In Goldie Goldbloom’s new novel, On Division, a middle-aged Chassidic woman grapples with her faith when a new pregnancy keeps reminding her of the way her gay son was mistreated by the community.
The novel starts at a crucial point in Surie’s life: already an outsider in the community for having a gay son, she finds herself unexpectedly pregnant. It isn’t acceptable for a woman of her age to have marital relations, and she knows that news of the pregnancy will bring shame on her family. For a number of reasons, she chooses not to tell anyone, not even her husband. The bulk of the novel deals with the moral quandary behind her choice.
Goldbloom has a knack for description. The novel offers a glimpse into one of the tightly closed Chassidic communities in Williamsburg. It is so richly detailed in its description of Williamsburg, I was surprised to learn the author was Australian; from reading the book, I thought she could have grown up in Brooklyn. The book takes us through almost a year, covering the way each holiday is prepared for. “In mid-March, the young men began to return home from their faraway yeshivos and mesivtas and kollels for Passover. School was let out from the beginning of Nissan and the streets filled with children pushing other children in strollers or carrying home dripping paper packages of fish for their mothers. Older girls who would soon be engaged walked hand in hand, their heads close together, their thick braids down their backs, swaying. The smells of bleach and polish wafted from the open windows.”
We spend the bulk of the novel in the head of either Surie, or Val, the brusque, secular midwife, who serves as a temptation for Surie to leave the Chassidic community and make her way in the outside world, where women don’t have such strictly limiting gender roles (at one point, Surie feels guilt when one of her granddaughters expresses interest in becoming an EMT for Hatzollah, a career which is off-limits to girls) and where her dead son would have been free to be gay. Surie continually wonders what would have become of her son if he had grown up with more love and unconditional support. The Chassidic family has no shortage of love for one another, but it is very definitely conditional.
Sporadically throughout the novel, Goldbloom goes into the heads of other surrounding characters. Some of the narrative shifts help to broaden the world, and fill in how outsiders see Surie in her Chassidic trappings. At one point, a doctor examining her laments the fact that so many of his patients are Chassidic women. “They wouldn’t shake his hand, even though his fingers had been in far more intimate places. Why had he studied so long, practiced his bedside manner and received As, only to land in a hospital with people who would not speak to him or meet his eyes? He only wanted to help! He wanted to save lives!”
There are a couple of moments in the novel where the shifts seem a little random, such as when a group of doctors and hospital staff are discussing Surie as a difficult case, and we peer into each of their heads. One of the female doctors is thinking about her crush on another doctor who comes from a different background from her, and how much it would disappoint her mother if she dated him. I get where the author is getting at thematically with this – perhaps that Surie’s story is a universal one, or that she isn’t the only one in New York who’s part of an independent ethnic group – but it felt a little jarring and didn’t add much to the narrative. However, I can overlook these blips in an otherwise satisfying novel.
Although I enjoyed reading the book, to me, the ending felt a bit like a copout. Without spoiling too much, Goldbloom’s stance feels far too lenient on the Chassidic community. I understand that this is the story of one woman, and that it’s very hard to be too critical of the culture you were raised in when it’s really the only world you know. But since Goldbloom laid bare many problems with the Chassidic world throughout the novel – it’s tightly controlling, homophobic, and girls are severely limited to the roles of being mothers and supportive housewives – the ending felt a little too forgiving of the community. Goldbloom tried to end on a hopeful and bittersweet note, but I don’t know how much change we’re supposed to expect Surie to impact on an individual level when she’d have the wrath of the entire community if she stepped out of line. The outcome of the pregnancy also felt somewhat unrealistic (though I’m willing to suspend my disbelief a bit for narrative truths, which are different than scientific truths).
Even though the ending wasn’t what I’d hoped for, On Division is a compelling read about a woman living in Chassidic Williamsburg.