As Close To Us As Breathing by Elizabeth Poliner
“You are as close to us as breathing, yet You are father than the farthermost star”. From the Gates of Prayer, The New Union Prayer Book used by Reform Jews.
You refers to God in the prayer – but in the novel As Close to Us A Breathing by Elizabeth Poliner it seems to me the words can just as easily describe how we may feel about those we have loved and who have died. Their presence and their loss is still felt so keenly by the characters in this novel, especially the death of a child that both opens and closes the story.
Elizabeth Poliner tells the story of a community known at one time as “Bagel Beach”, part of a town of Woodmont spread along the coastline of Connecticut. There developed a community of Jews who owned summer cottages beginning in the 1920s, even establishing a synagogue where the men congregated for Shabbat services.
As Close To Us As Breathing begins in the summer of 1948, and we are told in the first sentence that it is the summer when Davy was killed. Molly Leibritsky tells the story, and it is about not only her own life but also that of her parents, her bothers, her aunts and uncles, and her cousin.
Molly’s mother Ada, was one of three sisters, the others Vivie and Bec shared the cottage originally owned by their parents. Each summer when the sisters arrive to open the cottage there is a literal sloughing off of their city lives along with the dustsheets that have covered the furniture all winter. The sisters and their children spend their summers at the cottage – husbands and fathers come on Friday afternoons in time for Shabbat. For many Jewish families their lives still revolve around the sanctity of the observance of Shabbat, a time when the rest of the work-a-day world retreats and there is a focus on God and family. Religion provides a framework for life, a comfort for those who believe in times of trouble, but sometimes even belief is not enough for those consumed with grief and remorse.
Every member of this family is changed by the death of young Davy. We follow them through the rest of their lives until only Molly and her cousin, Nina, remain. The Leibritsky’s were a close-knit family; the parents had emigrated from Russia in the early 1900s and established a general store where the sons and eventually grandsons worked.
As Close To Us As Breathing is a portrait of this time, when most mothers stayed at home with the children, the men went off to work, and the children roamed free. It is also about constancy and memory and the power or love. It is a story of women who marry only to fill a hole in their lives. Men who flee those they love because they cannot muster the courage to speak. The pressure of family obligation placed before a chance at happiness. And of course, the stories we don’t really know about our parents that we can only guess at after they are gone. Altogether a great read.