Volume 20, Number 29 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | Nov. 30 - Dec. 6, 2007

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Growing up Jewish, human and otherwise
‘War of the Rosens’ tackles religion and family, ‘Yiddish for Dogs’ panders to putzes

By Melissa Korn

It’s rare to find a book about growing up Jewish — or any religion, for that matter — that doesn’t cruelly mock too-strict rules or minimize faith down to superstition. Janice Eidus’s “The War of the Rosens,” which follows a 1960s Bronx family theoretically sworn to atheism, succeeds in exploring belief without making fun of it.

By focusing mainly on 10-year-old Emma Rosen, who questions the non-God her father espouses (yet knows too little to confidently choose an alternative), Eidus provides a glimpse into the equally disconcerting worlds of devout Judaism and passionate disbelief.

Although she struggles at times to keep Emma’s internal monologue age-appropriate — even the most literary-minded 10-year-olds rarely use the word “bereft” — Eidus creates a picture of a child agonizing over what it means to be a good Jew and a good person and whether one leads to the other. Eidus portrays Emma’s fear with a tenderness that leaves both your lips grinning and your heart aching when the girl asks the Virgin Mary statue for advice, asks God for a witch’s powers and wonders how God, if He exists, will punish her for wishing her sister May would die.

Unfortunately, not everyone in the Rosen family is so well developed. Patriarch Leo, a former Communist who stands tall on his soapbox as a man of the people, bursts with rage at all the injustices of the world. While Eidus tries to make him more than a caricature of an abused child who’s since grown up by showing a few fleeting glimpses of tenderness toward May, Emma and even concentration camp survivors, he still falls flat. His empty promises of caring are the predictable gestures of an abusive father and husband. By the time anything other than anger enters Leo’s internal monologue, it seems out of place and somewhat unbelievable.

Alternating her omniscient narrator among the four Rosens, Eidus provides humorous, heartbreakingly honest interpretations of everything from family meals to interminable afternoons in hospital waiting rooms. The narrator smoothly weaves from one Rosen to another, needing little more than a paragraph break to indicate the shift.

But then the book ends. Just as Emma finally begins to transform from a scared, doubting child into a curious adolescent who understands that “asking the questions is far more important that knowing the answers,” Eidus decides that issues of cosmic importance are really too messy for the final chapter. She can’t just end on a specter of happiness, on the idea that Emma will find her way eventually. Instead, she ties everything up very neatly, a little too neatly, in less than a page.

The coda leaves a sour taste because it’s too picture-perfect for a book with so much unpleasantness. But then again, it’s just a page. It’s easy to skip.

On a much lighter note, “Yiddish for Dogs,” by Janet Perr, is adorable. A great gift to put under any Jewish dog owner’s Chanukah bush, the compact dictionary is written on the premise that all dogs should have a basic grasp of the Yiddish language. By providing definitions, rough English translations and contextual uses that her canine readers can relate to, Perr brings to life a language that is all to quickly fading away.

From an alter kocker [old fart] dog with a walker and reading glasses and a mieskeit [ugly little thing] so hideous it makes people cry, to a defensive goniff [crook, thief] who claims as his anything that falls on the floor, most of the pictures and “use in a sentence” sections are wonderfully clever.

But some of the phrases are awkward when stuffed into a dog’s world. Gatkes [long underwear], for example, is clumsily forced in, with a dog relaying his owner’s oft-told story of being cold. If Perr couldn’t find a way for the dog itself to wear the thermals, she should have left them out.

While it would be nice to inspire a new Yiddish studies movement with this tiny tome, the book is mostly worth it for the illustrations. The cover picture of a dog in a yarmulke will make you melt, and the photographs that accompany each individual dictionary entry — canine glamour shots touched up with appropriate props — will leave you a blubbering, chuckling puddle of “awww” by the final page.

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