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No Denying America

July 20, 2009

Review of A Seat At The Table: A Novel of Forbidden Choices by Joshua Halberstam. (New York: Sourcebooks, Inc., 2009)

In Joshua Halberstam's first novel, A Seat At The Table, a young Hasidic man, Elisha, leaves the cloisters of his Brooklyn neighborhood and his family, to embark on a worldly adventure: the pursuit of a secular education. Along the way he falls in love with Manhattan, Kafka, Coltrane and a non-Jewish girl. His foray into the secular world changes him forever, but not in the ways one might imagine. Distance from his community affords him the ability to examine it, yet this is not a story about alienation or rejection. Elisha's revelations change his identity and his destiny, but his greatest discovery is that there is room enough within him for everything he loves, all his seemingly disparate parts, Jazz and Jews, Bird and the Baal Shem Tov. The table is large and all are welcome.

Joshua Halberstam, A Seat At The Table coverHalberstam sets his novel in Vietnam-era Boro Park, the Hasidic enclave where his characters, the European survivors of the Shoah and their offspring, have reconstructed shtetl life. Only 20 years removed from the Holocaust, the nearly decimated community remains traumatized. Scores of children have been named after those who died in concentration camps and massacres, but there aren't enough of them to carry the names of the murdered. In the aftermath of the tragedy, the Hasidim have reverted to their pre-war existence, in the black robes and hats of their forebears. They are self-sufficient, with their own radio station, ambulance service, charitable organizations and schools. But there is no denying America. They are a short subway ride away from modernity.

Elisha is 17, a good and amenable boy, about to finish high school and then go on to yeshiva, where he will study Torah for a few years until settling into an arranged marriage. Such is his lot, the descendent of two major rabbinical dynasties; he will become a rabbi, like his father and grandfather. Elisha is not a rebel, but he is willing to follow his curiosity, and with each step he gets further away from the life preordained for him.

His lapse begins with an innocent but symbolic act. During holiday services, the descendents of the ancient Jewish priestly caste, the Kohanim, deliver a special blessing. Members of the congregation are required to stand with their eyes closed and faces covered by prayer shawls to receive the blessing. Sneaking a quick look during this solemn moment is forbidden. Yet, in spite of his respect for the tradition and customs of his religion, Elisha gives in to an overwhelming urge he has had for years. He opens his eyes, he peeks. Nothing much seems to happen. "A fleeting glimpse, a fleeting eternal moment. What he'd observed didn't matter; that he'd observed mattered momentously." It is his first transgressive act, and he's caught by his Uncle Shaya.

Shaya is a complex character, perhaps the most interesting in the book. He has managed to straddle the two worlds, Hasidic and secular. A devoted student of the Talmud, he's also an aerospace engineer. Underneath his caftan he wears a Brooks Brother's suit. On his bookshelves, copies of biblical commentary stand opposite Norman Mailer and Henry Miller. But how Shaya manages his balancing act remains a mystery to Elisha. A revered scholar noting Elisha's wonder of Shaya tells him that he cannot emulate his uncle, because he doesn't understand a fundamental truth about being a Hasid. "…even in those expensive shoes he still walks the dusty roads of the shtetl. That's home for him. You can't really escape it. None of us can."

Elisha balks. "We remain in our ghettos, our eyes fixed to the ground, seeing nothing, hearing nothing beyond the walls?" There is no easy answer to his question. He is further flustered by the "cautionary" advice of his idol, Shaya. "It's one thing to discover the world beyond ours; it's another thing to live there."

Through Shaya's intervention, Elisha's father is convinced to send him to Columbia University. The boy spends his nights in the library devouring "Bellow, Hesse and Hemingway," steeping himself in Bach, Fellini and cosmology. And he meets Katrina, a blonde goddess from Racine, Wisc., comparative lit major and free spirit.

Halberstam does not make Katrina and Elisha into star-crossed lovers. Katrina, for all her inferred wackiness, turns out to be more sensible than Elisha. Theirs is a sweet but small affair. In the end, Katrina has no wish to separate Elisha from his faith and family, but is, in fact, instrumental in negotiating peace between Elisha and his father.

Katrina is one of the novel's weaknesses. She isn't a fully realized character, which is why in the end she is of less consequence then we feel she should be. Elisha does not fall madly in love with her. Their relationship is sexual, but it is more a friendship than a deep passion. Katrina is too much of a foil, a reason for Elisha to explain the intricacies of Hasidism, than a great love. This strategy takes some of the charm out of the flirtatious dialogues between Katrina and Elisha.

Despite that subtitle, "Forbidden Choices," which makes everything sound so extreme, Elisha doesn't choose anything especially dire. I suppose if you were Hasidic, having your son eat in a non-kosher restaurant might seem horrible.

Readers expecting agonized, psychosexual father/son conflicts commensurate with those of Chaim Potok's characters won't get them in Halberstam's novel. Elisha's battles with his father remain largely on a philosophical plane, though the upset of the family as their son drifts away from them is well-rendered. Elisha's adoration and respect for his father are the heart of the novel and the Hasidic community is represented with love and humor, even as we see Elisha struggle against its insularity.

Hasidism, the 300-year-old charismatic movement in Judaism to which Elisha belongs, remains mysterious, even to most Jews. Halberstam grew up in the tradition and illuminates its origins and traditions through the interspersion of Hasidic tales throughout the book, one of the true delights of the novel. Elisha tells them to Katrina, Elisha's father tells them to his son and some Elisha tells himself. These tales form a narrative within the narrative: they bind Elisha to his family, they bind Hasid to Hasid, the old world to the new.

Hebrew for "pious," commonly refers to a member of an Orthodox Jewish mystic movement founded in the 18th century in Eastern Europe by Baal Shem Tov that reacted against Talmudic learning and maintained that God's presence was in all of one's surroundings and that one should serve God in one's every deed and word. Hebrew, literally, for "sitting," refers to a Jewish educational institution that focuses on the study of traditional religious texts (including Torah and Talmud study). A yeshiva can be a day school for elementary or high school students, or a place of study for adults. Traditionally, a yeshiva was attended by boys/men only; more recently, yeshivas have opened for girls/women and even co-ed yeshivas now exist. Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws. Hebrew for "instruction" or "learning," a central text of Judaism, recording the rabbinic discussions pertaining to Jewish law, ethics, philosophy, customs and history. It has two parts: Mishnah (redacted c. 200 CE) and Gemara (c. 500 CE), an elucidation of the Mishnah. The first five books of the Hebrew Bible (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy), or the scroll that contains them.
Dana Kletter

Dana Kletter is an award winning fiction writer, journalist and musician. Her work has appeared in the Michigan Quarterly Review, Boston Phoenix, San Francisco Chronicle and Independent Weekly. She received her MFA from the University of Michigan, and currently lives, writes, teaches and occasionally sings in Ann Arbor.

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