University of Michigan Press, 2009
Good for the Jews is a smart, funny, sexy novel set in Madison, Wisconsin, during the Bush administration. Part mystery and part stranger-comes-to town story, Good for the Jews is loosely based on the Biblical book of Esther. Like Esther, Debra Spark’s characters deal with anti-Semitism and the way that powerful men—and the women who love them—negotiate bureaucracies.
At the core of this story of right and wrong are young, attractive Ellen Hirschorn and her older cousin Mose, a high school teacher who thinks he knows, in fact, what is “good for the Jews”—and for Ellen, too. Their stories intertwine with those of the school superintendent, his ex-wife and son, and a new principal. Workplace treachery, the bonds of family, coming of age, and romantic relationships all take center stage as the characters negotiate the fallout from a puzzling fire.
“Commercial publishing seems to be in a completely topsy-turvy state. Here is a smart, sprightly, sex-drenched, and neatly plotted novel about Midwestern high-school administration politics that’s certainly as entertaining as the latest Tom Perrotta novel about small-town East Coast life. It’s got a beautiful twenty-five year old inexperienced Jewish woman as its main character, steamy sexual situations, a broad swathe of serious political concerns about mid-sized city bigotry and the dangers of know-nothing bureaucracies.
And it comes to us from a Midwestern university press, having won its 2009 “Literary Fiction” Award.
From its provocative title onward, the novel moves steadily along, with a layering in of situations with credible and often compelling characters, evolving in ways reminiscent of books as good as George Eliot’s Middlemarch and never averting its eyes from the betrayals and hypocrisy that make life in any town, particularly small Midwestern cities such as Madison, Wisconsin where it’s set, grist for the gossip mills and the focus of serious attention for anyone interested in contemporary American mores.
“For a small city,” Spark writes, “Madison offered a lot, anchored as it was by the university and the State Capitol building. Still, it might have been another country: the doughy citizens at the farmer’s market who hawked their wares, promising cheese curds so fresh they squeaked…And then there were the fish boils—a barroom treat, fish smothered in sticks of melted butter. Out in the suburbs, towns were dotted with ugly statues of ‘wee people.’ Little elves or trolls….”
For San Francisco born and raised high school history teacher Mose Sheinbaum, the older cousin of Ellen Hirschorn, that (for a while, at least) virginal main character, living in the Midwest is like living abroad. But it’s not until Mose’s reckless but successful teaching style leads him into a confrontation with a hard-nosed high school principal that the Jewish educator finds himself in foreign trouble. Which is complicated, and eventually brought to a boil, without sticks of melted butter, by ingenue Ellen’s romantic involvement with the Superintendent of Schools, Alex Decker, a man (almost) completely separated from his wife—who happens to be Ellen’s boss at the local art center. Ellen is three years out of college, with a desire for marriage and children, living in a world of fluid sexual values.
“All Things Considered”
—Alan Cheuse, Chicago Tribune and NPR
“Spark is at her sly, funny, and cutting best in her third novel, a clever and affecting variation on the Biblical story of Esther. The setting is Madison, Wisconsin, a liberal heartland stronghold not without its dark side. Mose Sheinbaum loves his work as an American history teacher at a high school for struggling students, and the students love him. A real mensch, he raised his young cousins, Ellen and her sisters, after their parents perished in a car crash and after he lost his wife. Ellen has become a rare and splendid creature, a beautiful, 25-year-old virgin, but Mose is being targeted by the new principal. Is it because he’s Jewish?
Who is sending him hate mail? Can Ellen help, now that she’s engaged to the superintendent of schools? With agile dialogue, escalating weirdness and menace, and tricky questions of lust, love, fear, stereotyping, and hate underlying each hilarious, caustic, and unnerving scene, Spark’s canny novel of outsiders and insiders unveils many hard truths about the enigmas of the self and others in relationships both private and public.”
“In her third novel, Spark (Coconuts for the Saint) holds a modern mirror to the book of Esther with a cast of characters from mid-2000 Wisconsin. Barring the Biblical suggestion of the title, the novel is a study of human qualities and the interrelationships of those who identify with Jewish culture rather than religion. A virgin three years out of college, Ellen Hirschorn is an unobservant Jew to whom Alex (18 years her senior) is attracted. He has ended his marriage to modern woman Valerie, director of the Center for Artistic Exchange. Alex is also the superintendent of the school where Ellen’s much older cousin Mose, an old-school history teacher, works. The story gets interesting with the arrival of school principal Hyman, who tries to fire Mose, and Hyman’s strange wife, Martha. Hyman is a racist in general and an anti-Semite in particular. Over the course of the story, a dress ends a marriage, swastikas are revealed on the soles of a pair of boots and couples, well, couple. Spark’s prose is tight, funny, insightful and occasionally heartbreaking as it probes the current education system, the arts and society’s ills.”