I’m going to cheat a little bit here: in general, I have refrained from writing on this blog about books I read for work because I intended for the blog to force me to read more for pleasure. But here’s one of the little route modifications I discussed in my last post: I’m running out of time and I need to increase my count to make my attempt seem respectable. So, although I read the two books I want to write about in order to give a lecture about contemporary American Jewish literature’s engagement with Jewish magic and mysticism, I’ll write about them here, ignoring the old adage about mixing work with pleasure.
On the surface, there isn’t a lot that is similar about Ari Goelman’s 2013 young adult novel The Path of Names and Steve Stern’s 2011 adult adult novel The Frozen Rabbi other than an engagement with Jewish mystical themes and ideas. Broadly speaking, they fall into what I think is a growing category of contemporary Jewish American fiction that turns to Jewish magic to explore something fundamental about being Jewish in America, hybridized identities, and the idea of America itself. (The Golem and the Jinni is another book I’ve written about here which also belongs to this group.) But in their specifics they seem to confirm the old Jewish joke about two Jews and three opinions, in that the America and the American Jewishness represented in this work is ambivalent and sometimes paradoxical. I won’t get any further into general conclusions here, since I’m still in the midst of working on this material.
I don’t read many YA novels, and I don’t know whether this is generally the case, but the biggest flaw, for me, in The Path of Names was its somewhat simplistic narrative arc, in which the protagonist has a problem, confronts a challenge, and resolves her problem in exactly the neat way your second-grade teacher told you stories were supposed to work. Having read the Harry Potter series and Suzanne Collins’ Gregor the Overlander books, I know that not all novels for young readers work like this, so I suppose it is a legitimate complaint against Goelman. However, the reason I mention it is because in other ways The Path of Names is extremely rich – especially in its treatment of Jewish history and mysticism – and it seems a shame that its story doesn’t match the ambition of its ideas.
One of these ideas is about the value of knowledge itself, and the epistemic necessity of community. Embroiled against her will in a 72-year -old quest to discover the ineffable name of God, the awkward, pre-teen loner Dahlia Sherman has to navigate a litany of Jewish magical creatures– dybbuks, iburs, golems – mystical concepts –gematria, the seventy-second name of God, an imaginary group of shadowy secret-collectors called the Illuminated Ones – and everyday confusions – mazes, boys, summer camp social life. Goelman cleverly makes the nerdy Dahlia a devotee of math and magic (the quotidian, sleight-of-hand type) and then shows her that these passions are deeply connected with Jewish history and culture, or at least the mystical flip side of them. In the slightly preachy end, Dahlia learns, through her encounter with the Jewish mystical world, that the knowledge she prizes and her community are linked: as she tells the villain of the novel before their showdown, “If you don’t tell anyone, then knowledge isn’t anything.”
In this rejection of the supremacy of the individual, The Path of Names also seems to offer a counternarrative to American individualism, a topic with which The Frozen Rabbi is also engaged. Delightfully and with a certain eye-winking humor, The Frozen Rabbi offers a picaresque history of modern Jewish life, in Europe and America, as well as a complicated satire of American Jewry and America more generally. Again the plot centers around a teenager who enters into the world of Jewish mysticism and magic, although here the narrative arc is more complicated, and culminates not in a simple personal transformation occasioned by the events of the story. Rather, the transformation comes early in the book, and the conflicts and crises to which it gives rise form the crux of the novel and the basis for its satire and somewhat jaundiced view of American culture and capitalism. On yet another level, it may suggest that Jewish history/culture/magic is in itself a kind of rebuke to or critique of contemporary American culture. On the other hand, it may not be doing this at all, as the whole book is so tongue-in-cheek that at times I wondered if there was anything serious in it at all. The Frozen Rabbi is immensely enjoyable, however, and although it may decline to reveal its satirical ambitions, it raises all the questions without offering facile answers.
Just as the highly assimilated, American Jewish protagonists are drawn to the world of Jewish mysticism in these books, American Jewish writers seem drawn to Jewish magic at the moment, perhaps as a particularly Jewish expression of the apocalypticism present more generally in American literary fiction these days (all zombies all the time, right?). I’m sure there’s more to be said about this; hopefully I’ll say it better in an article soon.