Hassidism: the whys and hows

Rather Laugh Than Cry: Stories from a Hassidic Household

By Margaret Goldik

A review of Rather Laugh Than Cry: Stories From A Hassidic Household by Malka Zipora

Published on July 1, 2007

Rather Laugh Than Cry: Stories From A Hassidic Household
Malka Zipora

Vehicule Press
$19.95
paper
186pp
978-1-55065-220-8

Malka Zipora is the nom de plume of a Hassidic mother of 12 who has been writing for her own community for years. The reception her stories received encouraged her to write Rather Laugh Than Cry, which was first published in French as Lekhaim, translated by Pierre Anctil.

The success of Lekhaim led to the publication of the initial English version. Zipora’s original manuscript, written for readers who understood all the cultural references, was heavily edited by Nancy Marrelli. Marrelli kept asking for explanations of the many traditions and habits which might mean little to the non-Hassidic reader. The result is an open window into a community that has been as misunderstood as any of the others (Hutterites, Mennonites, Amish) that try to keep themselves apart from modern secular life.

Zipora’s short stories are based on inflexible moral principles, but at the same time are gentle and funny. “In the Ways of our Fathers” documents Zipora’s attempts to improve herself in the days leading up to Rosh Hashona: first she tries to emulate Reb Nachum, whose motto was “This also is for benefit” as he accepted both the good and bad in life as God’s will. Zipora’s “This also is for benefit” is eventually muttered through clenched teeth as she deals with yet another of her children’s problems. She then tries to model herself on Red Shammai, a less tolerant spiritual giant. That lasts for a day. Her efforts to be a better person, wife and mother, will resonate with anyone who has opened a self-improvement book.

Zipora’s children range in age from nine to 30, and it is a tribute to her discipline and creative instincts that she has found any time at all to write. The children provide some of the fodder for the stories, but she also finds the light side of such diverse topics as Canadian winters, colour-coded calendars, telephones, and world peace. Not all the stories are humorous. “Memories, Memorials and Suavuot” is a sober reminder of what the Hungarian Jews were subjected to 60 years ago. Some stories are bittersweet, others gentle reflections, like Zipora’s tale of listening – really listening – to a child.

Rather Laugh Than Cry is a great introduction to Hassidic life, not only why but how they live apart from the world. It is charmingly written for adults, and feels very much like sitting down at the kitchen table with a good friend, having a cup of tea and enjoying a natter. Young adult readers will learn a good deal from it as well, as though they are listening to a friend’s warm and sympathetic mum. mRb

Margaret Goldik is a former editor of the Montreal Review of Books.

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