A Prayer for the Departed
The Ainslee Street Project, 2011
Your reviewer owes an apology to author, Bill Broder, having received A Prayer for the Departed more than six months ago and allowed it to remain at the bottom of a short stack of unread books. Broder, a fellow Columbia graduate and Navy veteran, has worked as a freelance writer specializing in the design and production of educational materials for museums, schools, exhibitions and publishing companies. This, his fourth work of fiction, strings together tales of a family through the decades of the 20th century.
In many ways this homage by the youngest son to the elders of his family, however well written, is an unremarkable story in itself. They came with the tide of immigrants at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th; they struggled; they survived; they passed on their values, their traditions, a mix of secular and Jewish belief and ritual. Some were more successful than others. The German Jewish component had a leg up on the Eastern European Jewish component.
One supposes many in our community could write such a book. I think of my mother’s sister’s husband’s family of 11, eight brothers and three sisters, offspring of a pulpit-less and penniless Galician rabbi. Eight finished college; there was an N.Y.City high school principal, an attorney, a dental surgeon, a plastic surgeon, a corporate executive, an automobile dealer, etc. Most married in the faith, a few married out.
The difference is Broder’s skillful writing. A masterful story teller, his graceful prose illuminates a life-long dialogue with his mother, with whom there were serious differences of opinion, and with his siblings, who considered him the favorite child of very busy and undemonstrative parents, is wrapped around tales of his grandmother, his uncles, aunts and cousins.
Illustrative of the tensions among siblings are the discussions Broder and his two older brothers have regarding his mother’s funeral. Asked for input by his oldest brother, who was designated to prepare the eulogy, his contribution based on what was perhaps a more insightful understanding of what drove her to accomplish so much during her lifetime, was dismissed as ridiculous by his brothers. Clearly neither was speaking about “the same mother.” Whether due to his greater sense of family or a greater sense of empathy, the author was the one leaned on during family crises at the end of various aunts’ and uncles’ lives. Broder unburdens himself of a half-century of collected observation and at the same time reminds us that “the failure of memory puts the future in peril.”
—Hal Sacks is a retired Jewish communal worker who has reviewed books for Jewish News for more than 27 years.