A Diaspora Of Pain And Joy
Jacobs describes the naive optimism of Rivke’s son and daughter-in-law when they move to London. They arrive in the middle of the Blitz, a word they hadn’t heard of before. In the Jewish imagination of Baghdad, America was early Hollywood, while England, and in particular London, was perceived through stories like Sherlock Holmes.
In Budapest, where as in Baghdad roughly a quarter of the city’s population was then Jewish, we meet the family of Chaim and Sarah Weisz. To an Ashkenazi reader like me, this family’s setting is a lot more familiar — their deep love for literature and music and their intellectual debates, as well as the Hungarian way of life. At their home on Dembinszky Street they cultivate an open atmosphere at Friday night dinners. Chaim, a doctor, is sensitive to the prevailing political changes, while Sarah, a pianist, withdraws deeper into her music.
In the darkest part of the book, the couple perish in the Holocaust. Their daughter Anna does, however, survive Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, where she is saved by the British Army. An unexpected love story begins. Anna and her husband move to England, where they have a daughter, Belinda.
When she goes up to Cambridge, her vacillating moods are mixed with a sense of foreboding: “As she turned and walked in slow, measured steps across the market square, anyone watching Belinda passing the food and clothes stalls at that moment of her utter contentment could have interpreted her distinctive, easy swagger as a kind of proclamation, a statement that she could go anywhere, do anything.” But “back in her college room reading a letter from her father, the sun’s rays departing from her window, she seemed to be on a giddy descent”.
The second part of the book centres on the love story of Belinda and Eli, whom she meets while recovering from the nervous breakdown she eventually suffers at Cambridge. “I used to wonder if love was something we carry around inside, a kind of potential connection, and then aim it at someone we see who fits our mental picture of a lover,” he muses. “Or whether real love is something that enters your heart when the right one comes along.” She responds, “It’s both, you fool.”
Howard Jacobson has written that there is “a deceptive matter-of-factness about Jacobs’s writing which masks an exquisite sadness. His is the art of the refined miniaturist.” Jacobs deploys this skill to paint a moving triptych of joy and pain, as experienced by generations of Jewish families.