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Review: The Frumkiss Family Business, by Michael Wex

Michael Wex

Sarah Dea/The Globe and Mail

As befitting the debut novel of a foremost, and very funny, authority on Yiddish language and culture, The Frumkiss Family Business is subtitled A Megilla in 14 Chapters. The best known megilla is the Book of Esther, which tells the story of Purim. But a megilla, as Wex reminds us, can also stand for any long and complex story. "And the whole megilla," you might say, waving a hand dismissively to illustrate how you can't really be bothered to recall every detail (but probably will).

Wex's novel is a megilla through and through, recounting the story of one Jewish family over three generations, from travelling theatre troupes in war-ravaged Europe to Toronto's middle-class Jewish community. And like the story of Purim, which ends, despite its children's-carnival packaging, with shocking bloodshed, the dénouement of Wex's novel brings some serious wreaking of vengeance, and even one badly broken nose.

It all begins when Elyokim Faktor, a.k.a. Der Mazik (the little devil), dies at 103. A few aging critics argue over whether he was the last great Yiddish writer; not up for debate is that he was the "tzaddik of shtick, a saint of shenanigans."

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Born into a wealthy Jewish family in pre-Second World War Poland - "all velvets and tutors, music lessons and Hebrew grammer" - Faktor was the ultimate instigator. Among his greatest old-country artistic achievements: a Yiddish lullaby for pogromists, a faked pornography collection featuring Goebbel's wife, and a memoir allegedly written by Jesus's mohel, or ritual circumciser.

Take that, Isaac Bashevis Singer.

After Faktor emigrates to Toronto, he achieves minor fame as Yankee Gallstone, the cantankerous, Yiddish-accented dodo puppet on a popular children's show; when, at the age of 100, he embraces an all-kugel diet (there's a mystical reason for his culinary predilection, but I won't reveal the novel's central secret), he earns cult status among those old enough to remember him from childhood.

Not to be outdone, Faktor's wife has her own colourful career. For 70-odd years, she lives a double life: To her friends and family she is Chana, the only child of a poor immigrant family; to everyone else she is Mrs. Arabella Aubrey, the Canadian representative of Montague-Aubrey China, a company she invented. No bride will do without her "heirloom" china. Chana and Faktor, both of whom lost their first loves during the war, settle into a comfortable Bathurst Manor life.

But ach, the children are disappointments. And in that disappointment lays the novel. Faktor and Chana's two children, Niven and Ava, flee Toronto as young adults and never look back. Tamara, the beloved daughter of Faktor's first marriage, is the Yiddish-Hebrew-folk-singing golden child, but she dies young, leaving behind her husband, Earl, and their three children.

Earl is a born podiatrist who founds a Canadian foot empire, but, alas, "It was Frumkiss: Family Foot Care, not Frumkiss Family: Foot Care." Not only do his children not follow in their father's footsteps, but at the time of Faktor's death all three are entirely miserable.

One, so beautiful and cruel as a child that her parents enrolled her in a school for the blind to tame her incendiary popularity, finds herself the rebbetzin of an extreme anti-Zionist Hasidic contingent in Jerusalem; another has waylaid a promising career in entomology (her passion: marine woodlice) to play hockey-mom to two ill-tempered boys; and the third struggles as a two-bit comedian, opening for events at Jewish senior centres with shtick recycled from his grandfather.

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If Wex's characters seem over-the-top … well, they are. The novel is in large part a farce, and though the members of the Frumkiss family are singularly original and entertaining, it's not always clear, as the chapters move from one Frumkiss to another, exactly where the story is heading. It isn't until nearly 200 pages in that the plot truly gains footing, when Faktor's nebbish biographer unearths a secret from prewar Kazakhstan. While the secret is scandalous enough to inspire vigilante mobs in Jerusalem - and that broken nose in Toronto - it'd be more of a raised-eyebrow kind of revelation for the typical North American Jew. Nonetheless, as the Frumkiss children recover from their shock, they each discover a renewed dignity.

Despite all the shpiel, Wex keeps his characters at arm's length: They may be pathetic, but there's no pathos. Of Faktor and Chana's 60-year marriage, we're given barely a scene. But what we get instead is a hilarious portrait of Jewish life in Toronto (and perhaps a Wexian fantasy of that life as well, as Faktor and Chana's grandchildren move flawlessly between Yiddish and English) and a new hero for Yiddish literature, one who, even while portraying that most tragic of birds, the dodo, represents not the extinction of Yiddish culture, but its tenacity.

Ilana Stanger-Ross is a midwife in Victoria. B.C., and the author of the novel Sima's Undergarments for Women.

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