Spiritual Hunger Artists

Literature

By Sanford Pinsker

Published November 05, 2004, issue of November 05, 2004.
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Joy Comes in the Morning

By Jonathan Rosen

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 400 pages, $25.

——

Jonathan Rosen came to wide public attention, first as the editor (for some 10 years) of this newspaper’s highly regarded Arts & Letters section, and then as the author of “Eve’s Apple” (Random House Inc., l997), an impressive debut novel, and “The Talmud and the Internet” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000), a work of nonfiction that combines dazzling intellectual ruminations with a deeply moving spiritual memoir. Both books revolve around the complexities of the human heart, and both, despite the obvious differences in genre, are love stories.

“Joy Comes in the Morning” is cut from the same general bolt of cloth as Rosen’s previous work, but this time his love story takes on the sacred yearning and the pockets of spiritual emptiness that afflict many 20- and 30-somethings, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, who try to live within a religious tradition. Granted, Rosen is hardly alone in raising the questions that perplex every serious artist: Why do people suffer? Why do they die? How is it that the wicked prosper? However, what distinguishes his work is the density of religious detail. It is hard to think of a contemporary Jewish American novel as saturated with Hebrew prayers (invariably followed by their English translations), rabbinic commentary, snippets of Jewish history and an abiding sense of what are, or are not, authentically Jewish ideas. This is, in short, exactly the sort of smart book that one would expect from an intellectual such as Jonathan Rosen.

Deborah Green is 30 years old, unmarried and a Reform rabbi. Each of these partial definitions comes with its own tsoris. “The world is a wedding,” she thinks, quoting a line from the Talmud. But then she quickly worries if she has a place in such a world. Most of the time, she feels “profoundly alone.” Her spontaneous instincts only seem on target when she visits the sick or conducts a funeral. Quotidian life apparently lacks the “air of truthfulness” she finds in hospitals, where she finds “not fear, but oddly a kind of peace.”

Enter Henry Friedman, an elderly man whose parents were murdered in the Holocaust and who recently has suffered a series of debilitating strokes. When a failed suicide attempt lands him in the hospital, Deborah finds herself at his bedside, chanting a single verse from Psalm 23 “using a Shlomo Carlebach tune she loved.” This is Deborah at her confident best; however, on other occasions, religious doubt leads to tears. The later is especially true in at the end of chapters where Deborah’s crying becomes, first, predictable, and then flat-out annoying.

Still, crocodile tears aside, Deborah Green is an intriguing portrait of the Reform rabbinate in the 21st century. When we first meet her, she has just woken up, dressed, had her first cup of coffee and donned her grandfather’s tallit, and is preparing to pray:

Deborah loved the praise part of prayer…. To praise God made her feel whole and she recited Birkot Hashachar with a schoolgirl’s relish: Blessed are you God who gives sight to the blind, blessed are you God who clothes the naked, blessed are you God who did not make me a slave. She was using her grandmother’s little prayer book, which made no apologies for blessed are you God who did not make me a woman. Deborah skipped the blessing and recited the female alternative: Blessed are you God who made me according to his will.

Prayer is an important motif in the novel, as is the spiritual hunger that prompts Rosen’s characters to turn the ordinary into the sacred. In this sense, Deborah — and later Lev Friedman, Henry’s son — is a spiritual hunger artist, although not in the way that Kafka defines the term in his famous short story or that Rosen uses the phrase “unrequited hunger” when talking about the anorexic Eve in “Eve’s Apple.” In Kafka’s parable, the reason that his hunger artist does not eat is that he cannot find satisfying food. The image is one of such radical alienation, such utter disconnect with the world, that we see the thumbprint of the high modernist artist in bold relief.

By contrast, prayer is about connection — with God and the world He made. At an early stage of their relationship, Lev Friedman marvels at the way in which Deborah exhibits what he calls “a sophisticated simplicity” — this because “she spoke of creation without irony and yet it did not imply a storybook creation but something real”; the same thing might be said about Rosen’s style. Prayer might acknowledge the valleys of death, but its arc necessarily leads to redemption. Thus, if Psalm 30 tells us that “weeping may endure for a night,” Rosen’s title puts its emphasis on the next line, “but joy comes in the morning.”

Curiously enough, Henry Friedman uses the same title, “Joy Comes in the Morning,” for his stalled 40-page memoir. What one is supposed to make of the “coincidence” is hard to tell, because we are never given so much as a peek into any entries he wrote. I suspect that he sees the world through a glass darkly, and that much of the darkness is directly related to the Holocaust and to the murder of his parents. Rosen, however, chooses to leave this thread hanging. In terms of the plot, Henry’s son, Lev, is much more important because it is Lev who finds an answer to his spiritual hunger by “studying” — and then moving in with — Deborah. At one point, Lev even “performs” (Deborah’s word) a funeral, passing himself off as a rabbi and, in one of the novel’s few genuinely comic moments, doing a credible job in the bargain.

Rosen’s novel moves, as it must, toward marriage, but there are hundreds of pages of doubts, complications and crying jags before we get there. This is why the book is a two-bagger rather than the home run for which Rosen had hoped. And while I was moved by the seriousness with which Deborah and Lev take religious observance (for Reform Jews, they are mighty religious), I found it strange that very few scenes were set inside the temple. Apparently Rabbi Zwieback’s name is enough to signal just how babyish he is. As the senior rabbi — and Deborah’s immediate boss — he counsels her to wear longer skirts and to generally be “a rabbinic role model.” Deborah bristles, and we are hardly surprised when her contract is not renewed; having a live-in boyfriend is hardly the thing a proper Upper West Side, New York, congregation needs, even though Deborah, unlike Zwieback, sings like an angel.

Finally, a word or two about what works in Rosen’s novel, and what doesn’t. When Lev describes bird watching in Central Park, Rosen’s paragraphs work, partly because he is a ardent birder himself and partly because he is, quite simply, a good writer. But there are, alas, long stretches where exposition does too much heavy lifting and where the fits-and-starts of prayer become — how shall I say this? — tedious. My last sentence is not meant to be as harsh as many will take it to be. Many serious novels “suffer” (if that is the right word) from the same condition. What matters are the questions that authors raise, and the way they go about pursuing the truth wherever the mind, heart and imagination leads them. With “Joy Comes in the Morning,” Jonathan Rosen joins the company of writers worth watching as the lingering shadows of the last century continue to fall on sensitive people everywhere.

Sanford Pinsker is a professor emeritus at Franklin and Marshall College.






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