What if a mob of socially inept math geniuses crashed your mom’s shiva?

The Mathematician’s Shiva. A novel by Stuart Rojstaczer (September 2, 2014, Penguin, 384 pages mixes Jewish family life, comedy, academia, mystery, greed, chaos shiva, lust and math.

Rachela Karnokovitch has passed away. Actually, before she passes away, her hospital room is packed with colleagues and students who come to pay their final respects. For she is the foremost female mathematician, and she has spent her life trying to solve an equation with a million dollar prize. Think Helen Mirren with a Polish accent. She suffered under Stalin, survived a work camp, defected; and she suffered as a woman in a male dominated world (although it is nothing compared to the author’s mother who managed construction workers)

Alexander (Sasha) Karnokovitch, her middle-age son, is burdened by the shiva and the hordes of mourners. Are they present to mourn or to find a hidden math equation solution? Did she take the solution to her grave out of spite? Sasha would like to mourn for her alone, but alone is not an option. Plus, let’s not forget that his mother left her husband and him in order to pursue math success at the University of Wisconsin. Think a skirt chasing Liev Shreiber.

Is there a hidden meaning in the Navier-Stokes equation she has worked to solve? The Equation describes the motion of fluid substances, such as water, jet airflow, weather, blood, and fire. Is love, gender roles, expectations and family fluid substances?

We also meet Anna Laknova, a Soviet-born orphan, who is as close to a daughter as Rachela ever had; Shlomo Czerneski, Rachela’s estranged brother; Cynthia Czerneski, Shlomo’s second wife – she is Texan born but now saddled with a Polish surname; Viktor Karnokovitch, Rachela’s once arrogant but admiring ex-husband; Bruce Czerneski, Shlomo’s American-born libidinous son; and Nebraska-based shlemazal, Yakov Epshtein.

The story is based on the time a well-known Eastern European émigré mathematician was at the author’s house. During dinner, the mathematician kept staring at the author’s 3 year old daughter. He thought she was a math genius – at the age of three – and wanted her to be studying algebra. The story imagines what it would be like to have been a math genius. Rojstaczer writes that his novel is about how people can, through passion, hard work, and talent, overcome obstacles and still be aware of the irony that luck — both bad and good — plays a central role in their lives. Speaking of which, he is currently working on a novel about a community of Holocaust survivors in the 1960s and 1970s, which has to deal with the American equivalent of a pogrom: a planned freeway that will tear their neighborhood apart.

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