Reviewed by Deborah L. Gordon
In her novel, For My Child, Chaya Spiegel blends two stories into one novel of suspense and inspiration. The primary narrative follows Chana and Shlomo’s struggle when they discover their unborn child might have a rare genetic condition; the other traces the story of Chana’s ancestor, Esther Levy, and a group of Jewish immigrants to New Amsterdam in the mid-1600s.
Chana and Esther’s stories have many parallels. Both stories are based on actual events, but have been fictionalized. Both stories feature a young, female protagonist with strong convictions. Also in both, important decisions must be made, while strong emotions come into play.
Told from the perspective of Chana, we read the story of a young couple on the verge of parenthood. Their excitement is moderated, however, when they find out that their baby might have a genetic condition; most likely trisomy 18, also called Edwards syndrome. About half the babies with this condition are miscarried, and those born are quite ill, usually not surviving for more than a year. When Chana hears this, she thinks, “How could this be happening to us? We’re young and healthy! And we don’t deserve this, do we, Hashem? Don’t let it be true! Please, let them say there’s nothing wrong! Please!”
While Chana’s initial devastation is to be expected, the way the couple handles this nisayon is anything but typical, and provides much inspiration to both the characters in the novel and the reader. The couple asks halachic questions throughout, tell only those who need to be told about the possible condition, and take on mitzvos for the zechus of the baby.
Meanwhile, transcribing Esther Levy’s diary provides the couple with a much-needed distraction, and encouragement. Although fictionalized, the story of Esther Levy, her brother Asser Levy, and the other 21 Jewish immigrants to New Amsterdam from Recife, Brazil, in the mid-1600s, is based on a true story that Spiegel read in a history book.
“I was fascinated,” said Spiegel. “I did a lot of research online and in the library, and some of the records are word for word what went on in the courts.” Many characters that appear in the diary story, including Peter Stuyvesant and Asser Levy, were real people. The reader learns a great deal about what it was like for the Jews in the colonies, including the anti-Semitism of the Christians, demonstrated by such actions as fines for lighting Chanukah candles, and the persecution of Jews for minor infractions, which could include imprisonment, whipping or fines.
For example, the Jews must appear in court when Peter Stuyvesant discovers that they had built a sukkah. “’You heretics were not given permission to practice your faith in public,’ Stuyvesant growls. But the Jews persist, asking for official permission to gather and pray ‘thrice daily.’ This is initially denied, but the group doesn’t give up. Asser Levy says, “’…we still have the basic rights of life and freedom of religion. You cannot take away our right to pray.’” After much legal argument, the yidden are given the right to pray in a private house.
Such accounts, as well as other challenges that Esther Levy and her community faced, encourage Shlomo and Chana: if their ancestors went through so much, yet remained strong in their faith and committed to doing the will of Hashem, then so too can they face the unknown with emunah.
The writer did a fine job of weaving the two stories. Although I found the journal fascinating, the present-day story of Chana was more compelling, likely due to the fact that the writer was adept at conveying the Chana’s emotions. This isn’t surprising; Chana’s narrative is a fictionalized version of Chaya Spiegel’s own story. “Events such as halachic decisions, medical descriptions, and how the pregnancy and labor happened, are based on [my] own experiences…”
When asked what piece of advice she would give to a couple undergoing such a challenge, Spiegel said, “Make sure to talk to a rav for advice right away. Also, [to] start studying a book on emunah. We used Living Emunah by Rabbi David Ashear, with daily lessons on emunah, and it was very helpful. No one really knew what to say to us when we were going through it, but I believe that A TIME has some excellent resources.”
Although entertaining, suspenseful and well-developed, with several surprises along the way, the strengths of this book go beyond those crucial elements of fiction. This book is one that can give comfort to a couple going through a difficult pregnancy or diagnosis. It instructs not only how to handle such a challenge with emunah, but is equally successful in presenting a real response, from people who experience the range of normal emotion when faced with such a test.
In her diary, Esther Levy writes, “Only a Jew can understand the importance of a heritage. Only a Jew can understand how important it is that history be preserved. Torah is all about mesorah, our legacy. We are what our fathers were, and if we can’t remember them, their struggles, and their lessons, who are we?” This is a message that Esther, Chana and Shlomo learn in For My Child, and a lesson the reader walks away with as well.