Mourners and Mystics

  • Sigal Samuel
    The Mystics of Mile End. Freehand Books (purchase at
  • Gail Benick
    The Girl Who Was Born That Way. Inanna Publications and Education (purchase at
Reviewed by Ruth Panofsky

Debut novels by Gail Benick and Sigal Samuel examine the lasting impact of losing loved ones on individual family members, Holocaust survivors, and the wider Jewish community. They also show the potential for human connection to mitigate the effects of trauma.

The Girl Who Was Born That Way is presented as a novella, but the story feels rooted in personal experience. The first-person narrator, Linda Sue Berk, is the youngest of four sisters. Each sister is defined by her city of birth and formative years. Hetty and Tilya, the two elder siblings, were born in the Lodz ghetto, while Terry Sue and Linda Sue were born in St. Louis, Missouri, following the family’s eventual immigration to the United States. Although historical events and experiences separate Terry Sue and Linda Sue from the others, all six members of the Berk (formerly Berkowitz) family are tied psychologically by virtue of the devastating illness that besets Terry Sue and the legacy of Holocaust trauma that imbues their everyday lives.

Linda Sue’s narrative lens is focused on her sister. Terry Sue is born with a chromosomal abnormality, identified late in the novella as Turner Syndrome, and she develops anorexia that requires hospitalization. Terry Sue’s individual struggles with eating, body image, and the effects of Turner Syndrome are conveyed through letters written from the hospital to her three sisters. The letters date from 13 October 1961 to 2 November 1963 and form the backdrop for the collective struggle of her family that unfolds in the larger narrative. This lament for Terry Sue, who dies tragically on 3 November 1963 at the age of seventeen weighing seventy-seven pounds, is informed by Linda Sue’s empathy and sisterly love.

The past impinges on Terry Sue’s parents, making it extremely difficult for them to accept their daughter’s illness. Her mother, in particular, is gripped by sorrow and ravaged by memories of relatives lost during the Holocaust. Her father is more willing to begin anew and forms friendships in the community, but is hampered by his wife’s anxiety. In contrast, Hetty and Tilya embrace life in America. Hetty marries and has two children; Tilya earns a doctorate from Columbia University with a dissertation entitled “Sexual Identity: The History of an Idea,” a subject that links her to Terry Sue. It is Linda Sue’s narrative of remembrance, however, that commemorates her sister and validates the importance of family history and community. As Linda Sue once wrote to Tilya, the new graduate: “If you ever publish your dissertation, I hope you will reclaim the whole name Mama and Papa gave you in Lodz—Tilya Berkowitz. I’ve always liked the sound of those names together, and besides, that’s the way you were born.”

Sigal Samuel’s exploration of loss, which is deeper and richer than Benick’s, is rooted in the Jewish mysticism of the Kabbalah. The Mystics of Mile End is set in the titular neighbourhood of Montreal, “a mashup of hipsters and Hasidic Jews” that is rendered with colour and accuracy. The novel is told in four parts. Parts one to three are narrated respectively by members of the Meyer family—son Lev, father David, and daughter Samara—while part four is told by a third-person narrator. Like the Berks, the Meyer family is shattered by the untimely death of a loved one, in this case Miriam, their wife and mother, who is killed in a car accident when she leaves the house to buy saltine crackers. This seemingly arbitrary event of immense proportion affects the life trajectories of Miriam’s husband and children.

Faith is a point of contact and contention for the Meyers. Miriam is devout and embraces Judaism, while David, a religious studies professor, gradually moves away from his faith and rejects it outright just prior to his wife’s death. A heart attack, however, alters his perspective and he becomes obsessed with the Kabbalah, focusing on its Tree of Life and the spiritual meaning it might hold for him personally.

The quest for true spirituality—which Miriam embodied—also drives Lev and Samara, who are so scarred emotionally that they do not fathom how deeply they are touched by their mother’s death. Lev follows Miriam’s example and finds meaning in orthodox practice, while Samara, after her father dies while out running, takes on his fixation with the Kaballah’s Tree of Life and goes to the extreme of binding herself “to each of its ten vessels in turn,” seeking unity “with the divine source of all being.” The need to rescue Samara from misguided spiritual devotion brings about the climax of the novel.

In addition to the Meyers, Samuel’s large cast of neighbourhood characters includes Alex, a childhood friend of Lev and Samara who understands the world through science rather than religion; Holocaust survivors Chaim and Chaya Glassman, sweethearts who reunite long after the war and share a loving but silent marriage; and Mr. Katz, an observant Jew whose eccentricities prove prescient. Each turns to the word, in its various forms, to quell personal suffering and find meaning in life: biblical texts, the teachings of Kabbalah, scholarly treatises, scientific studies, even King Lear.

In writing this novel, Samuel set herself an ambitious task: to fashion a narrative out of the disparate threads of Jewish tradition and mysticism; the Holocaust; heterosexual and lesbian love; trauma and human resilience. In fact, The Mystics of Mile End is beautifully executed. Its thematic focus on faith and human connection is mirrored in its plot, which is carefully aligned across character and events, but is neither heavy-handed nor false. The ending, which unites the various characters—orphaned children, friends, lovers, neighbours—gestures outward toward personal attachment as the way forward through trauma. That the gesture rings true is the novel’s great achievement.


This review “Mourners and Mystics” originally appeared in Radio, Film, and Fiction. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 225 (Summer 2015): 120-121.

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