The Sisters Weiss

Written by Naomi Ragen
Review by Hilary Daninhirsch

The dichotomy between filial and religious duty and the desire for independence, freedom and self-expression may be a familiar theme, but Naomi Ragen’s treatment of this subject is exceptional. In this novel, Ragen delves into the hidden world of ultra-Orthodox Judaism and its restrictions on women’s freedom, a subject she has explored in such previous novels as Jephte’s Daughter and The Sacrifice of Tamar.

Pearl and Rose are sisters growing up in 1950s Brooklyn. As young Jewish women from observant families, their futures have been decided for them: to become a wife to a Jewish man, and a mother to Jewish children. Period. Then a chance encounter with the father of a less religious friend leads Rose to develop an interest in photography. When she is found with a photography book that is deemed inappropriate by her parents, a life-altering series of events is unleashed that ultimately leads to Rose’s isolation from her community and family.

The story follows the divergent life paths of the two sisters from the 1950s until the present. While Pearl conforms to expectations, Rose follows an unconventional path by becoming a well-known photographer – but Rose’s path is one that inevitably leads to her exile from all she has known and loved. Ultimately, the story is about the ties that bind, about sacrifices, and about the love that outlives pain.

Ragen is a skillful storyteller who draws in the readers with her beautiful and evocative prose. A helpful glossary of Hebrew and Yiddish terms is included at the book’s end. Regardless of your religious affiliation, this is an utterly riveting book that should be on everyone’s “to read” list this fall season.