Modern Jewish Women of Vienna

Der Standard (03/14/2009)

In her first novel, “Hashems Lasso,” Alexia Weiss describes how Jewish women in current-day Vienna are living with religious rules

Seven women, seven stories of lives from Vienna, New York and Israel that all cross each other’s paths in Austria. What connects the women is Judaism into which they were born or have deliberately decided for themselves. Their existence, their everyday life determines and is supported by, is influenced and inhibited by religious rules and traditions that often stand in contradiction to modern-day life.

There is Eva, daughter of Desirée. She wants to marry Daniel and it is to be a big, Jewish wedding. A “perfect celebration,” followed by a “perfect life,” as Alexia Weiss ironically writes in her first novel.

There is the Jewish woman Ruth who becomes acquainted with the non-Jew Andreas at a party and falls in love. But the relationship is too much for his and her parents, and ways of thinking and feeling previously unrecognized begin to appear. Slanderous anti-Semitic remarks from the one side, and reproaches that the son-in-law is not Jewish from the other escalate until Ruth concludes: “It’s my life and my decision,” she screams to her mother on the telephone.

Then there is Jennifer, who according to Halacha, is legally not Jewish because only her father is Jewish; the mother doesn’t belong to the religion and for that reason her registered affiliation with the religious community is purely a formality. Jennifer’s boyfriend wants their children to be born as Jews and therefore asks that she convert. But she has some doubts whether she is willing to take upon herself the far-reaching changes to her life that come with having to follow Orthodox rules. Above all, forbidding one to work on the Sabbath is something she struggles with when becoming a pediatrician.

In Search of Identity

Whether it is the rules passed down through the ages alone that determines the core of Judaism, or whether Jewish identity today could be defined other than how it’s defined today in Central Europe is one of the central questions that Weiss poses in her book. The Viennese journalist discovered only when she was eighteen that her mother is Jewish and ten years later she became a member of the Jewish community. The setting of the story takes place in the lively, diverse Jewish community of Vienna , making it special and a unique situation terms of approaching the problem.

What is described here in clear language and creates tension is the everyday life of the Jewish woman in current-day Vienna. Also Claudia, who is an enthusiastic convert to ultra-orthodox Judaism, and Jekaterina, the strongly religious Russian, who suffers from emotional speechlessness in her marriage, contribute to it as well.

The Shoah, with all its traumatic consequences, is not the main focus; in no way does that mean, however, that the story lacks any reference to history. Now enters Hanni, over eighty years old, who fled to the U.S. from the Nazis and travels to Vienna for the wedding of her grandson Daniel who wants to marry Eva. Hanni doesn’t think much of religious ritual. But Hashem, as religious Jews denote God, is prepared to win her over with his lasso of truth.

See: Weiss, Alexia. “Hashems Lasso.” Milena Publishers, Vienna 2009