Review of Sondra’s Search – About Being Jewish in Rural Kansas

By Sybil Kaplan

Most writers write about what they know best, their own lives and experiences. This is the case of Ester Katz Silvers in “Sondra’s Search,” a novel for middle school and high school youth.

The prologue introduces the reader to the heroine, Sondra Apfelbaum, who is returning from Israel with her fiancé. The remainder of the book is a flashback, starting in 1965.

Sondra Apfelbaum is 11 years old and lives in a small, rural Kansas town where her father, Julius, is a salesman at the local department store owned by Uncle Simon. Sondra and her father and mother, Helga, a Holocaust survivor, live on a farm. Sondra and her cousins, Howie and Lisa, are the only Jews in the school. The town has no rabbi and no synagogue, but a lot of Sondra’s family live there.

Helga is in denial about her Holocaust background. Her parents and sister were murdered and whenever anything unpleasant about her background or Holocaust experience comes up in conversation, she goes to the bedroom.

As Howie and Sondra reach middle school and high school, we see the contrasts between how the families treat them as teens. For example, Howie is allowed to go out with non-Jewish girls, but Sondra cannot date non-Jewish boys. Then Sondra goes to visit an Aunt and Uncle in Kansas City and becomes involved with an Orthodox youth group.

As Sondra visits more often, makes friends and becomes more involved with the youth group, she also becomes more identified as a Jew through high school and her first year at a local college then on into young adulthood.

I really loved this coming of age book, not because it dealt with Kansas, but because the issues Silvers deals with for young adults are so well done. Growing up Jewish in a small town is a clear-cut and mature presentation. The narrative is clear, and the characters all add to the plot. The writing is well done and Silvers meets the challenge of explaining the issues of growing up in a small town as a Jew and having a parent who is a Holocaust survivor for young adult readers very successfully.

Author’s history

In an email interview, Silvers wrote that she felt “compelled” to write the book because of the question she heard so many times, “you mean there are Jews in Kansas?”

She grew up in Wichita, an only child, like her heroine, Sondra. Her father, like Julius, left Germany very much the way Sondra’s father did, but her mother was born in Leavenworth, Kansas to immigrant parents and was not a Holocaust survivor. Whereas Sondra and her family live on a farm, Silver’s did not, but her cousin did and she visited her every summer. She said her favorite uncle is a rancher in Oklahoma.

For Silvers, Wichita was a “wonderful place to grow up for a Reform Jew. There was little, if any, pollution, traffic jams or anti-Semitism. What there was was a beautiful downtown, lovely parks, plenty of open air, and a nice amount of culture.”

In the book, the heroine’s father works at an uncle’s department store. Silvers wrote that “my great-uncle had a big department store in Stillwater, Okla., and used whatever connections he had to get his family into America under the quota system.”

As a child, Mrs. Silver visited Kansas City since her father was a haberdasher and he would go to the men’s market. They would meet relatives from McPherson, Kan., in the lobby of the Muelbach Hotel and she and her cousins would ride the elevator.

When she was older, her parents took her to Starlight Theatre in the summer and downtown theater in the winter.

At Silvers’ Bat Mitzvah, she read from the Sefer Torah her uncle had rescued following Kristallnacht. Growing up, she attended youth activities in Wichita and was in NCSY, the organization Sondra is exposed to the most when she comes to Kansas City.

“As a teenager, I would come to [Kansas City] for BBYO conventions. We thought we were going to the BIG city!” she said.

Like Sondra, “inter-dating was a big issue. Although there were fifteen other Jewish kids my age in town, there was always the feeling of being different. We all dealt with it in different ways. Some married out, others followed their parents’ approach to Judaism and three of us became Orthodox.”

At Arizona State University, she mether husband. They became observant, then married and lived in Phoenix. In 1986, they moved to Israel with five children, aged two months to nine years. They settled in a Judea/Samaria community called Shilo “because it fit our needs — a rural type community with a yeshiva, grammar school, plenty of children our children’s ages, a grocery store, doctor, nurse, and clinic, as well as very nice people.” The Silvers have had two more children since then, and their seven children now range in age from 14 to 31.

Shilo is more than 20 miles north of Jerusalem and held a central place in the history of Israel as the religious center and assembly place for the tribe of Israel and where the tabernacle sat. In 1978, a Jewish community settled there, and today, there are about 300 families of all ages.

Silvers spends her time as a homemaker and, when not writing, with learning, sewing and community service.

The Silvers family lived in Shilo during the Intifada and she characterizes those years as “hard, but that was all for Israelis.” She has written some articles on that subject: “Shilo: A Mother’s Diary” and “Community Anguish.”

Silvers is currently working on the sequel focusing to “Sondra’s Search” focusing on the heroine, Sondra, and her cousin, Lisa, whom she tries to involve in becoming more Jewishly-identified in the book.

Originally published on the Kansas City Jewish Chronicle

One comment on “Review of Sondra’s Search – About Being Jewish in Rural Kansas

  1. A marvelous book, so filled with wisdom, awareness, and insight that I’m surprised it hasn’t been banned. A deeply sensitive book, yet, incredibly, very entertaining . . . “Sondra’s Search” is very hard to put down. I never expected the ending (which was perfection itself among book endings). I loved the family dynamics, most especially because I grew up in a family business. Everything was perfectly portrayed. I’m a better person for having read this book.

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