An American-Jewish idiom

An interfaith and interracial love story raises questions about Jewish identity in New York in the 1980s.

Interracial love (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Interracial love
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Letty Cottin Pogrebin’s novel Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate is a portrait of the world of liberal New York Jews in the 1980s.
This world is inhabited by Jews who aren’t willing to throw away their Jewish identity completely, but remain confused about its value. The novel is grounded in an American-Jewish idiom, where Jewish values and living a Jewish life are overshadowed by other priorities.
Pogrebin also captures the world of aging Holocaust survivors – the shvitz, the lantzmen, the persistent fears of anti-Semitism, the nightmares.
The novel’s eponymous main character goes by the very Jewish name of Zach Levy. He’s a stereotypical liberal New York Jew, working as a lawyer for the American Civil Liberties Union. Though he doesn’t participate in Jewish life in any significant way as an adult, Zach is deeply sentimental about his Jewish upbringing, and especially about his childhood rabbi.
Zach’s parents are Holocaust survivors, and his mother, Rivka, was clearly more wounded by her experiences than his father, Nathan. His parents lost a son in a gruesome incident during the Holocaust and Zach, born after the war, is their only living child. With this family history, Pogrebin has created an ideal recipe for Jewish guilt.
Zach is determined to be loyal to the promise he made to his now-deceased mother the day before his bar mitzva. “‘I want you to promise to marry a Jewish girl,’ she petitioned. ‘Promise me you’ll marry a Jew,’ she repeated. ‘And raise Jewish children.’” The central tension in the novel arises from his search for – and his inability to find – a Jewish woman with whom to build a life.
Pogrebin’s prose is delightful, but there are several elements of the novel that detracted from my enjoyment of it.
Knowing Pogrebin’s reputation as a Jewish feminist, I was perplexed by her female Jewish characters. Zach’s mother, Rivka, is a sad and embittered Holocaust survivor who lost the ability to express love when she lost her first child. The other Jewish women characters are also not particularly likable. Bonnie and Babka, two of the women with whom Zach gets romantically involved, both behave atrociously when their relationships come to an end. By contrast, Gil and Cleo, the two dignified, accomplished, intelligent, admirable female characters in the novel, are not Jewish.
Zach has two close male friends. One is M.J., a loving, nurturing, somewhat theatrical, non-Jewish gay man from Texas.
His other best friend, Herb, also a liberal New York Jew, is even more detached from his Jewish identity than Zach is. As with the women, M.J. is the more authentic and likable character of the two.
There is a scene toward the end of the novel where Zach, needing to make a difficult moral decision, returns home to consult his childhood rabbi. The scene takes place late Friday afternoon – erev Shabbat. Readers familiar with traditional Friday night rituals in a Jewish home will find that the description of Friday night in the rabbi’s home strikes a discordant chord – everything is out of order. After the “Shabbos dinner,” the Shabbat candles are lit, then they make kiddush and wash their hands before eating halla, and then they sing “Shalom Aleichem” – a bizarre departure from tradition.
Despite its readability and Pogrebin’s beautiful prose, these dissonant tones mar the novel. Pogrebin captures the modern Jewish world in the United States exceedingly well. She displays mastery of the cultural milieu, its nuances and emotional tone.
In the end, Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate paints a bleak picture of the future of liberal Jews in America – a sad story about the cost of assimilation.
Could that have been Pogrebin’s intention after all?