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Strange Relations    by Sonia Levitin order for
Strange Relations
by Sonia Levitin
Order:  USA  Can
Knopf, 2007 (2007)
* * *   Reviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke

Fifteen-year old Marne Lewison of Los Angeles, CA, convinces her parents that she should spend her summer vacation in Hawaii with maternal Aunt Carole, whom she's only met a few times over many years. Mom is a fashion designer and headed for an assignment in Paris, while Dad's employed at a busy hospital, and opts to stay at home.

Aunt Carole's name changed to Chaya, after her marriage to Chasidic rabbi, Uncle Isaac-Yitzhak, Yitz for short. They reside in Oahu, in a small cottage with a sandy yard, and have seven children ranging in age from nineteen months to eighteen years. Marne tells us that Uncle Yitz dresses in 'baggy black slacks and black skullcap (looking like a deacon from the Middle Ages), and rimless glasses were perched on his nose.' Marne also notices his New York accent, and twinkling eyes. Their lifestyle is different and confusing to Marne. During the night, she listens to 'the wind slapping the palm leaves with a constant swish, swish. The scent of ginger blossoms seeped into her semi-dreams. Mingled with the fragrance came soft voices, murmuring in rhythm, like a song, rising and falling, a peaceful cadence that could only be the voice of prayer'. These words - that she had not heard 'in a long, long time' - have a familiar sound to Marne. She establishes a routine of a five-mile run along the beach, and the 'narrow, sandy lane, small houses, past a billowing mound of wild grass ... calm water and vast shore. True paradise'.

Aunt and Uncle's household atmosphere is warm and inviting, with each family member participating in everyday routines. The house is filled with visitors, with shul services on Saturday. Marne's thoughts drift to her own home, 'as silent as a cave'. The Rabbi answers questions, saying that the Torah is 'The blueprint for our existence ... If we live by its laws, we survive. We prosper.' When a guest asks Yitz, 'Who really wrote the Torah?', Marne responds, 'I think God inspired Moses to write it ... When a person writes a song, isn't it inspired? I imagine God has something to do with creativity.' Yitz is away from home when Chaya is called upon to perform a funeral ritual for a woman who died while visiting Hawaii, and asks Marne to help. When Chaya is bitten by an eel while swimming, Marne tends to her and drives her to a medical facility. When her friend Kim and family arrive at their Hawaiian condo, Marne changes to her old familiar routine - a different scenario from being with Aunt Chaya, Uncle Yitz, and the children. At a beach party things begin to get out of hand ...

Sonia Levitin's Strange Relations isn't really strange at all. Levitin has created a moving and memorable story of the tender warmth and affection of a large family, Chassidic traditions, spirituality, and harmony - all of which Marne comes to understand and appreciate. It is a celebration of life that brings Marne and her parents closer together and reunites a long-separated family. I loved this special, endearing story of discovery and sharing, laughter and music, and look forward to reading more by Sonia Levitin.

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