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Families are formed in many ways—by birth, by choice, and even by tragedy.
By Janice Stensrude
Daniel Rosen and Matthew Greene have settled into the life of a thirty-something couple living in a comfortable New England suburb, where many parents of the children attending the local school are lesbian couples and a few are gay men. Their lives are similar to those of straight couples in similar circumstances: Daniel’s mother, Lydia, even after four years, continues to wish her Jewish son had never taken up with his new goyfriend. She has fond and approving memories of his previous relationship with a man who was not quite so tall, not quite so handsome, not quite so…goy. It had been difficult enough to accept Daniel’s “gayness” that was in sharp contrast to his twin brother, Joel—an important journalist in Israel, more manly, more ebullient, and with his Jewish wife, Ilana, a provider of two grandchildren.
All these judgments and worries are made small by an unimagined disaster: Joel and Ilana are victims of a suicide bombing, making orphans of their eight-year-old daughter, Gal, and one-year-old son, Noam. Two sets of grandparents, each having just lost a child, soon have another shock when the wills are read and they learn that Joel and Ilana have designated Joel’s gay twin, Daniel, to be the children’s guardian. This was not such a great surprise for Daniel or Matthew. Joel and Ilana had discussed it with Daniel before executing their wills, and Daniel had discussed it with Matthew. At the time, there was no apprehension on Matthew’s part; he loved Daniel. But that was before the romantic notion became tragic fact. The grandparents—who had been preparing for a cautiously friendly conversation about which of them would be best suited to care for the children—are confronted with a new, unanticipated reality. Joel’s parents struggle to make peace with the fact; Ilana’s parents hire a lawyer.
Author Judith Frank does a creditable job of presenting the difficulties faced by a couple learning to parent while pushing against the walls of their childless lives to make room for two grieving children. Each, in his own way, meets the challenges. Daniel negotiates the legal snares of a will that is subject to the laws of two countries while balancing parental duties, a career, and visits from a social worker whose job it is to judge his right to maintain custody. And all of this is shadowed by the fear of society’s prejudicial preference for families headed by a married straight couple.
While Matthew is sidelined during these struggles that are Daniel’s alone, he and the children create strong bonds as he makes lunches, ferries them to school and childcare, and becomes Gal’s go-to parent for sharing her insecurities about a new school, the shift from Hebrew to English, and missing her old school pals in Israel. Not surprisingly, Matthew and Daniel slowly lose touch with one another, until their relationship seems held together only by a thin memory thread of the love that once bound them. And everything in Matthew’s life is in Daniel’s name—the children, the house…and Daniel.
Frank’s narrative is historically anchored in the events and attitudes of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. It opens with a Palestinian suicide bomber delivering his death load in an Israeli coffee shop, and it culminates in a civil-rights-triumph celebration as Massachusetts begins issuing its first marriage licenses to gay citizens. In between, we hear the hectic story of Israel, a new country established on the heels of World War II to create a home for Europe’s Jewish refugees. As many of Israel’s young people set their sights on building a strong Jewish homeland, forgetful or ignorant of the Palestinian sacrifices that made way for the sudden post-war influx of foreigners, the early settlers who were survivors of Hitler’s death camps feel shamed and forgotten. Or so believes Frank’s character Malka, the Israeli grandmother of the orphaned children. Malka is herself a survivor of the Nazi death camps and suffers periodic disabling PTSD attacks. The young, she claims, are loath to associate themselves with the age-old Jewish identity with victimhood. They have new Jewish heroes: the young Israeli soldiers who forfeit their lives in the continuing Palestinian-Israeli conflict—a sibling rivalry reminiscent of the long conflict in Ireland. “We are everything they don’t want to be,” Malka says. “Victims. Weaklings.”
It’s not the picture of Israel that has been often presented in America, nor likely the picture imagined by the original post-war settlers. It is a view of a typically ambitious government, an ancient pattern: the Israelis clearing out Palestinians the way the British cleared out the native populations of Australia and Tierra del Fuego, the way European immigrants and their descendants cleared out Native Americans, as if toppling trees to make way for farms. And all the while, a new generation of settlers live pleasant lives separated by only a few miles from the living hell of those they have displaced.
An essay by author Judith Frank, added as additional material at the back of this new paperback edition of her book, reveals that much in All I Love and Know comes from a place deep within her personal experience. Five years after her father’s depression-induced suicide, her mother plucked the family from their Chicago roots and moved with her son and twin daughters to Israel. Frank’s own experience of mourning the death of a parent—followed by suffering culture shock and language blindness in a foreign country—are evident in her character Gal. It was not until graduate school in the U.S., though, that Frank met her first gay person and finally named that elusive something about herself that was so different from her twin: she was a lesbian. Like her character Daniel, she has a straight twin who lives in Israel and is married to an Israeli.
Though Frank’s sister remained in Israel, both her brother and mother eventually returned to the U.S. Back in Chicago, her mother became friends with a young activist rabbi who had taken up the cause of justice for Palestinians. In Israel, so involved in her career as a social worker and expert in early childhood development, Frank’s mother simply had not noticed the condition of the Palestinians and knew little about the history of their plight. In 2010, though restricted to a wheelchair, she traveled with a group of American Jews to meet with Palestinian activists, staying in the homes of refugee families in Palestinian refugee camps. Frank describes her mother’s changed view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a late-life “sea change” in attitude.
Frank is committed to authoring literature for the gay community. She resisted when her publisher first suggested that she seek a wider readership. But, she says, her partner kept pushing her to write for a straight audience: “Aunt Anne in Kansas City”—“straight, well educated and open minded”—not the usual reader of gay books. We owe a debt of literary gratitude to Judith Frank’s partner, and her agent and publisher, for their parts in placing this beautiful story in the hands of a readership that extends beyond her core LGBT audience. If the story had been written by a straight author, perhaps I could say that a major theme of the novel is that gay and straight people all endure the same relationship and parenting challenges. While that is true, it’s more a fact than a theme—the way Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm is a girl or Tom Sawyer is a boy. These are facts of gender. And in the case of Frank’s characters and the situations in which she places them, it’s not about the gender…it’s about the journey.
Some reviewers have accused Frank of tackling too much: coming out, AIDS fear, gay marriage and parenthood, children dealing with their parents’ deaths, the unique relationship of twins when one is gay and the other straight, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and the continuing problems of Holocaust survivors and the people who live with them. Any one of these diverse threads would easily serve as the focus in a meaty piece of fiction, yet interwoven, they are indicative of the way people live. We each have unique circumstances (both physically and socially rooted) that become a part of who we are and how we live: one thing is the focus today, and something else becomes more important tomorrow. It is not for nothing that we often describe truth as being stranger than fiction. Rather than choosing a simplified single focus, Frank has courageously crafted lives of true-life complexity for her characters.
All I Love and Know is a timeless story of families shattered by sudden death and the heavy toll that grief can wreak on a loving relationship. Judith Frank is a fine writer who gives us much to know and love…unless you’d rather hate, in which case there’s material aplenty for those with that inclination: a Jewish lesbian who supports both gay marriage and justice for Palestinian civilians. Now that’s placing yourself next to a pile of rocks surrounded by people who are itching to start throwing them.
Janice Stensrude has been a contributor to OutSmart and its predecessor publications (Uptown Express and Health & Spirit) for the past 27 years.