Book Spotlight: Jerusalem As A Second Language by Rochelle Distelheim

Release Date: September 29, 2020

About The Book: 

JERUSALEM AS A SECOND LANGUAGE is the last book written by Rochelle Distelheim, who passed away in June 2020 at the age of 92. Foreword Reviews calls the novel “absorbing” and describes the author as “incisive, funny, and poetic in approaching questions of religious practice and resistance.”

Synopsis: It is 1998. The old Soviet Union is dead, and the new Russia is awash in corruption and despair. Manya and Yuri Zalinikov, secular Jews — he, a gifted mathematician recently dismissed from the Academy; she, a talented concert pianist — sell black market electronics in a market stall, until threatened with a gun by a mafioso in search of protection money. Yuri sinks into a Chekhovian melancholy, emerging to announce that he wants to “live as a Jew” in Israel. Manya and their daughter, Galina, are desolate, asking, “How does one do that, and why?”

And thus begins their odyssey — part tragedy, part comedy, always surprising. Struggling against loneliness, language, and danger, in a place Manya calls “more cousin’s club than country,” Yuri finds a Talmudic teacher equally addicted to religion and luxury; Manya finds a job playing the piano at The White Nights supper club, owned by a wealthy, flamboyant Russian with a murky history, who offers lust disguised as love. Galina, enrolled at Hebrew University, finds dance clubs and pizza emporiums and a string of young men, one of whom Manya hopes will save her from the Israeli Army by marrying her.

Against a potpourri of marriage wigs, matchmaking television shows, disastrous investment schemes, and a suicide bombing, the Zalinikovs confront the thin line between religious faith and skepticism, as they try to answer: What does it mean to be fully human, what does it mean to be Jewish? And what role in all of this does the mazel gene play?

About the Author:

 Rochelle Distelheim, a Chicago native, earned numerous short story literary awards, including The Katherine Anne Porter Prize; Illinois Arts Council Literary Awards and Fellowships; The Ragdale Foundation Fellowships; The Faulkner Society Gold Medal in Novel-in-Progress; The Faulkner Society Gold Medal in Novel; The Gival Press 2017 Short Story Competition; Finalist, Glimmer Train’s Emerging Writers; and The Salamander Second Prize in Short Story. In addition, Rochelle’s short stories earned nominations for The Best American Short Stories and The Pushcart Prize.  Her stories have appeared in national magazines such as Glamour, Good Housekeeping, Ladies Home Journal, Woman’s Day, Woman’s World, Working Woman, Working Mother, and more.  Her first novel, Sadie in Love, was published in 2018 when she was 90 years old.  She lived in Highland Park, IL.

Book Blurbs:

“Jerusalem as a Second Language tells a necessary story that I’m surprised hasn’t been told for American readers before. With wit and complexity, Rochelle Distelheim takes on two cultures whose differences are daunting and she manages to represent both with convincing detail and, most importantly, with sympathy. Her book builds a bridge over a deep chasm that her characters walk across with dignity and just enough mordant humor to convince us they’re real.” –Rosellen Brown, author of The Lake on Fire, Before and After, Tender Mercies, and Civil Wars

“Meet Manya, who grudgingly trades Russia for Israel. Shimmering with wit and bittersweet insights, Rochelle Distelheim’s Jerusalem as a Second Language is an emotional travelogue that begs the question, how does a secular Jew find her place in the world?” –Sally Koslow, author of Another Side of Paradise and the international bestseller, The Late, Lamented Molly Marx

“Quick on the heels of her smart, charming, and deeply humane novel Sadie in Love (2018), Rochelle Distelheim’s Jerusalem as a Second Language introduces her devoted readers to a whole new cast of displaced characters. As secular Jews who have fled to Jerusalem from an increasingly corrupt and dangerous Russia, the Zalinikov family struggles against displacement, loneliness, and danger in a country that is as strange to them as it is compelling. Simultaneously tender and steely-eyed, often funny, and occasionally sorrowful, Distelheim’s elegant prose plucks at the heart of what it means to be a family at odds with their new country, and with each other.” –Elizabeth Wetmore, author of Valentine

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