It's a Mitzvah
Now that most American Jews have settled comfortably into a secular way of life without much fear of religious intolerance (except from other Jews), it’s not entirely clear what cultural function Jewish novels are supposed to perform. Jewish writers satisfy the demands of residual Jewishness by dreaming up a search for Eastern European roots (Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything Is Illuminated) or cooking up an imaginary world of stateless exile (Michael Chabon, The Yiddish Policemen’s Union). Others mine the Jewish past—the tragic Jewish past (Julie Orringer, The Invisible Bridge) or the heroic Jewish past (Alice Hoffman, The Dovekeepers).
Just recently, though, the Jewish religion has returned to Jewish fiction, and thank God for that: Jewish identity has its source in a Jew’s religious calling—it’s an app, as the saying now goes, not a feature—which can be reactivated at any moment.
In her astonishing novel The Believers (2009), for example, Zoë Heller created perhaps the best fictional portrait in English of the baal teshuvah, the Jew who takes up the faith after years of non-observance. The Believers tells the story of a family whose political radicalism is thrown into question when the husband and father, a high-profile lawyer known for defending terrorists, suffers a debilitating stroke. In the midst of the crisis, the family’s elder daughter Rosa, a faithful Marxist, enters an Orthodox synagogue with “a mild, touristic curiosity rather than any spiritual longing” and plops down in the men’s section, momentarily pleased to have caused a “kerfuffle.” When she is removed to the women’s section, though, she does not immediately leave.
And then, without warning, the “austere melody” of returning the Torah scroll to the ark makes her hairs stand on end: “A thought came to her, as clearly as if it had been spoken in her ear. You are connected to this. This song is your song.” Although she tries to escape back into radicalism, meaningless sex, and feminist contempt for the laws of family purity, Rosa cannot resist the melody. She finds a rabbi who talks quiet good sense and discovers that she has a taste and a talent for Torah study. By the end of the novel, she has become religious. She announces her decision to leave for Jerusalem, where she will study in a yeshiva.
Steve Stern’s The Frozen Rabbi (2010) is a comic novel about a 19th-century Hasidic zaddik who tumbles one day into a wintry lake, where he is suspended in a state of frozen animation, only to be thawed out in a Memphis basement in the first years of the 21st century. The rebbe learns English, after a fashion, and opens a Kabbalah Center in a strip mall, where he dispenses visions to bored housewives. Eliezer ben Zephyr is the most unforgettable evangelist ever drawn up in American literature. (No more talk of Elmer Gantry, please.) As the rebbe becomes comfortable in America, he becomes estranged from the Orthodox Judaism of his 19th-century Polish life. “If this ain’t Gan Eydn,” he says—if 21st-century America is not Paradise—“what is?”
As the rebbe becomes Americanized and postmodernized, the exact opposite happens to his great-nephew Bernie Karp, the “overweight and unadventurous” teenager who discovered him in the ice chest, nursed him to health, taught him English and how to use the television. Bernie takes the rebbe seriously. He sets out to master the esoteric ideas of kabbalah. He starts to be afflicted by visions—real visions, not the ludicrous imitations of the Kabbalah Center. He becomes a genuine mystic, trapped (as Eliezer puts it) “between this side and the other.” Stern understands just how countercultural religious Judaism is—how powerful a dissent from the Gan Eydn of the shopping mall. He also notices what is happening in the actual world around him, where a younger generation is returning in large and increasing numbers to the Jewish seriousness discarded so carelessly by an older generation.
“I came to Judaism naked,” John J. Clayton says. About a decade ago—after the death of his eldest son, the musician Josh Clayton-Felt, from cancer at the age of 32—he experienced a literary rebirth and has since published two remarkable novels and a volume of stories about the Jewish religious experience. His typical subject, as he puts it, is “the way the sacred brims up over the ordinary.” A frequent contributor to Commentary, Clayton writes about Jews like himself, Jews who long for holiness in a world with little patience and less appreciation for the longing.
Mitzvah Man (Texas Tech University Press, 268 pages), his fourth novel, is about a Jewish superhero.
Adam Friedman is not a comic-strip character who does battle with villains in his underwear. He is, instead, an ordinary middle-aged Jewish male, a semi-wealthy software consultant living comfortably on a cul-de-sac near Harvard University, who may or may not perform miracles and who may or may not be a contemporary prophet.
Adam is at his 25th high school reunion when his beloved wife Shira is killed by a drunk driver. He is left with a 14-year-old daughter, Lisa, and a grief that grows as messy as his uncut beard of mourning. At synagogue one Shabbat morning in late spring, he listens closely to the weekly Torah portion, which tells how the Israelites followed God’s presence through the wilderness. Adam feels a shiver of recognition and rushes home to tell Lisa that they are leaving on a car trip. They will get in their Camry and just head out of town, without destination. “We put ourselves in God’s hands,” he explains. “We let the Toyota decide. But it’s not really the car, you understand?”
Lisa is alarmed, but agrees to go along for fear that her dad will be locked in an insane asylum if she tells anyone. Thus begins Adam’s adventures with “maybe the hand of God guiding him.” They stay briefly on Cape Cod, where they talk about God’s plan on the sand dunes. “You see, our true life is somewhere else,” Adam tells her. “That’s what we’re looking for. The treasure. Our life.” So they head off again, this time to New York. There Adam intervenes to save the marriage of his oldest friend. Back home in Cambridge, Lisa gives her father a T-shirt that says “mitzvah man.” “I am now officially a superhero,” Adam says proudly. He wears the mitzvah man tee under his dress shirts instead of tzitzit, the fringes Jewish males are commanded to wear underneath their clothes.
Clayton’s premise is also emblazoned on that T-shirt. What if it really were possible for a modern man to be guided by God’s hand and to intervene in human events like a superhero? Mitzvah Man cleverly leaves open the question whether Adam is God’s prophet or God’s fool. Maybe his deeds are accidents, but maybe they’re not. “It’s not crazy to know God is flowing through all things and I can ride the flow,” Adam says. But he immediately adds, “That’s metaphor, not religious boogie-woogie.”
When he rescues a young woman who is being raped in a Boston park—he fights off her three drunken attackers while she gets away—he becomes locally famous. A homeless man at his front door asks for a handout and a Lotto tip; he bets Adam’s birthday and hits the jackpot. Adam foresees that a man in the synagogue is about to suffer a massive heart attack and saves his life by warning him. Adam places his hands on the head of a boy suffering from leukemia, and almost immediately the boy is relieved of pain and goes into remission. He begins to collect followers: “Mostly ragged folk. Some sit cross-legged on the sidewalk in meditation, some chant. They bow to him when he goes out; they follow to touch his sleeve.” A Cambridge policeman warns him to watch out for crazies. “Remember John Lennon,” he says.
His Orthodox sister-in-law scoffs at Adam and claims he’s trying to reinvent Judaism. His friends are squeamish and uncomfortable with Adam’s God-talk, replying politely in the noncommittal voice of unbelief. Adam doesn’t sound pompous or fake to himself when he talks too openly of God. (“Well. Maybe a little fake.”) He is embarrassed to receive credit that should go, he says, to God. He tells a Boston radio talk show host:
Look. I’m not deciding to do good. I’m trying to perform mitzvot, to follow God’s commandments. I’m trying to listen, to do what God tells me. It’s the exact opposite of a superhero. A Batman or Superman, they’re full of themselves. I’m trying to be filled up by God.
That Adam is Jewishly half-educated, that he reads Jewish texts only in translation and is fluent only in the language of Conservative Judaism, serves unexpectedly to make his transformation even more convincing.
But the modern secular world has no place for a messenger from God. The Massachusetts Department of Children and Families concludes that Adam is delusional and removes Lisa from his home. To get her back, Adam must stop performing deeds of derring-do and prophecy, or at least pretend to.
Clayton is not sure how to end Mitzvah Man: Those who “have intimations of God’s world, the true world, usually end up having to fall back into the world of compromise,” as he says elsewhere, and the compromise is no happier in literature than in life. But what Clayton does know for sure, and what he demonstrates powerfully in the course of his novel, is that unlikely events are likely to occur when a man puts himself in God’s hands. That is more than enough to sustain this wise and deeply satisfying novel—yet another example that the great subject of Jewish fiction going forward is the relationship between God and man.