When reading “Shadows We Carry,” Meryl Ain’s newly released sequel to “The Takeaway Men,” I was reminded how often history repeats itself and how much the past influences our lives. Some of the themes from this new work of historical fiction spanning the 1960s to 1980s – including abortion, gender identity, women’s rights, and antisemitism – continue to make headlines today.
Combining fact and fiction, “Shadows” continues where the “Takeaway Men” (released in 2020) ended. Grown up are twin sisters Bronka and JoJo, daughters of a Holocaust survivor who lost his wife and unborn child in the Keilce (Poland) Pogram in 1946, and the Catholic woman he married after the war. The novel asks many questions about this mixed-marriage family and the other key characters in the book, including whether we carry the shadows of our parents (hence, the title) and whether the children of a non-Jewish mother can be considered Jewish. Another related concept the novel begs readers to ponder: whether children can be held responsible for the sins of their parents.
Bronka and JoJo come of age as history unfolds in America, from the assassination of President John F. Kennedy to a large gathering of Jewish Holocaust survivors in Washington, D.C. In between, we learn how Nazis involved in the mass murder in Europe, who secretly fled Europe after losing World War II, were eventually brought to justice here.
While much of the revelations in the novel related to known history, one of the eye-openers for me was that there was a community in Yapank, Long Island – 20 minutes from where I grew up and just a bit further from where the author lives now – requiring pure Aryan ancestry for residency. There was also a Camp Siegfried that trained teenagers in the Nazi movement.
Though the camp was closed after World War II, that was only two decades before I was born. (I’m returning to Hauppauge soon to celebrate my high school’s 40th year reunion.) It’s also difficult to fathom that it took a modern New York until 2017 to eliminate restrictions that permitted only those of German heritage to live in Yapank.
History is slow to change, it seems. Antisemitism is on the rise, not as one would hope more than 75 years after the end of World War II. President Joe Biden just released a national plan to fight antisemitism, billed as the first such strategy of its kind.
In terms of women’s rights explored in the novel, when women of my mother’s generation were limited to a few key professions – teacher, secretary, or nurse – we have so many more career opportunities available today, and yet, are still fighting for equal pay. I didn’t have trouble getting into journalism school; no deans asked me whether I planned to get married and have a family like one inquired of Bronka. I didn’t have to resign myself to writing a food or women’s column while men took the harder news stories.
In conservative Jewish circles, though, I felt the second-class status of women. I wasn’t allowed a Shabbat ceremony like the boys. I was given a female-centered Torah and haftorah portion to read on a Sunday instead. So when my daughter led a full Shabbat service for her bat mitzvah and when I get the bat kohen aliyah as an adult, I recognize the rights women are finally afforded. Only recently, my synagogue decided that bat kohanim could duchen (pray as high priestesses on behalf of the congregation) during high holiday services alongside male kohanim.
While “Shadows” builds off the background revealed in “Takeaway Men,” the new novel stands on its own. Ain offers a detailed recap of the main characters before the prologue. There’s also a glossary of Yiddish words and phrases at the end of the book most readers won’t know is there ‘til they finish reading. An author’s note explains the historical references that served as the framework for the fictional storyline.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading both of Ain’s novels for their recapturing of history from a different perspective, post-Holocaust life, and in “Shadows,” the second generation in a modern era. With all the new characters and developing relationships, one has to wonder: will there be a third installment in the series? There certainly could be.
Disclaimer: Meryl Ain is a distant cousin of Robbins’ husband.
Roni Robbins is the author of “Hands of Gold,” (Amsterdam Publishers, 2022), a finalist in the American Fiction Awards, family saga, and an Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award quarterfinalist, historical fiction. Learn more about Robbins’ writing at www.ronirobbins.com and to read her 2020 review of Ain’s The Takeaway Men, https://www.atlantajewishtimes.com/when-historical-fiction-meets-reality/.
- antisemitic violence
- civil rights
- Conversion to Judaism
- Death and Mourning
- European Jewry
- Jewish history
- Jewish Identity
- Jewish-Christian Relations
- Joe Biden
- The Holocaust
- Women & Judaism
- World War II