The JCC Mid-Westchester invites the community to its Spring Literary Salon on Tuesday, April 16, from 10 - 11:30 a.m., featuring newly-released books written by Westchester residents Reyna Marder Gentin, author of “Unreasonable Doubts,” and Lynda Cohen Loigman, author of “The Wartime Sisters.”
Marder Gentin has written an intense and captivating novel that includes legal suspense, family dynamics, workplace politics and a satisfying background story. Set in the present time, the book travels back to the past and entertains the future as it relates to the events and characters in the story. The author described her characters as “complex and complicated.” There are twists and turns that keep the reader engaged, and allegiances to the characters will shift as well.
The protagonist of the novel, Liana Cohen, is a public defender who harbors mixed feelings when dealing with legal cases she is assigned to represent. No longer the enthusiastic appellate attorney defending hardened criminals, rapists and murderers, she is in crisis mode. Liana is told by her boss, “We’re public interest lawyers—we need to believe in the guiding principles of the trusted position we hold. And the number one rule must be that we treat each client as an individual, with hopes and dreams, deserving of our energy and skill and passion, no matter what he may or may not have done to land himself in our care.” Her life becomes more complicated when she agrees to argue the appellate case of Danny Shea, who is in prison for rape. Danny is unlike any client Liana has previously defended; his intelligence and movie-star good looks intrigue her and Liana feels compelled to find a loophole in his first trial, hoping to overturn his conviction.
Marder Gentin, who lives in Scarsdale and is a member of Young Israel of Scarsdale, grew up in Great Neck, and attended college and law school at Yale. For more than 20 years she practiced law, moving from a large firm to a clerkship for the late Hon. Leonard B. Sand in the Southern District of New York. She went on to become a law guardian with the Legal Aid Society’s Juvenile Rights Division before turning to criminal appeals. She spent nearly 18 years at Appellate Advocates representing convicted felons in the Appellate Division and New York Court of Appeals. Currently, in addition to her writing career, she volunteers weekly by obtaining restraining orders for victims of domestic violence.
Marder Gentin shared with The Jewish Link, “There are many aspects of the story that were inspired by people or events in my life. The main character, Liana Cohen, works in an appellate defender’s office that was inspired by the office in which I worked. The attorneys there were deeply committed to the work and to the clients, but it was not unusual for them to experience spells of burn-out or disillusionment. The legal error that comes up in the book came from a case that I handled and won on appeal...Characters also are drawn from experiences in my life, including the mother, and Liana’s friend Deb. The rabbi is based on a combination of the former rabbi of Young Israel of Scarsdale, Rabbi Jacob Rubenstein, z”l, and my current rabbi, Rabbi Jacob Morgenstern.”
The novel is also a “Jewish story,” where many rites of passage are celebrated, such as a wedding, a funeral, a seder and even a Havdalah service at the Touro Synagogue in Rhode Island. Gentin explained, “Judaism plays a huge role in my life and the life of my family. I couldn’t imagine writing a main character that wasn’t interested in her faith. She becomes friends with a traditional rabbi, Rabbi Nacht, and she begins to understand that the big questions with which she is struggling—the role of justice, finding her bashert, how to pray for an ill friend—are questions that Judaism has been speaking to for thousands of years. Liana learns that there is wisdom she can access on her own level and at her own pace; she doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel.”
Another law school graduate from Columbia University Law School and now an author, Lynda Cohen Loigman lives with her family in Chappaqua. Also a student at the Sarah Lawrence College Writer’s Workshop, Loigman’s book, “The Wartime Stories,” her second published novel, is an engrossing family saga rooted in Judaism of sisterhood, sacrifice and identity set against the backdrop of Brooklyn in the 1930s and the Springfield Armory during World War II. Loigman, a master storyteller, follows two estranged sisters, raised in Brooklyn, each burdened with her own shocking secret and examines the tenuous bonds of family and the ways in which our childhood roles define—and often haunt us—as adults. The book paints an evocative portrait of the life women led and the contributions they made on the homefront during the early days of the second World War.
The two main characters, Ruth and Millie, have never been close. Ruth is studious, brittle and envious of her younger sister, Millie, whose beauty and charm captivate everyone around her. Ruth has always been too controlling and uptight for Millie’s taste, and Ruth has always resented the attention Millie received—not just from men, but from their parents as well. With WWII on the horizon, Ruth’s engineer husband is offered a job at the Springfield Armory. Ruth is eagerly looking forward to a fresh-start, where no one knows her sister. Millie is left behind in Brooklyn and marries a “no goodnick” with a violent temper. Tragedy forces Millie to relocate to Springfield where Ruth is an officer’s wife, living in luxury on the beautiful Springfield Armory campus, while Millie, working in the armory’s factory, lives in simple surroundings, with little money to spare.
Loigman was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, and then moved to Longmeadow, the site of the Springfield Armory. She received her B.A. in English and American Literature from Harvard College and decided to become an attorney. Loigman explained, “I was a trusts and estates lawyer, so I dealt with families and with people either writing their wills and getting their estate planning together, or doing the estate administration. I knew I liked that area of law because it was very personal and dealt with families...I just never liked all the tax law that you need to know on top of being a comforting presence and trying to help people cope with stuff. So I liked part of it. But I really didn’t like practicing law.”
Loigman’s mom always encouraged her children to find a profession and become self-sufficient. When her mom passed away, Loigman had turned 40 and decided that she needed to follow her heart and embark on a career she would enjoy. She began writing her first novel, “The Two-Family House” while at the Sarah Lawrence Writer’s Workshop. She knew she wanted to write about families, calling upon her own happy childhood memories from holidays and other family gatherings.
Loigman’s mother, the late Janice Cohen, had two sisters and Loigman’s grandmother was very much a part of the Cohen’s lives when the family grew up in Brooklyn. Loigman remembers family stories, some of which included trickier times when the sisters were angry with each other and stopped talking for a week or two. Loigman shared, “I would eavesdrop on my mom’s phone conversations, looking for clues as to whether everyone was getting along again. I was always happiest when they made up. I think that watching the interactions among (the sisters) taught me a lot about how different people can see one situation in multiple ways. There are so many sides to every story, and that is one of the themes I try to tackle in my writing.”
Loigman explained that the book is “a kind of literary history and a home front story. I never set out to write a WWII story, rather it’s about the sisterhood of women working for the war.” It’s also a Jewish story, laced with Yiddish expressions, reflecting the Yiddish Loigman heard in family conversations while she was growing up. Loigman offered, “I didn’t think when I first started writing stories that I had to have Jewish themes. But with everything that is going on in the world right now, it has become very important to me to have Jewish stories represented in my work because I’m worried that we might not have them forever. I do feel that it is an important thing—to tell Jewish stories.”
By Yvette Finkelstein