone with largely Catholic heritage (the expression "recovering Catholic" applies neatly here), I worried that I would find no point of entry into Goodman's book for one who knows little about Judaism and especially Orthodox Judaism. How wrong I was. In her careful chronicle of a relationship, a community, a family of people with faith, Kaaterskill Falls eludes cliche' or severity. That overweening, heavy sense of Faith that so often invades novels involving religion, so that my fellow 20-somethings and I cower and read High Fidelity instead -- that is nowhere to be found here. Instead, against the backdrop of tangibly beautiful, almost edible countrysides, men and women shed their city personas and relax. You taste the cherry rugelach they eat, you feel the heat of an argument based on faith -- you must have had one at some point in your life -- and this book reflects such everyday experience with subtlety and wit.
The love story is so true; so full of angles and points, and tiny discussions about daily life. Goodman leaves in the tangible and leaves out "summer vacation" schmaltz, the absence of which one reviewer bemoans. A beautiful, respectful, unintimidating novel.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on June 16, 2000
Format: Paperback
I loved this book! As a secular Jew, I have often wondered how Orthodox women have been able to reconcile their intellectual, spiritual, familial, and cultural worlds in an atmosphere that seems to deny them voice. Allegra Goodman has done an outstanding job of developing strong characters whose struggles to define themselves and their world often puts them at odds with all they have been taught to believe. I admired Elizabeth even as I became impatient with her; likewise I anxiously awaited Nina's growth that would allow her to assume status within her husband's family. I've recommended this book to many people; I was literally transported into the world of Katerskill Falls, and didn't want to leave.
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17 of 22 people found the following review helpful By Patrick McCormack VINE VOICE on July 25, 2000
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The vacation community of Kaaterskill Falls is dominated by townies and the Kirshner community of Jews, who leave Washington Heights every summer and spend the summer in this lovely New York town. This book chronicles the lives of the Kirshner Jews, intertwining stories of the Rav, the leader of the community, and his struggles with his two sons, with stories of a Jewish woman, Elizabeth, who struggles with the operation of a store and the unexpected birth of a new child. Minor characters flesh out the feel of a Jewish community in the 1970s.
The writing and story telling is so smooth that you come to enjoy each character, and to look forward to their exposition. Characters are vivid -- even if they do not develop much.
The book falls short on several levels. First, you do not learn anything useful or telling about Jewish life in America. The Kirshners are in many senses a fringe community, but not a particularly interesting one. Their struggles with acculturization are not well told, and their conflicts with the townies are muted and uninteresting. Second, you do not learn anything fun or useful about vacations in America -- this very much wastes the backdrop of Kaaterskill Falls. Some plot elements seem forced -- a mysterious car accident seems to have no real plot purpose.
This book is ultimately about relationships -- sons and fathers, brothers, husbands, wives, kids. It is about orthodoxy and rule bound religion and what it means to be a good person. The book is a good read and fun, but stops short of penetrating any great questions or developing any character too well, too deep, with too much meaning.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on February 16, 2000
Format: Paperback
This books succeeds on a number of levels. It vividly portrays life in a very conservative Jewish sect. The many characters in this novel deal with the restrictions imposed by the religious leaders in their own individual ways - some challenging, some subversive, some submissive.
Within this context the reader will find the classic themes of parent/child conflicts, marital problems, the joys and constrictions of community life.
The author wisely does not give us tidy endings, leaving some loose ends, just as life does. But what I went away with was an idea of the direction in which the characters were going and how they had changed and (most of them) grown in the two years covered by the book. This is a good and satisfying read.
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11 of 14 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on January 30, 2000
Format: Paperback
I picked up this book because I am interested in Jewish American literature and I liked the premise of the book -- the life inside a small, somwhat cloistered community. What I found though to be the overarching problem with this book is that Goodman looks at this world from such a distance that the story is ultimately unengaging. Other readers have complained that it's boring or that there's no plot -- I know what they're referring to, but I think it's not so much the lack of plot that makes it a boring read as it is the fact that there's so little passion here. Even the writing is so unwaveringly precise that instead of being a virtue of the book, it becomes a flaw, rendering the book dainty instead of daring. I came away from this book wishing that something, anything, might shake Goodman up a bit, that next time we might see some flash of real emotion, some hint of unrestrained raw energy.
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