Finding our place in the universe

In his first novel, Aaron Hamburger probes the relationship between American Jewry and Israel.

By DANIEL SEPTIMUS
December 12, 2005 10:13
deadsea book 88 298

deadsea book 88 298. (photo credit: )

Faith for Beginners By Aaron Hamburger Random House 352pp., $23.95 It's been said that there are two types of stories in literature: a man goes on a journey, and a stranger comes to town. The ubiquity of these literary conceits is understandable. They place characters in unfamiliar settings - a perfect framework for personal transformation. Like scores of writers before him, Aaron Hamburger is fond of this device. In his first book, the short story collection The View from Stalin's Head, Hamburger explored the lives of American expatriates living in post-communist Prague. In addition to the above-mentioned narrative advantages, Hamburger gained other benefits from setting his stories in a foreign locale. Hamburger's Americans are over-privileged and over-educated, and by placing them in a city marked by the opposite, Hamburger could better isolate their quirks and plights. In his first novel, Faith For Beginners, Hamburger opts for a similar path. Faith For Beginners once again sets Americans on foreign soil, telling the story of an American family who visits Israel on a mission - Millennium Marathon 2000 - with 251 fellow Michiganders. Helen, David and Jeremy Michaelson are a husband, wife and son who come to the Middle East in the summer of 2000 to discover their homeland, and of course, themselves. The date of the visit is important. Across the Atlantic, the Camp David negotiations are underway. The novel is set in a time rife with potential for life-altering change as the Michaelsons encounter an Israel pregnant with possibility. There's little subtlety in the setup. David is recovering from cancer; Jeremy is recovering from a drug overdose; and Helen is recovering from a life of overbearing, underappreciated family service. Ultimately, David is a minor character, as Faith for Beginners focuses on mother and son. Helen attempts to liberate herself from her selfless suburban wifehood by dabbling in selfish extra-marital sex. Jeremy, who is gay and has a tendency to fall for the wrong men, struggles through his misanthropy while falling for the most obviously different men around - a Palestinian and a hassid. Hamburger's metaphor-laden foundation is a bit too thick for what is, ultimately, a rather light novel. Indeed, the beauty of "a man goes on a journey" and "a stranger comes to town" (which are really the same story told from different perspectives) is that the unfamiliar setting justifies the transformation in and of itself. A drug-addled, social misfit shouldn't need to travel half-way around the world to discover the need for self-exploration. But there's another reason Hamburger might have chosen such a politically and socially charged setup. The connection between American Jews and Israel is a complicated one, and fictional investigations of it are warranted and welcome. The relationship between these two countries and communities is one which -mythologically speaking - has always been marked by a discrepancy between the haves and the have-nots. Compared to their Middle Eastern cousins, American Jews are privileged, both financially and militarily. The implicit irony, of course, is that Israelis are richer in the things that matter. They have a spiritual connection to their homeland. They have the fellowship of a diverse cadre of co-religionists. They may be less secure now, but they have independent power, which is ultimately more reassuring. American Jews, on the other hand, for all their wealth and influence are spiritually adrift. They do drugs. They have affairs. They come to Israel to discover meaning and identity. This is clearly what Helen Michaelson has in mind for her son. "Why not Israel? Mrs. Michaelson and her husband (though mostly Mrs. Michaelson) had tried everything else: therapy, tough-love, unconditional love, threats she never intended to fulfill, reasoned argument, spiritual counseling, heart-to-heart phone calls with Robert. No luck. Then she read a story in the Detroit Jewish News (to which she held a lifetime subscription) about young people who'd found themselves while on "Missions to Israel"... After walking in the footsteps of his forefathers, her son would shed a tear or two, get a vague sense of his place in the universe, and then finish his bachelor's degree." For all the novels written by American Jews in the past 50 years, remarkably few have probed the relationship between American Jewry and Israel (Philip Roth's Operation Shylock comes to mind as one of the few great ones). Hamburger's novel is primed to investigate this relationship, but the thick setup and the critique it may or may not imply is the extent of the investigation. Hamburger's characters are pleasant enough, but Faith for Beginners is a bit too breezy to be a serious satire. There's an absurdist wind blowing through the novel, but Helen and Jeremy live in some sort of purgatory, hovering between the comedic and the satirical. They have tragic flaws, for sure, but they're more similar to Wiley Coyote's tendency to skid off a cliff than to Macbeth's ambition. It's encouraging that Hamburger isn't afraid to tackle serious themes in his fiction, but doing so, of course, raises the stakes. Hamburger's writing might not be up to the challenge just yet. Richer in the things that matter. In Hamburger's novel, a family of American Jews come to Israel to find meaning. Finding our place in the universe DANIEL SEPTIMUS In his first novel, Aaron Hamburger probes the relationship between American Jewry and Israel. Faith for Beginners By Aaron Hamburger Random House 352pp., $23.95 It's been said that there are two types of stories in literature: a man goes on a journey, and a stranger comes to town. The ubiquity of these literary conceits is understandable. They place characters in unfamiliar settings - a perfect framework for personal transformation. Like scores of writers before him, Aaron Hamburger is fond of this device. In his first book, the short story collection The View from Stalin's Head, Hamburger explored the lives of American expatriates living in post-communist Prague. In addition to the above-mentioned narrative advantages, Hamburger gained other benefits from setting his stories in a foreign locale. Hamburger's Americans are over-privileged and over-educated, and by placing them in a city marked by the opposite, Hamburger could better isolate their quirks and plights. In his first novel, Faith For Beginners, Hamburger opts for a similar path. Faith For Beginners once again sets Americans on foreign soil, telling the story of an American family who visits Israel on a mission - Millennium Marathon 2000 - with 251 fellow Michiganders. Helen, David and Jeremy Michaelson are a husband, wife and son who come to the Middle East in the summer of 2000 to discover their homeland, and of course, themselves. The date of the visit is important. Across the Atlantic, the Camp David negotiations are underway. The novel is set in a time rife with potential for life-altering change as the Michaelsons encounter an Israel pregnant with possibility. There's little subtlety in the setup. David is recovering from cancer; Jeremy is recovering from a drug overdose; and Helen is recovering from a life of overbearing, underappreciated family service. Ultimately, David is a minor character, as Faith for Beginners focuses on mother and son. Helen attempts to liberate herself from her selfless suburban wifehood by dabbling in selfish extra-marital sex. Jeremy, who is gay and has a tendency to fall for the wrong men, struggles through his misanthropy while falling for the most obviously different men around - a Palestinian and a hassid. Hamburger's metaphor-laden foundation is a bit too thick for what is, ultimately, a rather light novel. Indeed, the beauty of "a man goes on a journey" and "a stranger comes to town" (which are really the same story told from different perspectives) is that the unfamiliar setting justifies the transformation in and of itself. A drug-addled, social misfit shouldn't need to travel half-way around the world to discover the need for self-exploration. But there's another reason Hamburger might have chosen such a politically and socially charged setup. The connection between American Jews and Israel is a complicated one, and fictional investigations of it are warranted and welcome. The relationship between these two countries and communities is one which -mythologically speaking - has always been marked by a discrepancy between the haves and the have-nots. Compared to their Middle Eastern cousins, American Jews are privileged, both financially and militarily. The implicit irony, of course, is that Israelis are richer in the things that matter. They have a spiritual connection to their homeland. They have the fellowship of a diverse cadre of co-religionists. They may be less secure now, but they have independent power, which is ultimately more reassuring. American Jews, on the other hand, for all their wealth and influence are spiritually adrift. They do drugs. They have affairs. They come to Israel to discover meaning and identity. This is clearly what Helen Michaelson has in mind for her son. "Why not Israel? Mrs. Michaelson and her husband (though mostly Mrs. Michaelson) had tried everything else: therapy, tough-love, unconditional love, threats she never intended to fulfill, reasoned argument, spiritual counseling, heart-to-heart phone calls with Robert. No luck. Then she read a story in the Detroit Jewish News (to which she held a lifetime subscription) about young people who'd found themselves while on "Missions to Israel"... After walking in the footsteps of his forefathers, her son would shed a tear or two, get a vague sense of his place in the universe, and then finish his bachelor's degree." For all the novels written by American Jews in the past 50 years, remarkably few have probed the relationship between American Jewry and Israel (Philip Roth's Operation Shylock comes to mind as one of the few great ones). Hamburger's novel is primed to investigate this relationship, but the thick setup and the critique it may or may not imply is the extent of the investigation. Hamburger's characters are pleasant enough, but Faith for Beginners is a bit too breezy to be a serious satire. There's an absurdist wind blowing through the novel, but Helen and Jeremy live in some sort of purgatory, hovering between the comedic and the satirical. They have tragic flaws, for sure, but they're more similar to Wiley Coyote's tendency to skid off a cliff than to Macbeth's ambition. It's encouraging that Hamburger isn't afraid to tackle serious themes in his fiction, but doing so, of course, raises the stakes. Hamburger's writing might not be up to the challenge just yet.



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