Friday, April 25, 2008



Families, can’t live with them, can’t live without them” as the apocryphal saying goes, and that could well be the subtitle for Charlotte Mendelson’s latest book When We Were Bad.

The Rubins are an Anglo-Jewish family living in north London. Claudia, the mother is a celebrity female Rabbi, her husband Norman is a quiet man who lets his wife take centre stage in everything. Their four children are Frances, an intelligent, nervous young woman unhappily married to a widower with two little girls; she has a baby called Max and fears she does not love him as she ought to. Leo her brother, a young barrister just beginning to make his way in the legal profession, is well educated, charming and dutiful; and the two younger siblings, Simeon and Emily, both of whom still live at home in their twenties, are spoilt, demanding and lazy.

Collectively they are seen by the community as the perfect family, and indeed they regard themselves as such.

The book begins on Leo’s wedding day. He is to marry Naomi, a suitable Jewish girl, and the planned ceremony and celebrations are elaborate and expensive. Just as the bride arrives at his side in the synagogue, he announces he cannot go through with it, and bolts, taking with him Helene, wife of the officiating Rabbi, with whom he has been having an affair. The ensuing scandal and chaos are just the start of the whole Rubin family going into meltdown over the following weeks.

The secret desires and ambitions of all members of the family rise to the surface to the horror of Claudia who has spent her whole adult life constructing an edifice that she thought would keep them all safe, but her iron grip on her children has begun to crumble and they are thinking and acting independently at last. Claudia tries to pull everything back together with an over the top Passover seder but it is too late, the family has changed forever. In his poem 'This be the verse' Philip Larkin wrote:

They fuck you up your mum and dad
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you up with faults they had
And add some extra, just for you

and Charlotte Mendelson has managed to sum up exactly how this has happened to the Rubin children in When We Were Bad. By turns kind to or angry with the various characters, her observations are so acute that they seemed so real to me that I kept thinking they must be based on people I know.

This is a very funny, sharp look at the life of a family where the balance between being nurtured and being stifled was out of kilter. I read the book in one sitting, sometimes laughing, sometimes cringing; I am the parent of adult children myself and some of the expectations and anxieties of the Rubin family seemed rather close to home.

Charlotte Mendelson has written two other novels, and I am really looking forward to reading them.

Rated 5*


You would have had to be living on Mars to avoid the press coverage of the Pope’s recent visit to the USA – he certainly eclipsed our PM Gordon Brown who was on an official visit there at the same time.

Normally I don’t give much thought to speeches by the Pope, however he made a major speech in Washington DC which really annoyed me.

Addressing the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, he expressed shame and sorrow for the crisis of child abuse within the Catholic priesthood in America over the past few years, and he berated the bishops for their handling of the whole ghastly mess; but then he went on to say that secular society was also culpable for it having happened.

What the hell is he talking about? How is secular society to blame for Catholic priests abusing Catholic children in their pastoral care?

On virtually all sexual matters the attitude of the Catholic church strikes me as misogynistic, paternalistic, antedeluvian and downright hypocritical, and this statement is yet another example of that attitude.

Child abuse is a CRIME, Bishops who have shielded abusers should be removed from their positions. A firm message should go out from the Vatican that any member of the church who abuses children will be handed over to the authorities immediately.

Do that Pope Benedict, and stop trying to blame American society in general.


Last Saturday evening was the first night of Pesach or Passover, and a very dear Jewish friend of ours invited the DH and I to join with her family and friends for the Passover seder. Not being Jewish I was not very sure what happens on such an occasion, but I did know that it was a special meal, so we felt very honoured to have been asked. I also knew that when Christ celebrated the Last Supper, that was actually a Passover seder, and that no food containing yeast or any other leavening could be in the house, served or eaten for eight days.

There are lots of websites where you can learn all about this Jewish festival, suffice to say that for thousands of years Jews have celebrated the exodus from slavery in Egypt, and the seder is a way of remembering it. I was slightly concerned, when, having asked our hostess if there was anything I could bring for the meal, she asked me to make Potato Kugel and supplied me with some Matzo meal. I had never eaten or made it before, but Potato Kugel is a dish that every Jewish family in the world seems to have their own recipe for, and they consider their family's version to be the "best" and absolutely definative. What would my friend's other guests (who included Germans, Israelis, French and English Jews) make of my amateur attempt at a classic Ashkenazi dish? In the event I need not have worried, it was simplicity itself and turned out fine - everyone was very complimentary. (By the way you can buy Matzo meal in the Kosher section of most supermarkets, I checked afterwards.)


1kg potatoes
1 large onion
2 large eggs
2 Tablespoons plain flour (or matzo meal)
2 Tablespoons oil (corn, sunflower or vegetable)
Salt & pepper

Extra oil for cooking.

Pre-heat oven to 190°C

Peel the potatoes and the onion and grate them coarsely in a food processor. Place the grated potatoes and onion in a sieve or colander for a few minutes to drain off the excess liquid that will be produced.

Take handfuls of the grated potato and onion and squeeze out as much liquid as possible then place them in a large bowl.

Take a large shallow ovenproof dish and pour about 4 tablespoons of oil into it before placing it in the oven for the oil to get hot.

Mix the eggs, oil, and matzo meal/flour together. The consistency should be pourable but not too runny. Season the potato and onion mix well (potatoes need a fair bit of salt) and then add the egg mixture. Mix everything together with a wooden spoon.

Take the dish from the oven and carefully spoon the kugel mixture into it, pressing it gently but evenly into the corners and making the surface as level as possible.

Bake in the oven for 40minutes until the surface is golden brown and crispy.

Can be made in advance as it reheats really, really well.


Bybee said...

The book sounds good -- I love that you quoted the Larkin poem.

That statement by the pope smelled strongly of senility.

As always, your dish looked mouth-watering.

Nick said...

The Pope trying to blame non-Catholics for the whole sorry child abuse mess? What a cheek. As you say, the Catholic church alone is entirely responsible for this moral degeneracy. Not in my name and all that.

Thanks for the review of When We Were Bad. Straight on to my To Buy list. Have you ever read Hurakami's Norwegian Wood? I've just reread it and it's so brilliant, it puts a lot of recent overhyped British titles to shame.

John Self said...

When We Were Bad is terrific isn't it? You've helped me choose my next book to read, which has been sitting on my shelves for a while: Mendelson's second novel Daughters of Jerusalem!

herschelian said...

bybee, I really recommend When We Were Bad, Charlotte Mendelson is still young and I expect to enjoy many books by her in future.

nick, I have read nearly everything by Hurakami and couldn't agree with you more about Norwegian Wood.

john self, I've just bought Daughters of Jerusalem but haven't started it yet.

Jeanne said...

Thanks for the great book review - that's going on mt list then! As for the Popee, don't get me started. You can't hush everything up and say you'll handle it internally and then a) not punish offenders suitable and b) blame the outside world! I feel sorry for Catholics around the world who are horrified at the way this has been handled and whose belief system has been tarnished as a result... ANd I'm glad to see your first foray into Jewish cuisine went so well. Mazeltov!

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