Sunday Jews

In the kibbutz, readers are told, a “Sunday Jew” is one who does not work hard enough. But in New York City, Sunday Jews are those who gather on that day at the comfortable hearth of Peter Duffy, semanticist, and his wife Zipporah Zangwill Duffy, well-traveled social anthropologist. The Duffy-Zangwill ménage is close, enriched by three sons and two daughters, numerous grandchildren, and the whole clan’s lovers, spouses, and friends, “but the flavor is Jewish.”

When Peter is afflicted by Alzheimer’s disease, his story intersects with that of a close family friend, Lev Cohen, a New York diamond dealer who has just returned from Israel with a striking young nurse as his consort and been murdered in a robbery. Zipporah engages Debra, the young Sabra nurse, as traveling companion and takes Peter to Europe before his condition becomes generally known. Events in Italy bear heavily on the actions that follow.

This rich novel, rightly described as Jamesian (although the character Katrina van Tassel is from Sleepy Hollow), follows Zipporah through to a peaceful death at ninety-six, surrounded by her loving family. A much-favored grandson, Bert, receives generous attention; and Peter and Zipporah’s youngest son, Zach, engages the reader with two blond Midwestern Christian-born wives (from different eras), both named Ernestine and each of whom has borne him twin boys. Eccentric bit players from both sides of the marriage perform well, and a gay grandson and Bert’s friend Shine contribute to a convincing imitation of life. It is Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks (1924) replayed in a modern register.