Book Review: A Reunion of Ghosts

Judith Claire Mitchell’s novel A Reunion of Ghosts leverages bitter ironies about the scientific and intimate lives of Fritz Haber and Albert Einstein to build a profoundly engaging work of high literary quality. Books by the generation after the Holocaust, often descendants of survivors, so-called “second-generation” Jews, are being published almost daily. The deft approach in this novel offers us a gift–that of fiction as a way of considering the effect of the Holocaust on contemporary lives. There is also savory dark humor which serves to keep the reader from sinking into a severe depression at the sad condition of the lives of these New York City sisters.

Mitchell’s skillful imagining of dark, difficult, severely self-occupied inner lives for three of Haber’s imagined descendants turns upon a multifaceted approach to the Biblical precept tattooed upon the ankle of one:

“For I, the Lord, your God, who visits the sins of parents upon children, upon the third and upon the fourth generations of those that hate me.” Exodus 20:15, see also Numbers 14:18

In A Reunion of Ghosts, the endless debating of Biblical scholars and polemicists about which generations these might be — Biblical or through the present, matter not, for the main characters—three middle-aged New York City sisters, do not appear to be aware of the end of the verse: “of those that hate me.” Or, perhaps they reason that anyone whose science gets appropriated for committing genocide is going to sire subsequent generations with afflicted lives. Or, is being the recipient self-absorbed parenting a sufficient rationale for endless misery? Do descendants of compound debacles have the right to end their own miserable lives? This possibility is a strong narrative line in the text. Would, or would not, such a choice be “God’s hand” in action?

Judaism has strong views on suicide, we are not given the right to take our own lives. Life begins once our head has emerged from the birth canal and the first breath has been taken. Now in halachah–Jewish law, there is a category of ethics that is l’hathillah—the reigning principles for a good life. B’di-avad—-after the fact, an act such as suicide is viewed as caused by mental illness, e.g. severe depression. That said, save for the shiva ritual of a week of mourning, these sisters show little knowledge of their Judaism–save for the gruesome history of their family and the impact of their grandfather’s legacy upon the Jewish people and others murdered by gas of warfare and gas chambers created by Haber. Perhaps the sisters contemplate the unimaginable because the sages, as statistics show, were correct: In families where there is a known suicide, far more are likely to occur. You may recall this concept is central to the the movie Yentl, as this was the reason one of the characters was not marriageable. Apparently, Jewish sages’ transmitted through Jewish practice their observation that suicide can carry on as a trait in future generations.

A Reunion of Ghosts by Judith Claire Mitchell is beautifully-written fiction with a unique style that is compelling through every dark moment. This sad story will also facilitate study of the depths of Jewish tradition on such topics as death, suicide, guilt, innovation, the Holocaust. It will lead Jewish educators to consider whether we communicate the principles of Judaism effectively. Contemplation of whether the Jewish people’s evolving relationship to Torah is divine enough to stay our hands from murder of self or other sore souls is almost inevitable in the wake of A Reunion of Ghosts.

Excellent also for university and book group settings, A Reunion of Ghosts will retain that rare place on the shelves of potential posterity.

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