Review of Chaya Sara Schlussel’s The Punch Line

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By BrachaGoykadosh

On Friday night, I began reading Chaya Sara Schlussel’sThe Punch Line, expecting to smile.  The cover after all, promised that Schlussel’s collection of essays would “tickle” my “funny bone.” Although we are advised as children not to judge books by their covers, this is one cover you can believe. When reading the prose and poetry in The Punch Line, I laughed out loud from Schlussel’s keen satiric observations. But what is not italicized on the cover is more important: Schlussel’s essays are not only light-hearted anecdotes, they are thought-provoking and inspiring examinations. When Schlussel’s reflections do adopt a serious tone, they aim to stimulate ruminations on Judaism and life. These intriguing serious pieces kindle and awaken the mind. 

Schlussel’s humor emerges most vividly in her satiric portraits and sketches. In “A Boro Park Pre- Yom Tov Experience,” Schlussel describes a Yom Tov shopping experience we are all undoubtedly familiar with—the hubbub of busy stores, the excess, the children in and out of corners. The twist Schlussel adds to this essay is the commentary of the narrator’s friend from Milwaukee. As the narrator buys overpriced and expensive, designer Shabbos and weekday shoes from a crowded store, the friend from Milwaukee wonders: “Why would you shop at a place like that?”  The narrator, hilariously, parades her friend to Brooklyn’s finest clothing, socks, hair accessory stores where “headbands of every possible shade of every possible color, in every possible design, were patiently matched by knowing saleswomen to children’s skin tones, eye colors and hair textures.” What is most enlightening and compelling about this sketch is that Schlussel’s tone never becomes preachy. While she provides an accurate, albeit somewhat exaggerated portrayal of pre-Yom Tov shopping, she refrains from adopting a sanctimonious voice. Instead, through her humor we as readers and fellow New Yorkers are able to realize the hilarity and out-of-bound nature of this shopping experience. 

In “Fly the Friendly Skies” and “Relaxing Summer Vacation,” Schlusseldescribes the chaotic glee of family travel with precision. In “Are They All Really Mine?,” she blithely describes motherhood and the dissonance that sometimes accompanies it. In “Why Pesach Costs Money,”  Schlussel plays with a chad gadya theme to show how Pesach expenses can sometimes leap out of control. In “The Shidduch Crisis”, Schlussel’s narrator is the mother of a boy in shidduchim who just cannot find a girl for her son; the mother’s specifications and concerns, while all seem valid, are a riot. Readers will find themselves nodding as they read the essays in this collection, trying to hold back a laugh. 

However,Schlussel’s book is not only filled with jokes and funny scenes.  Schlussel provides a mashal any Jewish woman will understand in “Curlers:” shaitels. When overhearing a shaitelmacher speaking about brittle hair, a wife understands the need for flexibility in her marriage. Schlussel’s quiet examination of marital dyamics and its relation to a mundane day concept such as hair reveals her skill and subtlety as a writer. Within the framework she creates, she evokes reflective and insightful mediations on relationships. She is an author who succeeds at “showing” instead of “telling.” When reading these more serious reflections, readers will find themselves as engrossed and captivated by Schlussel’s prose as they did when reading the more light-hearted sections of the book.

My favorite essay in the collection was a serious one, “Much Ado About Nothing,” where Schlussel beautifully and inspiringly discusses the value of davening, of hodah, when everything is okay, and speaks about how in the olden days any woman who did not cry when davening was considered to have a problem. The insight Schlussel provides into the prayer process and its social implications illuminate the role of prayer for us as Jews. What is most compelling about this reflection is its personal, tangible quality; one almost feels as if she is directly speaking with Schlussel as an author. 

Schlussel’s grace in writing is her elegant combination of both humor and inspiration in this collection of essays. It is rare to find a book that will take your breath away because you are simultaneously laughing and enthused. It is a book that will not only entertain, but also inspire you.

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