By RUTH SCHWEITZER
Sidura Ludwig’s collection of linked short stories, You Are Not What We Expected, set in Thornhill’s Jewish community, just north of Toronto, is populated by a diverse group of characters who find themselves in circumstances they never expected.
When Ludwig looked at all the stories together, she realized that was the moment for each of her characters.
“My characters are at that stage in their life where there’s emotional movement,” Ludwig told the CJR. “That’s what I feel this ‘you are not what we expected’ is – putting the characters in a position where they’re going to be moving from point A to point B.”
The challenge for her characters “is that they’re overcoming something that they didn’t expect they were going to deal with.” They are complex and the stories have many surprising twists and turns.
Several concern the fictitious Levine family. A secular Jew, Elaine Levine is raising her two grandchildren, Ava and Adam, after their parents deserted them. Elaine has asked her 72-year-old brother, Isaac, a bachelor who lives in Los Angeles, to move to Thornhill to help.
Isaac is the central character in the stories. He’s strong-willed and likeable, which can make for comic situations, as when he complains to the manager at Sobeys that the grocery chain is misrepresenting the size of the store. After Isaac begins yelling about the rotten prepared food in the store, the manager threatens to call police.
“When they threaten with the police, it usually means they have nothing in their artillery to argue back. He sees this as a sign that he has won and leaves willingly. Isaac does not need to be dragged out of a kosher grocery store,” Ludwig writes.
In the opening story, “The Flag,” Isaac is angered by the sight of an Israeli flag flying outside an Orthodox day school, below the Canadian flag.
“It’s degrading!” Isaac tells the principal. “It’s disrespectful! I can’t even stand to look at what you’ve done. You want to honour Israel, but you’ve done just the opposite!”
When the conversation heats up, a teacher intervenes: “Rabbi,” she says, her voice quiet but shaking, “should I call security?”
“The principal shakes his head. They both know there is no security. They would have to call the police.”
In the schoolyard, Isaac sees a boy running, the “tassels from his tzitzit hanging out from under his shirt and flapping in the wind.” This triggers Isaac’s memories of Israel, where he’d volunteered on a kibbutz in Israel in 1969. His experience there left him with a strong attachment to the country but an unfavourable view of ultra-Orthodox Jews.
“Isaac remembers the men and the boys who wore those in Israel, those anti-State, freeloading, they-don’t-even-pay-taxes-but-they-use-the-state-of-the-art-hospitals-for-the-births-of-their-thirteen-children, no-good religious Jews,” Ludwig writes.
The Levine stories cover a period of about 15 years. In the closing story, “The Happiest Man on Sunset Strip,” Isaac has a stroke and his grandniece, Elaine’s granddaughter Ava, who’s enlisted in the Israeli army as a lone soldier, visits him in a nursing home in Thornhill.
He tells Ava, “I’m only here because of you. You know that? Your grandmother begged me. I could be in California right now. She never told you that I came to help look after you guys?”
“I don’t owe you anything,” Ava replies.
Some of the stories focus on Elaine Levine’s observant neighbours.
The title story, “You Are Not What We Expected,” is an engrossing and unsettling tale about living with an in-law. Rina and Shalom, a couple with an 18-month-old daughter, Sarah, share a house with Shalom’s mother, who tells them they have to separate. Addressing Rina, the older woman says: “You can stay until you find your feet. Of course, Sarah will be looked after. But you are not what we expected.”
In “Keeping Ghosts Warm,” Shula is in the midst of a divorce that began after she discovered her husband, Avi, was cheating on her. Shula, a baal teshuvah (a secular Jew who becomes religiously observant) was named Janis before she met Avi. Her father never approved of Shula embracing the religious life. Fifteen years before, when Shula and Avi, an observant Jew, announced their engagement to her parents, her father told Avi: “You’re not welcome in here.”
Conflicts can arise when children of secular Jews become observant, but not necessarily to the degree where the father in the story disapproves, Ludwig said.
“What I’ve noticed in my own life, the kind of conversations that would come up when you have young people who are choosing to lead a more religious life, centres around this idea: ‘What was wrong with how we raised you,’” she continued.
“How we identify within the Jewish community and within the Jewish faith is something that’s very individual. There’s also fear that comes along with that.”
If someone chooses to lead a more religious life, asks Ludwig, “does that mean they won’t eat in my house anymore? Does that mean we won’t be able to communicate? Are they going to move far away from me?”
Ludwig’s debut novel, Holding My Breath, a coming-of-age story, was published in 2007. She began working on these short stories about six years ago, with the intention of writing another novel.
“My kids were 8, 6 and 2, and I was still managing to write every day when my youngest was in daycare or when I would put him down for a nap,” Ludwig said. “And I’ve always been very strict about that, protecting my writing time.”
After writing hundreds of pages, she realized the novel wasn’t going anywhere.
“I was having trouble at that point in my life reading a novel. I couldn’t stay awake for 10 minutes to read one. And if I was having trouble reading a novel, I probably was going to have trouble writing one.”
“I knew then that I needed to switch my focus, and I always loved short fiction. As a young writer in my teens I would write short fiction, so I went back to that format – not because it’s easier, it’s not – but because it was really what I could contain in my head at that point in my life,” she continued.
“And I also felt it was so many years since my first book had come out, and there had been a lot of lows after that kind of high. I needed to be able to finish something. And so if I was writing a short story, it wasn’t going to be months until I got to the end. I needed to be able to finish something, and then work on something else.”
You Are Not What We Expected, published by House of Anansi Press in May, was launched online due to restrictions imposed by COVID. Ludwig has been connecting with readers and book clubs through Zoom. She occasionally posts her “Knead and Read” videos on Facebook, where she discusses books and reads from her own stories while she demonstrates how to make challah.