“Family Werth” is the title of Providence writer Ronald Florence’s most recent novel, self-published earlier this year. The title is a pun, for time and time again the characters call into question the worth of families in general and the worth of the Werth family in particular.
The story begins in 1907 in the fictional Bessarabian shtetl of Ornevka, with Kishinev to the northwest and the city of Odessa to the southeast. Reuven, head of the Werth family, totally dominates his passive wife Leah. Although he thinks he is an attentive father to his three children, Samuel, Esther and Hirsch – all born within four years of one other, he is too busy and self-absorbed to realize that his children’s dreams are far different from his own.
Reuven considers himself to be a “modern man,” but in many ways Reuven is a caricature of the luftmensch, that benighted “head in the clouds” fixture of Yiddish literature. To take but one example, for decades he is convinced that one day he will become rich because of the shares of stock he holds in the Jaeger-Dreyfus Company, which manufactures an allegedly time-saving combination plow and harrow; yet he remains oblivious to what every farmer knows: One plows when the soil is wet and harrows when the soil is bone-dry, so that the Jaeger-Dreyfus invention is useless. Reuven’s brother-in-law Max mockingly calls him “the philosopher of the shtetl,” while many in Ornevka regard him “as either a snob or a madman.”
As his youngest son Hirsch puts it, “He wants to prove that everybody else is wrong and he’s right.”
Reuven’s difficult personality is but one of many reasons that all his children flee the narrow confines of their native shtetl. Samuel makes an attempt to try to fulfill one of his father’s dreams by becoming a farmer in Colchester, Conn., on land purchased by the great Jewish philanthropist Baron Maurice de Hirsch; but after three years, he abandons the farm and winds up building boats in Stonington on the shore of Long Island Sound.
Meanwhile, Hirsch, who lives by his street smarts and his willingness to brawl when necessary, is forever getting in and out of trouble in Russia, in Turkey, in Palestine and in San Francisco, Calif. Esther, on the other hand, devotes herself to a variety of Socialist causes and looks for ways to change the world in Odessa, Berlin, Paris and Valencia, Spain. However, her political naïveté proves to be her undoing.
No short summary of the travels and travails of the Werth family can do justice to the tense and suspenseful arc of narrative that draws Reuven’s three adult children into the world of constant change before, during and after World War I. Their story ends in 1939 with “the dreary reality of Europe sliding towards another world war.” Some brief highlights: Hirsch, having become disillusioned by life on a kibbutz, joins a band of Jewish terrorists who carry out a violent attack against a group of Arabs in Jerusalem. Esther finds herself in the midst of the Spanish Civil War, and Samuel becomes indirectly involved with rum-running in the late 1920s and early 1930s during Prohibition. There is a lot going on in “Family Werth,” and I confess that I felt compelled to keep turning the pages to find out what happens next.
“Family Werth” works as a novel on many levels. In addition to telling the central story of a family whose members, separated by vast distances, strive to maintain contact with each other, Florence explores the complex politics that contribute to the outbreak of two world wars.
Sometimes a single pithy comment speaks volumes, as when one of the minor characters quips, “Russia …. The Bolsheviks are like the tsar. Brutality is all they know.”
At other times, Florence expands upon his somewhat jaundiced political insights: “If the German socialists had been cautious bureaucrats… the French socialists were masters of the theoretical argument…. They liked nothing better than to gather in cafés, arguing ever-finer nuances of social theory, criticizing every word of a recent speech or newspaper editorial, turning their critiques into a never-ending circle of intellectual masturbation.”
Yet another dimension to this complex novel is Florence’s questioning of the nature of Jewish identity under the stress of a rapidly changing world. It is significant that, as adults, each of thethree Werth children falls in love with a non-Jew. Nevertheless, their sense of Jewishness does not slacken but deepens over the years – though in different ways: performing Shabbat rituals, reciting Kaddish, working to build the Jewish homeland in Palestine, experiencing the scourge of anti-Semitism in a variety of forms.
Hirsch’s San Francisco girlfriend tells him, “It is different for a Chinese person. For us family is everything. Obeying your parents. Respect for elders. Learning. Nothing else is important.”
To which Hirsch responds, “Sounds like a Jewish family. You could be talking about my father.”
And, in the end, the pull of family prevails; Reuven’s children bring him to America.
I was surprised to discover that during his process of proofreading and editing, Florence failed to catch a major contradiction in the time line of the narrative: Depending upon which “facts” the reader chooses to rely upon, a climactic boat accident takes place in 1932 or 1933 or 1934!
Despite this minor annoyance, “Family Werth” is most definitely worth reading. Florence succeeds in telling a compelling and important story.
Rabbi James B. Rosenberg (email@example.com) is rabbi emeritus of Temple Habonim, the Reform synagogue in Barrington.