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Jerusalem as a Second Language by Rochelle Distelheim

Title: Jerusalem as a Second Language

Author: Rochelle Distelheim

Published on: 29th September 2020

Genre: Literary Fiction

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Rating: 4 out of 5.

It is 1998. The USSR has fallen and the Russian Jews are having a tough time. Manya and Yuri Zalinikov move to Israel with their daughter Galina after a mafia head threatens them.

But life in Jerusalem, Israel is no fairy tale. Soon after moving to Israel, Manya finds it difficult to adjust to Jewish customs. As a Russian jew, she never had to worry about kosher, or mixing meat with dairy or wearing a marriage wig. She and Yuri had an understanding when they got married – not to be the orthodox kind. But things are slowly changing.

Manya learns her daughter must join the army – all the girls and boys are supposed to do the compulsory two-year stint at the army. For the girls, there is some leniency in the rule – only unmarried girls join the army. Manya has two years time until Galina joins. So she is eager to get Galina married off so that she doesn’t have to serve in the army.

Yuri has changed too. He was a renowned mathematician back in Russia but now he spends most of his time learning the religious texts. Meanwhile, Manya, a talented pianist, finds job at a night club. She finds herself a little drawn to her boss.

From the above synopsis, you guys have a brief idea as to what to expect from this book. And believe me, this is a lot of information packed in one story. I really admire the efforts Rochelle’s put in into writing this book.

A middle-aged woman’s dilemma is very well-explained in this story. Manya thought moving away from Russia is going to keep them safe. The Oslo Accords is what is keeping them (barely) safe in Israel. A bomb blast once in a while is not something Manya expected. Nor did she expect the discrimination against Russian Jews or the regular checking of bags at every shopping center.

Meanwhile, Galina, who initially had trouble settling in a new country seems to be adjusting well. Hanging out with friends and liking the idea of a semi-arranged marriage. However, she’s skeptical about settling down with an Orthodox Jewish family. Yuri seems to be the only one adjusting well to the ‘new life’. He’s slowly drifting away from Galina and Manya.

Jerusalem as a Second Language is a beautifully written story. I recommend it to those who love to read Literary Fiction.


Exclusive Excerpt from Jerusalem as a Second Language

Dawn doesn’t happen in Jerusalem as it did in St. Petersburg, where the dark yields to sudden gray light, and the day had begun. In my new city, the night faded gradually, a faint shimmer of orange and golden rays suffusing the sky behind the sculpted mosques, churches and synagogues on the Mount of Olives, followed by arcing light and clouds of translucent radiance, so stunning a process that, even lacking faith, one was forced, if only momentarily, to believe in the power of redemption.

I had begun to also leave the house early to walk through the Old City, feeling, despite my resistance to this bewildering place, a strong surge of curiosity. Perhaps, if I memorized its shapes and sounds, the silent spaces between buildings, the slant of sunlight on its surfaces; if I could imprint one image, then another, upon my memory, then, when I closed my eyes, rather than calling up the majestic Church of the Savior on Spilled Blood, or the ornate wooden gazebo in Kempinski Park, out of the darkness would float the Tower of David, the Western Wall, the Great Synagogue on King George Street.

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The Jewish Quarter in the Old City was like no other place on earth: a maze of pale stone walls within stone walls, each one catching constantly shifting light wholly different from the flat, hard, unyielding Russian light. A rich, damp smell rose from the craggy surface, as though earth and air and water had been transformed into building blocks.

I entered the Quarter through the narrow street just inside the Jaffa Gate: a Muslim street teeming with peddlers, with guides grasping anyone who might be a tourist and, behind them, shopkeepers in white turbans and shabby dark coats, sucking the stems of water pipes, seated on low stools, waiting, beckoning, hissing: Come in, lady, change dollars, lady, you like almond nut, coconut, raisins?

Skirting the newspaper kiosks, the donkeys, the Palestinian boys wheeling enormous platforms loaded with bricks or breads or shoes, I would pause at the medieval parapets of the Tower of David just inside the gate, looking up, up, in dazed awe.


About Rochelle Distelheim

Rochelle Distelheim, a Chicago native, earned numerous short story literary awards, including The Katherine Anne Porter Prize; Illinois Arts Council Literary Awards and Fellowships; The Ragdale Foundation Fellowships; The Faulkner Society Gold Medal in Novel-in-Progress; The Faulkner Society Gold Medal in Novel; The Gival Press 2017 Short Story Competition; Finalist, Glimmer Train’s Emerging Writers; and The Salamander Second Prize in Short Story. In addition, Rochelle’s short stories earned nominations for The Best American Short Stories and The Pushcart Prize.  Her stories have appeared in national magazines such as Glamour, Good Housekeeping, Ladies Home Journal, Woman’s Day, Woman’s World, Working Woman, Working Mother, and more.  Her first novel, Sadie in Love, was published in 2018 when she was 90 years old.  She lived in Highland Park, IL.

Rochelle passed away in June 2020 and Jerusalem as a Second Language is her last book.


Many thanks to Rachel Gul and Over The River PR for giving me an opportunity to be a part of this blog tour. To follow the tour stops and participate in giveaway, visit this site.

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