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Storytelling as Both Sacred and Sacrilegious

The Seventh Beggar

By Pearl Abraham

Riverhead, 355 pages, $25.95.


Twenty-five years ago, thinking it a mitzvah to comfort a Soviet Jewish refusenik, I came, bearing books, to a Moscow apartment. During the time that its tenant — who had lost his job after applying to emigrate from Moscow to Israel — had spent in prison for “parasitism,” he had become deeply religious. I delivered something I was sure would bring this proud Jew cheer. But when I approached with the gift, a volume of stories by Isaac Bashevis Singer, the man recoiled in horror. “Treyf!” the refusenik exclaimed.

In her new novel, “The Seventh Beggar,” Pearl Abraham examines storytelling as both sacrilege and sacrament. Suffering fainting spells, Joel Jakob, a 17-year-old Hasid with a keen mind and an overwrought imagination, submits, reluctantly, to a medical examination. Dr. Levine notes that Joel has little muscle tone. “The boy does nothing but sit on his bony tuchis all day,” he complains, as if studying Talmud were hazardous to a youngster’s health.

Scoffing at the ritual fringes that his pious patient wears beneath his shirt, Levine is secular and skeptical, like most readers likely to encounter “The Seventh Beggar,” Abraham’s third novel. The Hasidic culture in which Abraham grew up, shuttling between Israel and New York and from Yiddish to English, has little use for literary fiction, even and especially the kind she writes. What distinguishes Abraham from most other American Jewish novelists — except Chaim Potok, Tova Mirvis, Naomi Ragen, Nathan Englander and Tova Reich — is her insider’s perspective on the insular world of the very devout. In the latest contretemps over Jewish fiction — that emerged last month when writer Wendy Shalit published a piece in the New York Times Book Review that attacked authors who have strayed from their observant origins and now mock or demean religious Jews — neither side mentioned Abraham, who writes with great sympathy for her Hasidic characters, though the mere act of writing about them, in supple American English, alienates her further, pushes a former insider further outside.

In her first novel, “The Romance Reader” (1995), Abraham portrayed the constrictions and contradictions of growing up female and Hasidic in modern America. “Giving Up America” (1998) recorded the disintegration of a mixed marriage between an Orthodox man and a Hasidic woman. “The Seventh Beggar” now goes beyond merely representing the lives of religious Jews; the very form of the novel incorporates the hallowed tales of a Hasidic master even as it questions the value of fabricating fictions. And, it seems to argue, reading fiction is a dubious endeavor that risks diverting us from both truth and virtue.

Grandson of a respected rebbe and son of a yeshiva administrator, Joel must behave as an exemplary Hasid lest he tarnish his family’s reputation in Monsey, a Jewish enclave north of New York City. The writings of Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav (1772-1811), great-grandson of the man who founded the Hasidic movement, the Ba’al Shem Tov, are not exactly blasphemous, but Joel’s father deems them dangerous for readers under 40. To many of his contemporaries, Nachman seemed another false messiah, and his act of marshaling words to construct a facsimile of the world an arrogant attempt to emulate the Creator.

Joel jeopardizes his marriage prospects as well as those of his younger sister, Ada, when he furtively acquires Nachman’s tales. He scandalizes the community when, defying his father, the young man makes a Yom Kippur pilgrimage to Nachman’s grave in Uman, Ukraine. Expelled from his yeshiva, he retreats into a private world of lurid, cosmic fantasy. A specialist who had examined Joel as a hyperactive 2-year-old and predicted “that he would turn out either brilliant or crazy” now seems right on both counts.

“The Seventh Beggar” offers a second protagonist in the person of Ada’s son, whose name, JakobJoel, emphasizes how much he grows up to be a doppelganger of his uncle. However, unlike Joel Jakob, JakobJoel is allowed to use his formidable intellect in pursuit of secular learning. He enrolls in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where, inspired by the Steven Spielberg movie “AI: Artificial Intelligence” and the wayward spirit of his uncle, he conceives a heretical computer named Cog that has the capacity to know everything, including itself, and, in rivalry with God, to generate an alternative universe. He also imagines a whimsical Hasidic festival in which his Uncle Joel recites Rabbi Nachman’s uncompleted tale, “The Seven Beggars,” in its entirety. Nachman himself never got beyond the sixth beggar, but — in a feat akin to finishing Franz Schubert’s Eighth Symphony, for which the composer himself wrote only two movements — Abraham provides a credible account of Nachman’s seventh beggar.

Like a midrashic text that collates commentary by several hands, “The Seventh Beggar” is a hybrid concoction. Abraham interpolates long passages from Nachman’s tales, as translated by Arnold J. Band, and from “Tormented Master,” Arthur Green’s biography of Reb Nachman. The novel also contains footnotes (including one that refers the reader to an essay, “Growing Pains,” that Abraham published five years ago in the Forward). Nachman’s tales themselves are, like “The Arabian Nights” or “The Canterbury Tales,” intricately designed frame narratives, stories-within-stories that resemble matrushkas, the Russian nesting dolls to which Joel likens seven local sisters when he dreams about marrying seven fat brides. Integrated into Abraham’s own inventions, Nachman’s complex stories and the story of his life create an elaborate structure that is self-conscious about its own fictionality. It is a dizzying hall of mirrors in which echoing images recede into infinity.

All this might sound ponderously postmodern, except that “The Seventh Beggar” is genuinely compelling in ways that would appall my old refusenik and other pious literalists. With scattered allusions to Frankenstein, Pinocchio and the Golem myth, the novel reminds us that fiction can be both a destructive monstrosity and an instrument for tikkun olam, or healing the world. The possibilities it offers both beggar the imagination and enrich it.

Steven G. Kellman teaches comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio and is the author of “Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth,” which will be published in August by W. W. Norton.


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