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by Angela Zeman
Pendulum Press, November 2001
232 pages
ISBN: 0971253811

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

As with most legends, that of the Borscht Belt gains much in memory. The heyday of the great hotels in the Catskills, where working class Jewish families would go to s[end a week out of the City, probably lasted only a generationor so, from the late 1940s until about 1960, but it produced some of our greatest performers...Sam Levenson, Red Buttons, Milton Berle, Alan King, Mel Brooks and even Woody Allen. THE WITCH AND THE BORSCH PEARL is an ode to that memory.

Rachel, not quite 18, is married to an abusive, jealous fishmonger in Wyndham-by-the-Sea, a small community on the North Shore of Long Island. He never lets her go off the property and fixes her lunch daily. Rachel is growing a garden full of henbane, digitalis, and other toxic plants. Mrs. Risk, the resident "witch" notices what is going on and brings Ike a sumptuous paella one day. While he's eating, he has a heart attack and dies. Before her 19th birthday, Rachel is a propertied widow. She opens a flower shop and becomes Mrs. Risk's protÈgÈ.

Velma (Pearl) Schrafft,a stand up comic, well loved in the Catskill Mountain resort area is throwing a 58th birthday party to announce her return to the stage on Thanksgiving weekend. Pearl's younger sister, Bella, who had run away to France with Pearl's fiancÈ 30 years previously, appears at the party and Pearl's friends are aghast at her nerve. Bella and Pearl go into the house, Later that night, Bella is gone and so is the necklace that Pearl's husband had given her many years before, the Borscht Pearl of the title.

Solly is Pearl's personal manager and it is thought by all that they would marry. It's been two years since Pearl was widowed, and Solly has gotten Pearl the coveted Thanksgiving weekend gig, but three months later, at a small dinner party, Solly is Bella's escort, and announces their coming marriage. Solly dies at the dinner but plans for Pearl's return to the stage continue a does Mrs. Risk's interest in the case

The characters are well defined and real. They may be types but they are lovingly drawn and not caricatured. The history of the resort area known as the Borscht Belt is given in little chunks throughout the book, never stopping the action. There are several Mrs. Risk short stories but this is the first full length novel in which she appears. I hope there will be more of them.

Reviewed by Barbara Franchi, December 2001

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