THE FAMILY WITH TWO FRONT DOORS
by Anna Ciddor – Allen & Unwin, 2016
ages 8 to 12 years + the adults who read it with them / chapter books, junior readers
The Rabinovitch family are a real-life family and The Family With Two Front Doors tells a little bit of their story.
They also represent many other families living an Orthodox Jewish life in Poland in the 1920’s. This pre-holocaust time was in many ways a charmed space, nestled after World War I and before the Great Depression came to Poland – a time of relative prosperity and peace. It’s simply delightful to follow the family through a few days leading up to Shabbes and then a few months leading to a wedding.
I confess to a certain 'holy envy' for an Orthodox Jewish Sabbath. Gathering the family, hurrying to be ready before sunset and sharing a traditional dinner sounds like a beautiful way to start a day of rest. The Rabinovitch family go through all of this, and my favourite passage from the book is in the chapter The Sabbath Queen:
At last it was time for the candles. Mama struck a match and leaned forward. Yakov watched in suspense – as he always did – to see how many she could light before the match burnt too low. First came the elegant, tall candlesticks for Papa and Mama, then the smaller ones for the children. The match burnt lower and lower, and Yakov let out a disappointed sigh as Mama dropped it on the metal tray. She picked up Nomi’s candle, and used it to light the last few candles, and then the four oil lamps for the little brothers and sisters who had died as babies.
Solemnly, she drew her hands in three circles above the hot, bright flames, covered her eyes and began to pray. At the sound of the words, Yakov felt Shabbes flow into the room, as warm and real as the heat that poured off the candles.
The bustle of the Shabbes preparations is carefully told in the preceding chapters, and then the excitement and busyness of arranging and preparing for a marriage follows. It’s a bit like reading Little House on the Prairie set in Poland – plenty of careful detail inviting readers into the family's life. They're a bustling, rambunctious family and, as they hurry through their days, we get to know the children:
We see Nomi making the Shabbes Gefilte fish for the first time, and we see her nervousness and her pride in taking on this most important role.
We see Adina handing over responsibilities to her younger sister as she begins to prepare herself for an arranged marriage. There’s grace balanced by apprehension in Adina – and all is well in the end as Nomi observes that Papa and the matchmaker had chosen well.
We see Shlomo, who can recite some Torah and knows parts of the Talmud, as he quizzes his future brother-in-law. He’s studious and protective and diligent.
And there’s Miriam who is a child of the future – she’s unhappy about the old tradition of arranged marriages and thinks marrying someone you’ve never met is ‘stupid’.
There are a whole host of Orthodox traditions on show here. There's the shaving of a married woman’s head, feeding the Beggars each week, study of the Torah by the boys and more. It’s a great way to introduce these traditions, because the characters are so real and so appealing that they become our friends. And it’s always easier to relate to new ideas and traditions if we have friends involved.
The Family With Two Front Doors is lovely for reading aloud and since there is no mention of the holocaust and the preceding years of turmoil and hardship, it’s appropriate for younger children. It also serves as a really good way to begin talking about the ghastliness of the holocaust. (A simple note from the author at the end of the book tells us that only three of the nine children survived the holocaust.)
This is a book full of charm – a reminder of the beauty of simple lives, and more profoundly of the importance of valuing individuals and families.
I do hope there are more stories about the Rabinovitch family coming – some would no doubt be heart-wrenching, but I'm sure Anna Ciddor could tell them with the same warmth and engagement as she has in The Family With Two Front Doors.