I just finished the two published books in The Lady Astronaut series. They are tragic and triumphant, somber and delightful. There are incredible, meaningful character relationships and humor in a rich scientific alternative history.
I found myself in tears many times reading these books. Each time it was for the same reason. At a particularly difficult or wonderful moment in the story, the protagonist, Elma York, would find herself reaching for and finding her Judaism.
After surviving a meteor strike on the eastern seaboard of the United States (setting in motion our alt-history), at the very first moment that the action seemed to pause because our characters reach some form of stability, Elma pauses, suddenly feels the grief of all the loss that has just happened and finds herself performing kriah. Maybe it’s because in the last year or so I’ve buried two grandparents and two uncles, one of whom was like a father to me that this act touched me so deeply. But actually, I suspect that it’s because of the lack of characters in fiction whose Judaism is consequential, even when the story is not about their Judaism. I am not sure if someone who is not Jewish could understand the depth of meaning conveyed to me in that action.
At another point in the story, Elma is able to see her husband one last time before a period of years they would spend apart. They thought they had said their goodbyes, but the rules were broken and she was able to reunite with him briefly. A burst into tears when she realizes, just as she sees her husband, that they were reunited on Rosh Hashanah, and greeted each other with l’shanah tova tikatevi v’taihatem/I.
Or when her commander switches Elma to kitchen duty, despite her protests about often being placed doing “women’s work”, despite her enjoying cooking, and despite her not wanting any special treatment, only to have him reveal that her special skill that evening and for the next week was knowing how to make a seder and keep Kosher for Passover. It would take an entire third novel to try and capture and convey the kindness I personally felt from this.
Or when she shares Yiddish insults she remembers from speaking with her grandmother, which is something I did with my grandmother who passed this year.
Or when she helps a grieving, non-Jewish husband recite the Kaddish for his Jewish wife who passed.
Or when she says the shehekianu.
The Lady Astronaut series may be the first books I’ve ever read that are not about Jewish identity that still makes Jewish identity a consequential, real, meaningful part of one of its characters. Judaism is not an aesthetic, it is not a shorthand for personality traits, and it is not an identifier. The Judaism in these books is powerfully used to convey a richness that taps deep wells of emotion that I’ve rarely felt accessed.