When someone passes away, the family goes into organisation overdrive.
There’s the Chevra to talk to, the minyanim to organise, notices to go into community papers and so much more.
I know because when my mum passed away, I distinctly remember having a conversation with my husband to organise for sandwiches and water to be placed in the cars that would be transporting us from the Chevra to the cemetery.
I, of course, being the mourner, wasn’t allowed to organise them myself.
When it came to my grandfather’s minyanim though, it was me on the phone to various family friends requesting cakes be baked and fruit platters be cut.
Which is why, when I was reading Nadine J. Cohen’s debut book, Everyone and Everything, a couple of storylines stood out.
As Yael and Liora, based on Nadine and her own sister, are dealing with their mother and then their grandmother’s deaths, they’re busy speaking to the caterer about sandwiches and breakfast pastries.
I mention this to Nadine when we chat on the phone. Those parts of her book were so relatable to me, as a woman who lost my mum at the age of 27, and the logistics around death in Judaism.
She laughed when I told her about the food in the cars.
“I wish I’d put that in the book,” she chuckled.
It was quite a light-hearted conversation for such a deep topic.
Yet, death isn’t the only deep topic that Nadine touches on in her novel.
Nadine describes Everyone and Everything as a semi-autobiographical fictionalised novel, and while explaining that she is non-practising religiously as a Jew, she is culturally very tied to and aligned with the community.
“This grows as I get older,” she explained. “I really wanted to reflect Judaism in the book more than I probably thought I would. Once I started writing, I realised just how much I wanted Judaism to be part of it.”
And Judaism really is woven through almost every element of the novel, even down to the names of the main characters – Yael and Liora.
“If you’re sitting at a cafe at a table alone, and you’re next to an older person alone, talk to them. Just start a conversation. There’s value in friendships with all different kinds of people.”
But also, Nadine explained, she wanted to reflect her personal journey making friends with older people. It was a void she felt after becoming the oldest generation of her family in her 20s.
Nadine lost her father to dementia, her mother to cancer and then her maternal grandmother. Through those deaths, Nadine wrote for The Guardian that her relationships with her family members had inverted – she and her sister became the parents, the carers; and then they became the oldest generation, with no grandparents left and no aunts or uncles to lean on. This experience, in her mid-20s had a huge impact on her, resulting in a breakdown, all of which is documented in the novel.
She said, though, that she never really thought about writing books.
“I’ve been a writer for a long time, but I’ve never wanted to write books; it was never an aim of mine,” she recalled. “When I was coming out of this mental health disaster, I did think of a few books that I wanted to write. One of them was set at the baths and was semi-autobiographical, but fiction, and one was a reflective memoir on my grandmother, who was a [Holocaust] survivor and had a lot of mental health issues.”
Nadine wanted to write about intergenerational trauma, and how often, the younger generations carry the trauma of their elders as well as their own.
Having never studied writing before, Nadine decided to do a masters in creative writing. Through her degree, she began to brainstorm these two ideas. It was her teacher at the time who suggested combining the two as her major work.
Shortly after, she was approached by Pantera Press about writing a book. She sent them her university writing, not as a pitch but rather as an example of what she could do.
“They loved it, so they said, ‘well why don’t you finish this?’” Nadine explained. “That’s what Everyone and Everything is.”
One of the most beautiful relationships depicted in the book is the one between Yael and Shirley, who meet at the women’s baths – based on McIver’s Ladies Baths in Coogee, Sydney – which Yael is introduced to by her friend Romy as a “multicultural, semi-nude, body-positive utopia”.
While Shirley is a fictional character, Nadine explained that she is an amalgamation of a lot of women in that age range who she has formed friendships with.
“I really wanted to reflect Judaism in the book more than I probably thought I would. Once I started writing, I realised just how much I wanted Judaism to be part of it.”
Nadine wrote in The Guardian that she began to seek the company and counsel of the older generation following the loss of her mother and grandmother, in particular. Explaining that while at first it happened subconsciously, “in time, it ceased being serendipitous and became a more conscious act”.
“That’s what I was craving, those intergenerational friendships,” Nadine told The AJN. “We discard our elders so easily – they’re either crazy or they’re cute – but they’re people, with experiences. They have so many stories and so many things worth hearing. I think sometimes their own families disregard that. And it’s definitely something that I have valued a lot since losing my dad, my mum and my grandmother.”
“Talk to your grandparents,” she urged. “If you’re sitting at a cafe at a table alone, and you’re next to an older person alone, talk to them. Just start a conversation. There’s value in friendships with all different kinds of people.”
As for the mental health side of Nadine’s story, again she said it’s an important one to share, particularly around Holocaust trauma.
“I think it’s important for non-Jews to realise that the effects are ongoing. Holocaust trauma doesn’t die with the survivors as they pass. That’s something that we’re having to grapple with, especially at a time when there’s so much antisemitism in the world.”
Recognising that there aren’t a lot of published novels that touch on the Jewish experience of mental health, Nadine doesn’t shy away from what she – and her character Yael – are experiencing. And it’s where the significance of dedicated women’s spaces come into play. She opens the book saying she feels “weightless” and “free” while watching the sun rise from the baths and closes it in a similar fashion. Yet in between those two sentences, readers are taken on a heartbreaking, tender and, at times, hilariously entertaining story about how a young woman is navigating the trauma alongside her life.
So, was it difficult for Nadine to revisit all of those events and emotions? When asked how she coped through writing, she laughed and admitted that she didn’t cope necessarily well, at times.
“Collectively, it took a toll. But I never felt like it was hard to write. It was just a lot.”
Everyone and Everything is published by Pantera Press, $32.99 rrp.