I just discovered Goldie Goldbloom's 2019 novel, On Division, about a Chassidic woman who discovers she is pregnant at age 57, when she already is a grandmother. It takes the reader into the mysteries of Orthodox Jewish traditions while maintaining a strong connection to contemporary life in a big city. To an outsider like me, the Chassid seem to exist simultaneously in two different countries and time periods, the small nineteenth century Yiddish speaking community in Williamsburg and Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and the contemporary Brooklyn and New York City that surrounds them. And because I live in Crown Heights, it was a privilege to be taken into the private lives of people living so close to me.
Surie is at the center of this riveting third person omniscient novel, a woman the reader comes to know intimately. Already a large woman, she successfully hides her pregnancy from her beloved husband. She procrastinates telling him that they are expecting yet another child when they both assumed they were finished. It shames her to wear the visible evidence of the pleasurable, and, because of their age, unsanctioned love-making that keeps their marriage strong. That shame brings up an earlier shame, the suicide, many years ago, of their gay son, Lipa, who left their home in Williamsburg to escape to San Francisco.
Surie feels as though her pregnancy is linked to this deceased son. She sees him sitting in the corners of the rooms she occupies and decides that she can't reveal her condition to her husband, Yidel, without first talking about what happened with Lipa. The difficulty she has in starting this conversation means that she gets closer and closer to her due date. Only the midwife, the one non-Chassidic woman in Surie's orbit, has seen what Surie is hiding beneath her voluminous clothes.
"Surie stirred in her chair. A wave of coldness ran from the crown of her head down her ribs and all the way to her feet. She was acting just like Lipa, holding onto an explosive secret, one that had the potential to rip her from her community, even kill her. Like Lipa, she wanted to tell someone but was deathly afraid to do so…. She had wondered what it felt like to be Lipa. Well, now she knew" (69.)
Conflating Lipa with her pregnancy is something Surie does naturally. And though shame is the only thing that links the two situations, it has a psychological honesty that feels accurate. Surie knows that she will not be able to mother her babies, she is expecting twins, until she understands how she failed Lipa. This merging of the two most difficult situations of her life is irrational, but this is why this novel is brilliant, tender, and wise. In the loneliness of self-doubt the irrational makes sense. And in terms of narrative momentum, the pregnancy provides the catalyst for Surie to question how she and Yurie treated Lipa. She tells the midwife that she had a gay son and says, "[I]f I had the chance again, I would bring him home and put him to sleep in the best bed, and I would tell him to bring home his boyfriend and I would tell all of my children and my grandchildren to smile at him and to love him and never to stop…" (126).
Linking the pregnancy to Lipa's death, showing how Surie believes that she must keep her condition secret from her husband until she speaks to him about their lost son, Goldbloom creates the conditions for a dramatic escalation of narrative tension. There is the ticking of the clock as the due date draws closer, the swelling of her body as the twins grow, the brief sightings of Lipa's ghostly figure in the corners of rooms. And there is the ticking of another kind of clock as she ventures into the world of contemporary midwifery, learning how to be an assistant and translator at the birthing center where she has been hired to help the midwife care for the Chassidic women in her practice. So, along with the ticking of the pregnancy clock, there is the accumulations of experience as she works in healthcare. It is another ticking mechanism, drawing the reader into the rich complexities of her dilemma. Will Surie choose to take on more responsibilities at the clinic and drift farther and farther from her community? Or will she give the clinic up and remain within the boundaries of a traditional Chassidic marriage? The life of this deeply private character contains such weighty conflicts the reader doesn't know which way she will go until the very end.
Goldbloom, Goldie. On Division. New York: FSG, 2019.