About the book:
Hortense Calisher has been hailed as “stand[ing] vividly with Cather and Fitzgerald” (Cynthia Ozick). In this, her latest and most lauded novel, she explores a family united in blood yet divided by ideas. Son Charles hopes to be a Supreme Court justice; family beauty Nell has children by different lovers; art expert Erika has a nose job; and artist Zach has two wives. Their mother, infamous in Israel, born of a well-to-do Boston background but no longer rich, is bound to a past that never quite dies. The buried history of this extraordinary–and very American–family comes to light unexpectedly when grandson Bert brings home as a wife the woman who, years ago, joined the family circle, then mysteriously disappeared.
Told with wit and deep acuity, Sunday Jews is a tour de force from a writer whose fiction has justly been compared with that of Eudora Welty and Henry James, and whose ability to delineate our lives is unparalleled.
About the author:
Hortense Calisher has written more than twenty books. Past president of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and of PEN, she has been a National Book Award finalist three times and has won an O. Henry Award, as well as a Guggenheim Fellowship. She lives in New York City.
The matriarch of a diverse, dynamic family, Zipporah Zangwill prizes sincerity far more than tradition. Role models for the art of exuberant living, she and her husband watch their children discover individual ways to love, develop their talents, and experience faith. With wit and candor, the characters in Hortense Calisher’s Sunday Jews raise universal questions about the true significance of cultural ties and legacy-particularly when a tragedy fatefully unites Zipporah’s family with a young widow from Israel.
Q. What distinctions do Zipporah’s children make between their father’s Catholicism and their mother’s Judaism? In what ways do their maternal and paternal relatives differ?
Q. Hortense Calisher made several subtle choices when creating the novel’s cast of characters, including the mention of a child who succumbed to cancer at a young age. How does Mickey’s absence affect the plot?
Q. Does each Duffy child reflect an aspect of Zipporah’s persona? Are any of the children antithetical to her?
Q. Discuss the significance of Zipporah’s decision to change her name to Zoe, along with the fateful events of her “naming party” hosted at the beginning of the novel. Why do you suppose Calisher varies the names she uses for this character?
Q. Does the murder of diamond broker Lev Cohen-a man of integrity as well as wealth-bring about a cultural shift in Zipporah’s life, or does it instead enhance her immutable identity?
Q. In what way does Zipporah’s opinion of Zionism echo her work as an anthropologist? What does her friendship with Debra reveal to her about Israel?
Q. Besides her practical assistance as a nurse, what does Debra provide Peter and Zipporah that their children could not?
Q. What makes Italy such an appropriate backdrop for Peter and Zipporah’s final days together?
Q. The book’s title is discussed on page 135. In light of the definition given there, is Zipporah indeed a Sunday Jew?
Q. Page 135 also includes the following sentence: “And the children, riding in buses with guards on them, seeing lush foreign movies in the meantime, could scarcely be blamed for assuming that among those Sunday Jews there must be a lot of Americans. In what ways is Zipporah distinctly American? In what ways is she an atypical American?
Q. Explore the author’s style for writing dialogue. What techniques does she use to evoke distinct voices for her characters?
Q. Examine the profusion of symbolic elements that accompany Peter’s dying words on page 221-the Ark of the Covenant, the spirit of Lev, the synagogue itself, the wristwatch designed by Zach. Do you agree with the assertion that he has been a guest in his own life?
Q. Does the inheritance from Norman create an entirely new chapter of Zipporah’s life? What is the significance of money and death in Sunday Jews?
Q. How would you have responded to Katrina’s plea that Zipporah marry Foxy?
Q. The Duffys honor a fascinating range of immigrant orthodoxies and new-world philosophies. What is the expatriate folklore of your family?
Q. What makes Bart a better match for Debra than any of his brothers?
Q. Zipporah dies surrounded by many generations of relatives, including an infant descendant. What can be expected from these future generations? What do you imagine her legacy will be?