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Author’s Corner: The Sisterhood of the Chevra Kadisha

New novel explores friendship in war-torn Israel

By Cindy Mindell

It’s 2006 in Israel, where war is brewing. Lauren, Emily, Aviva, and Rachel come together in a seaside village in the north of the country, each for different reasons. Lauren, a maternity nurse, loves her Israeli doctor husband but struggles to make a home for herself in a foreign land thousands of miles away from her beloved Boston. Seeking a fresh start after a divorce, her vivacious friend, Emily, follows. Aviva, brought to Israel years earlier by intelligence work, has raised a family and recently lost a son. Rachel is a beautiful, idealistic college graduate from Wyoming, who arrives with her hopeful dreams. The four join a chevra kadisha, a traditional Jewish burial circle, where they forge a friendship that sustains them through war and personal challenges.

diana bletterThis is the premise of A Remarkable Kindness, the first novel by writer Diana Bletter, an American who has lived since 1991 in the northern Israeli settlement of Shavei Zion that provides the setting for her book. A Long Island native, Bletter graduated from Cornell University and wrote for several newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, International Herald Tribune, Glamour, Tablet Magazine, The ForwardThe North American Review, and The Huffington Post, among others. Her story, “One Kiss, One Baby, One God,” appeared in Commentary Magazine in January. She won First Prize in Family Circle Magazine’s 2011 Fiction Contest.

Bletter lived in Paris and Rome before making aliya with her second husband, Jonny. Together they raised six children and an unofficially adopted daughter from Ethiopia.

Her first book, The Invisible Thread: A Portrait of Jewish American Women (Jewish Publication Society, 1989), written in collaboration with photographer Lori Grinker, was nominated for a National Jewish Book Award. She self-published a memoir in 2013, The Mom Who Took Off On Her Motorcycle.

A Remarkable Kindness was published earlier this month by HarperCollins. Now on a book tour, Bletter will make several stops in Connecticut to discuss the novel, including a talk at Temple Beth Tikvah in Madison on Friday, August 28 at 7:15 p.m.

Bletter was inspired to write A Remarkable Kindness from her own experiences as a member of a burial circle in Israel.

“The village where I live was founded by mostly religious German Jews in 1938, and the original founders started the chevra kadisha then,” she says. “There is a cemetery on the edge of our village and that is where the burial house is. I got involved through a friend who told me that participating in a tahara [Jewish ritual preparation of a body for burial] is the greatest mitzvah because the dead can never thank you. It is a one-way act of kindness – really, a remarkable kindness. I was very motivated to write the novel because I wanted to share how life-affirming and beautiful this ritual is – and few people know about it. I often talked to the other members of the burial circle about their ideas, some of which are incorporated in the novel.”

Bletter says that, while the novel focuses on Jewish tradition, it appeals to a wide range of readers because it addresses the universal search for inspiration and deeper meaning through spirituality and rituals.

“Spirituality is the transcendent thread that links people across religious divides; it is where we can find common ground,” she says. “Readers can identify with the feelings of the characters no matter what their religions are, in the same way that people read The Kite Runner and learn about customs and traditions in Afghanistan.”

Bletter also participates in a Jewish-Muslim-Druze-Christian women’s group dedicated to forging connections among women. She is idealistic about hope for peace in the Middle East – “despite all evidence to the contrary,” she says. “I follow the suggestion of Israeli president Reuven Rivlin, who said, ‘We can bridge gaps in a way that is a reality and not a dream.’ If he can continue to have hope then so can I!”

A Remarkable Kindness with author Diana Bletter:

Thursday, Aug. 20, 7 p.m.: Darien Library, 1441 Post Road, Darien

Wednesday, Aug. 26, 7 p.m.: Wilton Library, 137 Old Ridgefield Road, Wilton

Friday, Aug. 28, 7:15 p.m.: Temple Beth Tikvah, 196 Durham Road, Madison

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