The Mathematician’s Shiva by Stuart Rojastaczer

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The Mathematician’s Shiva by Stuart Rojstaczer is ostensibly a novel about a shiva held for mathematician Rachela Karnakovitch. But it is much more than describing the seven days one sits in honor of the loss of a loved one. No, this novel is an homage to mathematicians and scientists, Russia and America, mothers and fathers, but most of all to courage and strength.

It is told through the narrative of Sasha, Rachela’s son, interspersed with chapters from her own memoir. We catch a glimpse of what it meant to have lived through the war, suffering under Stalin’s terrible hand. Yet that which does not kill us, can only make us stronger. Or, as my mother would say to me, “Courage grows strong in a wound.”

Rachela learns mathematics as a child, an eleven year old girl who is close to starvation. Through the deprivation she endured, and the brilliant mind she possessed, she became adept at solving complex mathematical problems. Her life was unique as a Soviet defector, a Jew, and a woman who was a genius in mathematics.

She writes in her memoir, “I needed a war to make me into a mathematician. I needed deprivation to make me appreciate every little gift, every tiny increment-like a crumb of food, yes-of understanding while solving a problem. I don’t believe a spoiled child, even one encouraged to pursue the intellectual world, can ever be anything more than a second-rate mathematician. This is what war gave me, a life of the mind that would sustain me almost always.”

It took a great deal of courage to sustain herself. As a child she left Russia with her parents; as a young mother she defected to America certain that her husband and son would find a way to follow.

When she dies from lung cancer at the age of 70, the problem faced by her son is how to keep her funeral from “turning into a Russian theatrical tragedy.” A private ceremony is not possible; the great mathematical minds of Rachela’s world insist on sitting shiva with her family, for they are convinced that her solution to the famously difficult Navier-Stokes problem lies somewhere in her home.

The dialogue, the relationships, the insight into family life in general, and the minds of incredibly strong women in particular, is what makes this novel shine. It is a novel I devoured in one day, making my Labor Day vacation one long to be remembered. This is one of the most spectacular novels I have read this year, for I feel that Stuart Rojstaczer has written what it means to be an immigrant with incredible determination finding one’s way in America. He has written of American strengths and idiosyncrasies with an appraising eye. He has written of a son’s love for his mother, for his family, for his history with a tenderness that almost makes me weep. Except for the parts where I laughed with joy at the connection I found between his family and my own.