‘Sisters Weiss’

Men were returning from the war. Women were being booted from positions they’d held while the men were away. And the country was welcoming an influx of immigrants fleeing post-war Europe. It was the 1950s and quiet, rule-following Rose Weiss is living in Brooklyn with her sister and parents’ ultra-Orthodox teachings. It isn’t that she intended to defy her parents’ beliefs. But love causes people to make dangerous decisions. And the decisions she makes will incur consequences that span a couple of generations.
Rose and her sister Pearl were raised in a loving home with rules and restrictions that simply seem part of the norm. It isn’t until Rose’s unlikely encounter with a French immigrant that she begins to question the almost smothering statutes required of Jewish women. The mikvah is one such example, a ritual bath for orthodox women in order to achieve cleanliness and purity restoration each month at the end of their cycle and prior to their wedding day. In Rose’s home, there is an expectation that girls will marry around the age of 17 to a Jewish boy who has been chosen by the family. The expertise of a matchmaker is utilized, but still the marriage is arranged. The teenaged woman has no input. To deny this process is an unforgiveable sin in the orthodox Jews’ eyes. And that is just what Rose does.
The first part of the story has an atmosphere of sweetness about it as it chronicles the sisters’ lives growing up together, daily happenings in New York as Jewish girls in the 1950s, and the highs and lows of family life. There is community. There is love. There is laughter. But even then, as a young girl, Rose experiences the burning desire for something else. She doesn’t necessarily want to marry. She certainly doesn’t want a husband chosen for her. And she is interested in photography, studying it to the point that she is lost in its beauty, its truth, its reality, even its harshness. She dreams of a photography career, a forbidden dream for a young orthodox Jew.
Adding to the depth of the story is the Yiddish spoken by the parents and grandparents. The words are defined for the non-Yiddish readers. It’s just one of the many ways that author Naomi Ragen subtly sprinkles the story with credibility.
Once older sister Rose is introduced to the young Frenchman, the course of her life is altered drastically. What once seemed black and white is now gray. The guilt is nearly suffocating as Rose begins a secret life taking photographs which eventually shock and stun her parents. It is not appropriate. Not proper. Not orthodox.
Although there are half a dozen pivotal moments in the book, there is a distinct acceleration in the story about a hundred pages in when Rose makes her life-changing choice. The setting switches gears and it is 2007. Pearl’s teenaged daughter, Rivka, experiences eerily similar feelings as her outcast Aunt Rose. The past seems to haunt the present and it appears that history will repeat itself.
Pearl is a mother and grandmother by this point. She is dutifully in a marriage arranged by her parents and wife to a man for whom she does not particularly love. The flashbacks to choices made forty years prior provide for an exceptional read. Whose memories represent what really happened?
As a world recognized photographer and mother to Hannah, Rose offers the best type of maternal advice she can give. As a family outcast, she knows all too well the price she has paid for success. But with all choices, there are consequences. And some choices yield long-term results, even severed relationships with those we hold dearly. But is reconciliation a possibility, especially since four decades have passed?
The author has a long list of credible books and this one just adds to her resume. As a powerful page-turner, The Sisters Weiss earns its place on the list of top reads. It forces readers to ask themselves a host of provocative questions dealing with loyalty, betrayal, love, and the bonds that refuse to be broken no matter the alleged crime.