The City of Laughter by Temim Fruchter

Two things Shiva (so named when her grandmother Syl died on the same day Shiva was born) knows for sure. She loves Jewish folktales and “finally, finally” at thirty-two Shiva is certain she is a “queer femme." What puzzles her is her oddities within her family. 


City of Laughter, a new novel by Temim Fruchter, begins in Ropshitz, 1920, a shtetl where a badchan (a wedding jester) tries, in vain, to amuse the bride and groom as well as to entertain the guests. Nothing works. His jokes fall flat. Nobody laughs in Ropshitz. On one such glum day the badchan notices a stranger in the village where “there are no strangers.” When the badchan approaches, the stranger delivers a consequential message. His words would change the city of disconsolates to a raucous bunch of happy folks. What was the stranger’s message? And why, decades later, is Shiva determined to find out?  


Shiva has a lot to unpack. For starters, her mother, Hannah, loves to hang out with dead people. She volunteers at the chevra kadisha at her Modern Orthodox Synagogue and happily works at a funeral home. Shiva is stymied by grandma Syl’s priority. Above all else, Syl’s passion was bird watching and writing in her secret notebooks that she insisted on having burned after her death. Superstitious and guarded, Syl was strict in her observance of religious rituals careful never to invoke the wrath of the ever-present ayin hara (evil eye). In addition, Shiva can’t explain why her father Jon (recently deceased) was fascinated with An-Sky, the folklorist, ethnographer, playwright of the spooky drama, the Dybbuk about a groom from “yeneh velt, (the other world) who inhabits the body of his bride to be. Shiva wonders how it happened that her great-grandmother Mira, born in Ropschitz, “the city of laughter” just a few miles outside of Warsaw was reputed never to laugh.


Whenever Shiva asked for an explanation of these familial idiosyncrasies, she was sternly admonished, “Sometimes when something is closed, you’re not meant to open it.” Shiva felt” “underwater” about her family’s peculiarities. What was her mother hiding? What mystery had her grandmother’s incinerated notebooks contained? 


Shiva longed to uncover the forces that had shaped her bizarre ancestral family tree. She was singularly driven to determine what she may have inherited from her ancestors. After the death of her beloved father, Shiva registers in a graduate class in Jewish folklore. One of her assignments takes her to Poland to investigate her “origins”. Her awakening was cosmic. 


A novel that breaks convention in plot and character City of Laughter is an out and out hoot with attachments and surprising messages for avid recipients.