Review of A Better Tomorrow. By Charles Rammelkamp. Baltimore: America House, 2001. 147 pp. $19.95.
A Better Tomorrow by Charles Rammelkamp explores the experience of choosing Judaism in a series of eighteen stories. The number eighteen, the numerical value of the Hebrew word "chai"--which means for life--may have been a deliberate choice.
Though the first twelve stories focus on Robert Kleinpoppen, while the last half dozen tales feature Daniel Morgenbesser, both men are Jews-by-choice--or converts, as the author prefers to call them. Their experiences as Jews-by-choice differ greatly.
Kleinpoppen edits the newsletter of a synagogue whose rabbi is about to lose his job. As often happens in such situations, the synagogue is divided into two camps--those who support the rabbi and those who oppose him. The drama of the synagogue unfolds during the course of the stories, but much more significant are Kleinpoppen's observations of how he is perceived--by Jews, non-Jews, and even members of his own family.
During a conversation with his daughter, Leah, about an incident that took place years ago, she asks, "You weren't Jewish then, Daddy?" To Kleinpoppen, the question sounds "almost like an accusation." He believes Leah doesn't consider her father to be as "authentically" Jewish as her mother is, because he is not a Jew by birth.
Just when the reader wonders if Kleinpoppen is being a tad paranoid, his wife silently acknowledges Leah's reservations about her father's "Jewishness," and wonders if her daughter's regrettable attitude can be traced to the child's Jewish day school education. The author implies that Leah's feelings are not uncommon: She represents a segment of Jews who simply don't consider converts "authentically Jewish."
Kleinpoppen discovers that Jews are not alone in this sentiment. One day at work, a colleague, George Romanchuck, engages Kleinpoppen in a discussion about the latter's Jewishness.
Romanchuck: "You aren't a Jew."
Kleinpoppen: "Sure I am, I converted."
Romanchuck: "But you weren't born a Jew."
Kleinpoppen: "No, but I converted."
Romanchuck: "I'm as Jewish as you are, Bob."
Happily, the stories also include characters with alternative views. Daniel Morgenbesser, whose daughter is becoming a bar mitzvah in the near future,and who very much wants to feel like a genuine "member of the club," has a conversation with an acquaintance, Richard Potash, on the same subject discussed by Kleinpoppen and Romanchuck--the "authenticity of Jewish conversion." Potash is initially surprised to discover Morgenbesser is Jewish:
"Well I converted," Morgenbesser begins to explain, and Potash interrupts.
"So, you're Jewish then."
"Well, it was a Conservative conversion, and I guess there are those in Israel who wouldn't recognize it."
"...'em," Potash says. "You're Jewish. You converted. Period. You'll never satisfy everybody.""
Rommelkamp, who was born and raised a Protestant and chose Judaism two decades ago, does a very good job at revealing the pride and prejudices of Jews and non-Jews alike. The stories are entertaining and often humorous but are of greatest interest because of the author's keen insights into the conversion experience--and his straightforward and uncompromising manner in relaying them.
Readers should know that it A Better Tomorrow is not a novel, but rather a collection of independent-but-related stories. The characters who appear in the first two-thirds of the book disappear in the last third--replaced by a completely new cast. I found that disconcerting, so readers should be forewarned.