Jewish Journal


March 6, 2003

Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door


"Welcome to Heavenly Heights" by Risa Miller (St. Martin's Press, $23.95).

Many writers have imagined the Jewish immigrant experience, setting their novels and short stories on the Lower East Side and places like that, where newcomers can forge their way to become Americans. Risa Miller's debut novel, "Welcome to Heavenly Heights," is a different version of that story, with American Jews making new homes in Israel, reversing the exile. This transition can be more pressure cooker than melting pot, mixing idealism, religion, bureaucracy, family complexities, shifting expectations, love and, never far away, violence.

In this graceful and engaging work, Miller, winner of the PEN Discovery award, succeeds in creating a world inhabited by religious Jews of different backgrounds, mostly transplanted Americans, living out the words of their long-repeated prayers to be close to Zion. She explores the many meanings of home, rootedness and community.

Just as the characters in those earlier novels, set in tenements, had little privacy, so, too, the families of the newly constructed Building Four in Heavenly Heights -- with its dishwashers, built-in teak cabinets and balconies overlooking the mountains -- know much about each other's lives. The stacked apartments are like a vertical bungalow colony, with shared ingredients and stories, and the gang of kids playing outside. Every Friday night, when their husbands go off to synagogue, the women of Building 4 gather on the largest porch "to shake off the weekday world," speaking the way women do when the men aren't around.

Heavenly Heights is "close enough to Jordan that a combat tank starting out in Amman when you boiled your water for coffee would have you serving to its corpsmen before you finished your own first cup."

The name has the ring of other suburbs where many Jews live, like Shaker Heights in Cleveland. A commuting neighborhood north of Jerusalem -- a "settlement if you needed to be technical" -- it is home to many new immigrants whose mortgages are underwritten by "an unidentified do-gooder well-wisher Godfather who wanted Judea settled -- and settled now."

Miller said that the name Heavenly Heights came to her when she flipped open a bencher (a small book with the blessings after the meal) to the page with the phrase sometimes translated as "in the heavenly heights may they seek our good." The name stuck as the name of the neighborhood and then of the book.

"Welcome to Heavenly Heights" is a literary novel of characters and place rather than a story driven by plot. It is unusual in its knowing depiction of an Orthodox community, from the inside, with empathy and without satire or ambivalence.

"I don't know of any frum literary fiction that likes itself," she said.

When Miller began the novel, she set it in the '80s, and it seemed timely then, but as the world was changing, she shifted the time and updated it, shading in some of the violence and tension. It goes up to the edge of the latest intifada, focusing mainly on Tova, who moves to Heavenly Heights from Baltimore with her husband, Mike, and children. Readers see this new world from Tova's eyes, following her bumpy adjustment to a place where arrogant appliance "installators," head lice and guns left in the synagogue foyer weren't part of her dream. She wonders whether she was "supposed to absorb into something or was it supposed to absorb into her."

Tova shifts from the marriage wig she wore in Baltimore to a head scarf, from teaching English to Russian immigrants to studying Hebrew in a similar class. With sensitivity and some humor, Miller captures the cycles of the week and the holidays, with meal preparations, mikvah visits, small acts of devotion, weddings and special days like Lag B'Omer, when Tova's family travels to Mount Meron for their child's first haircut. En route, they encounter a tzitzit-wearing cowboy nudging his horse, "mammela, bubbela." God is rarely mentioned but the divine presence is felt, in the kitchen and across the landscape.

The novel also portrays the neighbors, including the soulful Appalachian-born Debra and the back stories of how she and the others arrived in Israel and their interconnected lives. Tova and Mike end up on an extended stay back in America when his father gets ill while they are visiting. From there, they experience a communal tragedy.

Miller too lived in Israel. With her husband and five children, she made aliyah in 1988, settling in Jerusalem. But in 1990, while back in Boston on what was meant to be a short vacation, her husband's back went out and he had to be in bed for a year. "It was like 'Gilligan's Island,' she said, "when a 'three-hour tour' turned into an extended stay." And, they are still here.

"We lost our aliyah," she says, recalling their resettling in the United States as a time of trauma. They still think about returning, but now they have grandchildren and aging parents in this country. And she speaks of her Brookline, Mass., house -- the place she's lived longest since her childhood in Baltimore -- as her temporary home.

Although she had always been a serious reader and knew that she took in the world a bit differently than others -- recording her observations of things on scraps of paper she'd pile up in a drawer -- she began to take writing seriously when, living back in Boston, the youngest of her children started school. She took some writing courses and then enrolled in an Master of Fine Arts program at Emerson College. There, she was studying with students (and many teachers) who were younger than she was, and few had any context for her Jewish references; that forced her to explain things with clarity for a general audience. The heart of this novel was her master's thesis, and with the help of supportive teachers and other writers, she found an agent and publisher.

"I wrote this out of love and pain," the author said. She wants to achieve a feeling like what she went through, "like being punched in the stomach."

Miller, 49, grew up in a somewhat traditional home and became Orthodox along with her husband in their early 20s; they're now part of the Bostoner rebbe's community in Brookline. In writing, she is careful about facts, although she also gives herself freedom to make up certain things as long as they're in the range of the possible. Heavenly Heights is a blending of prototypes of different settlement communities.

"When writing about Israel, I have to be ethically truthful, to represent things as they are."

She's pleased that several early reviewers refer to the novel as undemonizing the settlers, showing their very human sides. But she's not writing a book with a message.

"I message my children plenty," she said. "But it's not my style as a writer."

Writing comes naturally, and some paragraphs even come to her in blocks. She tells of driving along the Merritt Parkway in Connecticut when the opening of the book seemed to "float down" to her, word for word. She pulled off to the side of the road and jotted them down. For Miller, writing can feel like setting jewels, taking words and fitting them in place. She's particularly interested in the sound of her sentences, and that's evident in their rhythmic qualities.

She has a talent for seeing the small, telling details. Soon after Tova arrives in Israel, she realizes that she's forgotten to pack rags, "those repositories of family history," her daughter's first Florida T-shirt, her husband's worn terry robe. Instead she washes her granite counter tops with a store-bought rag. "'This is home,' she rhythmed, trying to convince herself. 'This is home.'"  

Sandee Brawarsky is the book critic for The Jewish Week.

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