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Good for the Jews

Debra Spark

Publication Year: 2010

". . . a smart, sprightly, sex-drenched, and neatly plotted novel . . ." ---Alan Cheuse, National Public Radio and the Chicago Tribune "Spark is at her sly, funny, and cutting best in her third novel, a clever and affecting variation on the biblical story of Esther." ---Booklist "Spark's prose is tight, funny, insightful and occasionally heartbreaking as it probes the current education system, the arts and society's ills." ---Publishers Weekly Good for the Jews is a smart, funny, sexy novel set in Madison, Wisconsin, during the Bush administration. Part mystery and part stranger-comes-to town story, Good for the Jews is loosely based on the biblical book of Esther. Like Esther, Debra Spark's characters deal with anti-Semitism and the way that powerful men---and the women who love them---negotiate bureaucracies. At the core of the story of right and wrong are young, attractive Ellen Hirschorn and her older cousin Mose, a high school teacher who thinks he knows, in fact, what is "good for the Jews"---and for Ellen, too. Their stories intertwine with those of the school superintendent, his ex-wife and son, and a new principal. Workplace treachery, the bonds of family, coming of age, and romantic relationships all take center stage as the characters negotiate the fallout from a puzzling fire. Spark's evocative writing style and sharp, understanding treatment of her diverse characters draw the reader into this surprising page-turner, a finalist for the 2009 ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Award. Debra Spark is the author of two previous novels, The Ghost of Bridgetown and Coconuts for the Saint, as well as Curious Attractions: Essays on Fiction Writing. She's been a fellow at Radcliffe College's Bunting Institute and a recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts award. Her short stories, essays, and reviews have appeared in publications including Food and Wine, Esquire, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Yankee. She is a professor at Colby College and teaches in the MFA Program for Writers at Warren Wilson College. She lives with her husband and son in North Yarmouth, Maine.

Published by: University of Michigan Press

Series: Michigan Literary Fiction Awards

Title Page and Copyright

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pp. i-iv

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Prologue: May 2006

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pp. 1-3

Smoke at the horizon. A lone tendril corkscrewing up. Probably a brush fire. That’s what Alex Decker usually thought, when he saw smoke. He’d been in Chicago for work. Earlier, passing the Milwaukee exits, he’d told himself to stop, visit a museum, drop in on a friend. He could do that sort of thing now. But he drove on, impatient for home, for that speci‹c moment when the undulations of corporately owned...

Part One: The Year of the Dress

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1. April-May 2005

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pp. 7-10

As far back as Ellen could remember, she’d been told there were two categories of things in the world: what was good for the Jews and what wasn’t. The TV news was bad for the Jews. Mose—her cousin, though he was almost forty years her senior—and his volunteer efforts in the community . . . that was good for the Jews. The Messianic Jewish temple gaining ground in Madison . . . that was de‹nitely bad for the Jews. ...

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2. April-May 2005

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pp. 11-19

It started with the dress. Or ended with it, depending on your perspective. Not that it wasn’t a beautiful dress. Sleeveless with a white bodice that laced tight in the front and under that a big flouncy skirt. When she first saw it, Valerie Decker pictured a sylph-like maid— “Milkmaid!” she actually thought “milkmaid”—lifting the voluminous skirt so she could run (barefoot, of course) through a green field spotted...

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3. June 2005

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pp. 20-29

Bike paths criss-crossed Madison, but the road to Mara Maud—a cosmetology school located in a strip mall west of town—was busy and shoulderless. Still, Ellen regularly braved the ride down University Avenue for her friend Tamar, the school’s receptionist. You’d think the school would have no trouble finding people to volunteer for free services, but there had been a few incidents. “You can’t trace that gangrene...

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4. April-June 2005

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pp. 30-43

Mose Sheinbaum had a story he liked to tell about the day he met his wife, God bless her soul. They’d gone to the same party, an afternoon picnic in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. After, he suggested they go for a walk, and they ambled for a long time, out of the park to the beach by Playland, then up the hill, past the Cliff House to Sutro Park. There, on the cliff, with the Paci‹c Ocean spread out before...

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5. June 2005

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pp. 44-55

Alex was in college before he started dating women or going to bars or doing all those things from which he’d felt excluded as a teenager. Now that he was forty-two, it seemed everyone else had grown up and out of it. No one really wanted to hang out in a bar wondering what the night might bring. No one arrived at a party hoping some new woman might be in attendance. Sure, Alex’s marriage had fallen apart, so it...

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6. June 2005

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pp. 56-63

Clara Massengill left town in April. Two months later, a note in Mose’s mailbox asked him to stop by the principal’s office during his free period. This was a surprise, but not an unwelcome one. Perhaps the new principal hadn’t meant to ignore Mose’s earlier invitation for coffee. Perhaps he’d only needed to settle in before he could attend to the business of getting to know his faculty. ...

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7. June-September 2005

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pp. 64-71

Three other people—the gallery curator, the director of special programs and the theater manager—sat in a small circle in Valerie’s office, ready to plan next year’s season. It was June, so “next year’s season” didn’t mean the upcoming season (which would start in the fall) but the subsequent year’s offerings. Valerie had already e-mailed her idea to the gathered. ...

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8. November 2005

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pp. 72-85

"Don’t tell him you’re Jewish.” That was the first thing Mose said when Ellen told him she’d met someone. “What? That’s crazy. What year do you think it is?” “It’s 1939. It’s always 1939.” “Mose.” “OK. So it’s not. But it can’t hurt to be careful.” Ellen and Mose were walking around the park by Ellen’s apartment. They’d agreed on two laps, then a stop at an art opening. Ellen had lured Mose into exercise with the prospect of snacks. ...

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9. November-December 2005

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pp. 86-100

Mose used Monday’s free period to complain, over his newly acquired cell phone, to Barbara in Maine. “Middle-aged! And ready to run around with the first pretty thing he sees.” “Of course, you wouldn’t like her choice.” “What do you mean, of course?” Something about the smallness of the cell phone made him feel like he wasn’t really on the phone. He had to press the “loudspeaker” button to hear Barbara, and even so, he...

Part Two: The Season of Hate

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1. December 2005

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pp. 103-108

Doug loved someone who didn’t love him back. That was Valerie’s take on things. Her clues? The usual: long showers, incessant checking of the computer for messages, heartbreak music. Valerie had her version of the same, though she opted for baths, a close monitoring of her phone’s answering machine and a different brand of heartbreak music. Plus her crush was objectless. “You think you can do so much better...

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2. December 2005

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pp. 109-125

His meeting with Hyman wasn’t until five, but Alex arrived early, warming his hands against his cheeks and offering the usual pleasantry to the hostess about the cold, before taking a stool at the new bar. Behind the wall of liquor bottles, there was a restaurant—Four stars. You have to try it, people said, if you could stand the preciousness and vague grotesquery of a five-course tasting menu. The tables (a fiight up, the...

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3. December 2005

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pp. 126-128

Howard came back for his wallet. It wasn’t on the dash, where he normally left it, and it couldn’t be at home, because he’d paid for the beer this morning—one six-pack for Decker and one to bring to the church fundraiser, only now he wondered if it was OK to have beer in a church. Candy, his girlfriend, would know; she was the one who belonged to the place. Howard was just going because of Candy and because he felt so shitty for Shardon, whom he knew from a camping trip...

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4. February 2006

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pp. 129-134

The Sudbury auditorium was full. All junior and senior classes cancelled for the assembly. On the stage, three men stood below a “Bus of Peace” banner. One—a smiling, broad-chested kid in a sleeveless red tshirt—looked little older than Doug. Dark-haired and dark-skinned, he seemed to be part Native American, or Mexican, or Filipino. Something, at any rate. Or so Doug ‹gured. The kid might have been a football...

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5. March 2006

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pp. 135-151

Mose frowned at his menu. “What did you say this was again?” A waitress with a nose stud stood over them. “It’s Nepali and Tibetan,” Ellen said. “You’ll like it. You like chicken tandoori.” “Where’s that?” he said, still scanning the menu. “Well, it’s like that. Only they don’t have that. Try this . . .” She pointed to a stew with potatoes and chickpeas. “That’s what’ll I have then,” Mose said, smiling up at the waitress. “So,” Ellen said when she was gone. “How’s things?” ...

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6. April 2006

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pp. 152-155

Martha wouldn’t come into the store. A bad sign. She always stopped doing things just before she went off. Alone, Hyman roamed the poorly organized aisles. Back in Nebraska, the used bookstore that Martha and he favored was on the first floor of a neighbor’s house. Cats padded over stacks of books. A glass jar—with remnants of a Ragu label— sat on a wobbly table. The honor system. Sometimes a plate of banana bread joined the jar. Or, come Christmas, neatly decorated...

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7. April 2006

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pp. 156-166

From the start, Ellen had been excited about cooking for Alex. She had a battered copy of Recipes for a Small Planet, and from this paperback volume came congealed bowls of adzuki beans and brown rice, salads of black seaweed, which proved entirely resistant to teeth, sweets with the heft and taste of an anvil. There’d been a disturbing vegetable terrine, an unidentifiable jellied substance curdling on its surface, and a...

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8. May 2006

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pp. 167-178

In May, before Hyman Clark officially moved to the superintendent’s of‹ce, Mose received his contract renewal letter with its standard cost-of-living increase. And no merit raise. He asked around. Everyone who was up for review in 2005/2006 had received his or her usual 3 to 5 percent. “Is this an oversight?” Mose e-mailed Hyman to ask. The school day was over, and Mose was sitting in his classroom, one flight up from...

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9. May 2006

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pp. 179-181

The Center for Artistic Exchange didn’t have enough money for a full-time secretary, so when the phone rang—in the midst of yet another meeting to work out the details of next year’s schedule—Kaayva picked up. “Center for Artistic Exchange. May I help you?” she said, in her beautiful voice. In the brief interval during which Kaayva listened to the voice on the other end, Valerie glanced at her notes for next season. ...

Part Three: Engagement

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1. May 2006

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pp. 185-189

HoHo Coombs showed up, the night of the fire. On Hyman’s porch, of all places, and crying. The unfamiliar sound of the doorbell startled Martha into action. She rose for the porch light but stopped when she saw the boy with the bald head, cavernous eyes and black leather jacket, zippers like so many wounds in the skin of his coat. Martha stood in the dark front hallway, other dark rooms opening like butter›y wings around her. Hyman was...

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2. May 2006

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pp. 190-208

At the graveside, Rochelle Bernstein wept, the heart-rending sobs Ellen associated with newscasts from Iraq: a mother ‹nding her child blown apart, life newly unbearable. “Jeez,” Ellen whispered to Mose, a chilly gust twisting her black dress about her legs. “You’d think she’d get a grip.” Not that the irony was lost on any of the group clustered above the casket, late on a May afternoon. They were burying a Holocaust...

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3. May 2006

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pp. 209-217

"What’s this?” Alex said, as he ducked into the front passenger seat of Valerie’s Subaru. A tremendous piñata in the shape of an elephant hunkered in the back seat. The inside of his ears were pink, his eyes blue, his trunk rising in a large S, ready to spray. Frills of gray tissue paper made up his festive skin. “Dumbo,” Valerie sniffed. “Wow. You could . . . you could fill this thing with two turkeys . . . you know, skip the candy altogether.” Years ago, at one of Doug’s birthday...

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4. July 2006

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pp. 218-225

It was July, and there was only one subject: Israel and Lebanon. The TV news, Mose, the University of Wisconsin Divest from Israel Campaign—there wasn’t an opinion put forward on the matter that didn’t offend Ellen or make her squirm: the Divest From people who likened Israel to the whites of pre-apartheid South Africa, Mose who shrugged and said, “What can they do, with enemies always amassing at their...

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5. August 2006

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pp. 226-227

What did Vitamin D de‹ciency look like? Maybe Martha had it. She went out of the house so rarely. When did she see the sun? Rickets. What were rickets anyway? Some disease of children, of Third World children from one of those countries that all blended together, as far as Hyman was concerned. But when he imagined the damage, he imagined white children with wasting bones, their eyes giant blind orbs in their heads. Computers were making Martha’s life worse. ...

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6. August 2006

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pp. 228-233

He wasn’t going to come. “But Mose—” Ellen began. She was at the kitchen table, arranging tulips in a vase, as she talked on the phone. How could he not be there? “Honey, I’m far too sick.” He snuffled once, then blew a wad of something into what Ellen knew was the cloth handkerchief he carried around in his pocket. They were talking on the phone. He said the only thing that would make him miss her party was the possibility of vomiting...

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7. August 2006

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pp. 234-245

"Wild mint!” Alex exclaimed to Barbara. “I found it in the meadow.” With his good hand, he grabbed a handful of unchopped leaves and shook the leaves in the air. “Smell! Wild mint!” There was something too delighted in his manner, as if he hadn’t just picked the stuff but invented it. “How nice,” Barbara said mildly. A substantial pile of lime halves, their innards expended, lay by the chopping board. “Have a drink. I’m making mojitos; there’s wine in the fridge, beer...

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8. August 2006

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pp. 246-258

Some old friends of his parents gave Doug a lift to Mose’s apartment. “Hello,” Doug burbled into the apartment building’s intercom, “it’s me.” “Hello, me.” “Doug, I mean.” “A visitation in the night,” Mose called back and buzzed him in. “You don’t mind?” Doug said, on entering. “Mind? What’s to mind? But you’ll see I’m not at my best.” Used Kleenex were scattered on the floor around Mose’s La-Z-Boy. ...

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9. September-December 2006

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pp. 259-263

Valerie felt a little sorry for Hyman Clark. He’d struck her as scared, the one time she met him: the measured way he talked, how tightly he gripped his coffee cup, as if it were a ballast in the storm-tossed ship of the high school’s hallway. She wondered how conscious his errors had been, if he knew he’d gone after minorities in the school system. For there had, indeed, been a pattern to the faculty members who were denied...

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10. October 2006

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pp. 264-270

At the moment of death, your life ›ashes before your eyes. Or so Hyman Clark had always heard. But that wasn’t exactly the case for him. His life came to him in the context of his troubles, an aborted version of the whole, so even in the end—even then—he was shortchanged, bilked, hornswaggled. . . . I was cheated, Hyman would have told Martha if he could have unknotted the rope at his neck, like any old tie, pulled...

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pp. 271-272

Years later, when Ellen was married and living with her husband and children far from Wisconsin, she’d think of herself at twenty-five and twenty-six. She might be folding baby clothes in the nursery while her husband, Toby, and Dana, their eldest, tried to entertain the twins. Toby would have, say, a stuffed pig in his hand, and be responding to something silly that Dana had just made up. Maybe Dana said she...

E-ISBN-13: 9780472027521
Print-ISBN-13: 9780472034505

Page Count: 284
Publication Year: 2010

Series Title: Michigan Literary Fiction Awards