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From borsht to falafel

New novel, posthumously released, explores Soviet émigrés’ acclimation to Israel

Jerusalem image
Author Rochelle Distelheim (left) died in June, a few months before her book was set to be released. Photo credit: Martha Abelson

Since the former Soviet Union's collapse 30 years ago, more than one million Jews have departed Russia and neighboring Soviet republics for Israel. Given that most have possessed scant knowledge of their religion, having been denied the opportunity to learn about its history and customs - much less openly practice it - they often have carried with them conflicting notions of what it means to be Jewish.

Why should they observe Jewish holidays? Why should they maintain kosher homes? Why should they suddenly adopt traditions with little meaning for them? These are questions many have asked of themselves, and they are the questions that Rochelle Distelheim posed in her new novel, Jerusalem as a Second Language , being released by Aubade Publishing this September. 

At the center of Jerusalem , which takes place in 1998, is Manya Zalinikov, a recent émigrée from St. Petersburg, a wise-talking, cynical classical pianist whose secular agnosticism creates friction in her 20-plus-year marriage. That's because her equally brilliant husband, Yuri, fired from his job as a mathematical researcher in Russia for the "crime" of being a Jew, has embraced Orthodox Judaism with a fervor that he once possessed for numbers.

"The novel's women are tough and subversive, pushing those around them toward more nuanced approaches to religion and life," wrote Michelle Anne Schingler in this past summer's online Foreword Reviews . "Distelheim is variously incisive, funny, and poetic in approaching questions of religious practice and resistance."

Chicago-based author Rosellen Brown concurred, lauding Distelheim for taking "on two cultures whose differences are daunting … Her book builds a bridge over a deep chasm that her characters walk across."

Sadly, Distelheim cannot enjoy the advance praise. The author of one previous novel, Sadie in Love , as well as scores of short stories that earned her a slew of awards, the Chicago-born and -raised writer, who lived for decades in Highland Park, died this past June at 92.

In a recent conversation with JUF News , two of Distelheim's three daughters, Ellen and Laura Distelheim, said that their mother's death, due to a chronic heart condition, was unexpected.

The sisters described Rochelle Distelheim as insatiably curious about the world and the human condition - an extrovert who found common ground with people from every walk of life and a daily reader of The New York Times from cover to cover.

"She loved hanging out with the nuns, telling them about Judaism," recounted Ellen, an attorney, describing her mother's years of teaching creative writing at Chicago's Mundelein College, a Catholic women's school now part of Loyola University Chicago.

But most of all, they said, Rochelle was addicted to storytelling. Her characters were so real to her, said Laura, an attorney turned writer, that "they should have had a seat at the table."

Rochelle Shulman's love of language started at an early age. A product of Chicago's Jewish West Side, she graduated from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism and married a dermatologist, Dr. Irving Distelheim, who died two years ago at 99. For years, she balanced a journalism career with family life, later earning a master's degree in creative writing from the University of Illinois.

The seeds of Jerusalem , she explained in press materials some months before her death, were planted in the 1990s, when she and her husband visited Israel and witnessed the huge influx of Jews from the former Soviet Union struggling to adapt to life in a new country. The Russians and the Israelis, she observed, were "two extremely different cultures [with] enormously similar temperaments."

Robert Nagler Miller is a journalist and editor who writes frequently about arts- and Jewish-related topics from his home in Chicago. 


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