Joy to the (Post-9/11) World


Joy Comes in the Morning
By Jonathan Rosen
400 pages. Fararr, Straus & Giroux. $25.

Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to Split Decision, a new department in which two writers give toe-to-toe reviews of the same book. This issue, we're looking at Joy Comes in the Morning, a new novel by Jonathan Rosen, the former arts editor of the Forward. Below, Hampshire College professor Rachel Rubinstein calls Joy "an engaging novel, unabashedly spiritual-minded and at the same time mischievously irreverent: in short, thoroughly and self-confidently Jewish." Click here to see what her opponent, writer Bezalel Stern, has to say.

Jonathan Rosen's previous themes, in his first novel Eve’s Apple and in his book-length essay The Talmud and the Internet, can be messily and hugely summed up as: tradition and modernity, death and illness, love and connectedness, reading and learning. His newest novel revisits these perennial concerns with a fetching twist—the heroine of Joy Comes in the Morning is a young, beautiful, and single Reform woman rabbi who, in her own words, is “a rabbi, not a nun.” Assistant rabbi Deborah Green works for a large Manhattan congregation, and during one of her visits to the sick at Roosevelt Hospital, she meets Henry Friedman and his family. Henry is, like Rosen’s own father, a German-Jewish survivor of the Kindertransport, who, in despair over his debilitation from a recent stroke, has tried, and failed, to kill himself. At Henry’s bedside Deborah encounters his son, Lev, a science reporter who has recently ditched his bride-to-be at the altar. On one level this is supposed to be a meeting of opposites, a match between the profoundly spiritual Deborah, who is prone to chanting Psalms by memory at the drop of a kipah, and Lev the skeptic, who is scarred both by his disastrous near-wedding and the loss of his best friend to schizophrenia. Soon enough, however, Lev and Deborah are studying Talmud together, and he becomes familiar enough with her rabbi’s manual so that, in one of the more comic moments in the novel, Lev finds himself conducting a funeral in Deborah’s place (rather competently, it turns out).

The reader familiar with The Talmud and the Internet already knows that the author’s own wife is a rabbi and hospital chaplain, and the novel shares other small details with Rosen’s own biography (both Rosen and his wife and Lev and Deborah are married under the prayer shawl of a grandfather murdered in the Holocaust, for instance). Rather, the surprises of the novel inhere in the complex negotiations within each character between history and modernity, the sacred and the secular, the body, the intellect, and the soul. Lev is attracted to Deborah in part because he wants to honor his ill father’s wish for him to become more observant. Deborah, even as her relationship with Lev flourishes, experiences something of a crisis of faith. The novel, describing both Lev’s increasing sense of the sacred and Deborah’s wrestling with doubt, treats both characters with tremendous sympathy and seriousness. If Lev and Deborah seem too soulful at times to be believed, it may be because they are meant to function symbolically, as embodiments of the struggles of faith and observance in a post-Holocaust, post-modern, post-9/11 world. Contemporary crises of faith are not new to fiction, of course, but what is new here is the unusual degree of Jewish learning and textual and ritual literacy that soaks the novel through, as well as the fascinating possibilities afforded by Rosen’s choice of a heroine. What character could better represent the passions, contradictions, and improvisations of modern Jewishness than Rabbi Deborah Green? As Rosen writes:

Deborah recognized that the rules she lived by—and the rules she ignored—had been devised by humans, though she saw them as divinely inspired and therefore worth maintaining. As a Reform Jew she was not obliged to see Jewish law as immutable and binding and yet she chose to observe a great deal. Something in the tradition transcended the individual and became a living embodiment of God for her, even if the pieces were all man made. But it was not her only conduit to religious life. Always, outside the system, she felt God lurking, gleaming around patches of law and tradition and improvisation she had half inherited and half stitched together so that she had a sense of spiritual well-being that lived beyond her traditional life. Lev recognized this in her and admired it intensely.

Lev is so drawn to Deborah’s spiritual self-possession that, in one of the more risqué scenes of the novel, Deborah’s morning prayers, which she performs in her living room garbed in the traditional tallis and tefillin and (untraditional) short shorts, function effectively as foreplay for the couple. Lev, watching Deborah, cannot “help noticing that her face in prayer bore an uncanny resemblance to her face during sex.” If Rosen likes to play with the erotics of religious fervor, he is also a keen portraitist of Jewish Manhattan, sketching out the subtle but very tangible social distinctions between various religious and geographic subcultures. Certain readers will feel a smirk of recognition at Reuben, Deborah’s Orthodox ex-boyfriend, who won’t marry her, but will sleep with her; the morning after she finds him “sifting through the silverware to make sure that she indeed had a set for milk and a set for meat.” The novel is richly peopled with such ancillary characters: Lev’s parents Henry and Helen, whose history provides a kind of counter-narrative throughout; his brother, sister-in-law, and tiny niece; Deborah’s sister and her partner Dawn; Lev’s former best friend Neal, whose decisive descent into madness supplies the climax of the narrative; and various congregants, patients, mourners, hopeful brides and grooms. The result is an engaging novel, unabashedly spiritual-minded and at the same time mischievously irreverent: in short, thoroughly and self-confidently Jewish.

As for the ending—the marriage between Deborah and Lev at the end of the book is both highly satisfying and highly unsuspenseful. Despite the conventional pleasure of the book’s conclusion, Rosen offers a suggestion, none too subtle, of tragedy to come: The novel takes place between the fall of 1999 and the fall of 2000, and we are told in the last chapter that Lev’s brother is about to take a job on the “top of the World Trade Center.” This forced me to re-consider the novel, which up until then I had been reading as a meditation about hope and faith after the Holocaust. Does this, the post-9/11 Jewish novel, mark a new animal in the menagerie of Jewish American fiction?