Not Our Kind
- By Kitty Zeldis
- 352 pp.
- Reviewed by Helene Meyers
- September 22, 2019
A richly layered assimilation story set in post-WWII Manhattan.
Kitty Zeldis’ Not Our Kind is set in the aftermath of WWII in a New York where genteel anti-Semitism is still a norm. At this meeting of 2nd and Park avenues, two women discover that their wrestling with one another and their own desires is an assimilation story for both of them.
Eleanor Moskowitz, a gifted teacher in search of a job where she will not have to accommodate plagiarizing students from well-heeled families, is involved in a minor accident on her way to a job interview. This literal collision of taxis becomes a figurative collision of worlds: Moskowitz, the Vassar-educated daughter of an immigrant milliner, collides with Patricia Bellamy, a Smith-educated society WASP.
Margaux, Patricia’s daughter and a disabled polio survivor, becomes the glue that bonds these two women together. When Margaux first meets Eleanor, she openly asks her if she is Jewish and whether her “people” killed Christ.
Appalled by this explicit expression of anti-Semitism that her daughter has learned in Sunday school and at the knee of a beloved Polish family servant, Patricia’s impulse is to send her daughter to her room.
But Eleanor, always the teacher and determined to conduct herself with dignity, patiently explains the Jewishness of Jesus, Roman power and crucifixion practices, and the subsequent scapegoating of Jews.
The intellectually open and curious Margaux, who has not yet internalized the bigotry of her parents’ set, responds favorably. And although the Bellamy family lives in a restricted building and Eleanor Moskowitz will have to pass as Eleanor Moss, this second-generation American Jew becomes Margaux’s tutor.
This plot could easily devolve into a derivative one-note Gentleman’s Agreement social-problem tale, but it doesn’t. Not Our Kind is certainly influenced by Laura Hobson’s 1946 novel that was adapted into the Oscar-winning film starring Gregory Peck, Dorothy McGuire, and John Garfield. However, chapters that alternate between Patricia’s and Eleanor’s point of view enable these co-protagonists to be defined by more than their stance on a Jewish question that’s both urgent and on the wane in the post-WWII era.
The parallel and sometimes competing relationships that Eleanor and Patricia have with the often angry Margaux invite us to think about the similarities and differences between physical and social disabilities. How do you encourage people who are othered in one way or another to respect themselves while learning to function in an imperfect and often cruel world? When is sticking with one’s own kind a necessary form of self-protection, and when is it detrimental to the development of a fully realized self? And how do you get the culture of the majority to recognize and transform its own destructive forms of tribalism?
In its triangulated focus on a socialite mother, a Jewish teacher, and a disabled student all trying to come to terms with life narratives that deviate from previously taken-for-granted norms, Not Our Kind tackles these questions in an historical novel that resonates in contemporary Trumpian America.
Tensions around sexual desire and sexual violence also connect the women in this story and exemplify the complexities of the contemporary #MeToo movement. When Wynn Bellamy, Patricia’s husband and Margaux’s doting father, assaults Eleanor, Patricia initially stands by her man and is complicit in blaming the alien Jewish victim.
However, she and others painfully become aware that their excuses for a man who “was always a little too free with his hands” but whom they “never dreamed” would “cross the line” are dangerously self-serving.
While Patricia must wrestle with a marriage gone terribly wrong and the specter of divorce, Eleanor must acknowledge that sexual assault is forever written on her body and that “marriage came with a particular template, one that seemed less desirable the more she examined it. Maybe there was a different way to be married, one that didn’t rely so heavily on the conventions she saw around her. But if there was, she suspected she’d have to invent it.”
The development of Henryka, the servant who initially receives Eleanor with quite a bit of anti-Semitic chilliness, is a fascinating subplot and itself worth the read. Less successful is Eleanor’s relationship with her mother, Irina, who seems an odd amalgam of Jewish-mother stereotypes and beguiling hints that she has quite the story of her own. But wanting more from an already very good novel is a sure sign that it has gotten under your skin.
[Editor's note: This review originally ran in 2018.]
Helene Meyers is a professor of English at Southwestern University in Georgetown, TX. The author of Identity Papers: Contemporary Narratives of American Jewishness, Reading Michael Chabon, and Femicidal Fears: Narratives of the Female Gothic Experience, she has also written for Lilith, Ms. Blog, Tablet, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and numerous other publications.