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The Jew in the Choir

Review of Star of Wonder (Overlook Press. 124pp. $8.95) by Daniel Mark Epstein.

The son of a Jewish father and an Episcopalian mother, the poet and essayist Daniel Mark Epstein was brought up in both religious traditions. At Bar Mitzvah age he chose to be a Jew, yet loyalty to both sides of his family led him to live initially the ultimate interfaith life. Mr. Epstein thinly veils those experiences in a collection of short fiction called Star of Wonder.

He focuses on the anomalies of his early religious life in a story called "Passover Night and Easter Morning," where his practical ecumenism is pushed to its outermost limits. He writes that, "first, I would preside over the sacred rituals of the Passover seder, the Jewish feast of Thanksgiving for deliverance from Egypt. Then two days later I would sing a solo in the Easter choir." Young Daniel is determined to conduct his family's first traditional seder in twenty years like a "one-man yeshiva," but the kindest response he gets from his Jewish family is boredom. "Enough already," an aunt finally screams.

However, the presence of Elijah the prophet is palpable for Mr. Epstein, clarifying for him the essence of his own religious faith. As it turns out Mr. Epstein ably summons his own Elijah to resolve his inner conflict over singing at his grandparents' church. When he asks, "Do I have to sing about Jesus?" the phantasmagoric Uncle Henry replies, "Listen to me, kid, and listen good. You are a guest in their joint, and you sing what they want you to sing."

And so he does. Years later in a book of poetry, Mr. Epstein commemorates the unique transitions that he forged practicing two distinct sets of religious rituals. That book, The Boy in the Well, also features a sequence of six poems inspired by Marc Chagall's art. The poems, which are called "The Russian Village Suite," capture the sensibility of Chagall's work as well as resonate with themes from Mr. Epstein's own Judaic background. Mr. Epstein was particularly taken with Chagall's depictions of the Crucifixion. In those paintings, an Eastern European Jew is frequently draped in a tallit (shawl worn during prayer) amid burning synagogues and scrolls. Mr. Epstein saw Chagall's appropriation of Christian imagery clearly and placed it in a Jewish context in which there could be no salvation. For both Chagall and Mr. Epstein, Jesus' suffering was undeniably Jewish.

Mr. Epstein, at times a Chagall-like figure himself, went on to sing that solo in his grandparents' church. He writes that only one of his Jewish relatives was there to witness it. " . . . and I was the only person who knew he was there. As I began to sing, the church door blew open, filling the aisle with light." Elijah had arrived just in time.

Hebrew for "son of the commandments." In modern Jewish practice, Jewish boys come of age at 13. When a boy comes of age, he is officially a bar mitzvah and considered an adult. The term is commonly used as a short-hand for the bar mitzvah's coming-of-age ceremony and/or celebration. The female equivalent is "bat mitzvah." The spring holiday commemorating the Exodus of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. The Hebrew name is "Pesach." 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 "prayer shawl," a ritual item that is worn and has knotted fringes (tzitzit) attached to the four corners. Hebrew for "order," refers to the traditional course of events, or service, surrounding the Passover and Tu Bishvat meals.
Judith Bolton-Fasman

Judith Bolton-Fasman is a freelance book reviewer and writer in the Boston area.

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