“Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate” by Letty Cottin Pogrebin, Feminist Press, 344 pages, $27.95
As I know very well from my own quarter century as an author, a writer toils away at a book for years, without any certainty about the condition of the world into which that book will be released. Yet the context inevitably affects how the work will be read and received. Coming out amid this season of deep estrangement between Israeli and American Jews, Letty Cottin Pogrebin’s fine new novel, “Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate,” takes on added levels of relevance and poignancy.
Pogrebin, of course, is a veteran of the ideological and religious struggles that have variously united and divided the globe’s two largest populations of Jews. She wrote the definitive book on Jewish feminism, “Deborah, Golda, and Me,” and served as the chair of Americans for Peace Now. Clearly, she knows when she is picking a fight and against whom.
At its surface, “Single Jewish Male” appears to operate in the more domesticated literary tradition of what’s often called “the marriage plot.” In such books, the author traces a protagonist’s picaresque search for the proper spouse. Pogrebin alters the Jane Austen-Edith Wharton trope by having her central character, Zach Levy, be male, Jewish and the son of Holocaust survivors.
On those terms alone, “Single Jewish Male” would be a satisfying novel that abounds in the traditional virtues of character depth, skillful plotting, accurate evocation of time and place, and an acute ear for the lingua franca. To cite just a couple of the sharpest one-liners, Zach’s father says of God, “We believe in him. We just don’t trust him,” and Zach’s best friend explains of his culinary choices, “Shellfish is treif. Pork is anti-Semitic.”
Appearing at this moment in time, however, Pogrebin’s novel incisively charts a kind of American Jewish experience that seems to be standing at a stark, mutually embittered remove from that of Israeli Jews. Were Zach Levy growing up as the child of survivors in Israel, he and his parents might very understandably be consumed by questions of power and powerlessness, sovereignty and self-defense.
As a child of postwar America, the luminous exception to the Jew-hatred of the Diaspora, Zach navigates an entirely different moral and emotional landscape. Without an anchor in Judaic religious practice, he has nothing like the Hebrew language or Israel Defense Forces service or an Israeli passport to reify a secular Jewish identity. He dines at the smorgasbord of the most diverse city in a polyglot nation, enjoying the feast even as he wonders why it still leaves him hungry.
What throws Zach’s life, which is also to say the novel’s plot, into motion is an injunction that he received from his mother on the eve of becoming a bar mitzvah. His working-class parents observe Judaism more as an affirmation of heritage than an act of faith, faith having been mocked by the Shoah. Rivka Levy, as Pogrebin pungently writes, is “a piano teacher who hated music.” She lives with the memory of her first son having been shot for sport by a Nazi soldier during a roundup of Jews in her Polish hometown. “Promise me you’ll marry a Jew and raise Jewish children,” she demands of Zach. Harrowed by the awareness of her loss, he complies.
Early into his adult career as a public-interest lawyer, Zach makes good on the compact, marrying a Jewish woman, with whom he has a daughter. But then his wife comes out as a lesbian, falls in love with an Australian woman, and moves there with the daughter. Zach is too shell-shocked to hold out for more than two short parental visits each year.
Sundered from wife and child, and orphaned as his parents die, Zach soon comes to recognize a different kind of void in his existence. “Since his parents’ deaths,” Pogrebin writes, “he had become a once-a-year Jew, not abstaining altogether, lest he tempt the evil eye, but always buying a High Holy Day ticket for the nearest shul, usually an overflow service presided over by a nervous rabbinic intern and a newly minted cantor.” He is, she puts it a few pages later, “a pretzeled Jew who agonized over what he owed to his ancestors.”
Attractive and single in the social hive of Manhattan in the 1980s and ‘90s, Zach asks himself, “Was he really obligated to choose guilt over love?” Because the only thing Jewish identity or continuity seems to mean to him is a kind of unchosen, inconvenient obligation. Which he feels even more acutely when he falls in love with an African-American activist and radio host named Cleo Scott.
The daughter of a minister, Cleo has no difficulty at all reconciling her politics, faith and heritage. “The sermons, traditions, and spirit of the black church were the strands with which she had rewoven her self-esteem after her father died,” Pogrebin writes. “Knowing that she was African American, the daughter of a charismatic pastor and a powerful mother, was intrinsic to everything she felt about herself.”
When New York roiled
The courtship of Zach and Cleo takes place against the backdrop of black-Jewish friction in New York City, and Pogrebin expertly evokes those awful years of Louis Farrakhan, Leonard Jeffries and Al Sharpton, with those vicious and ultimately pointless arguments between blacks and Jews over who suffered the worse genocide.
What troubles the waters between Zach and Cleo is less those overarching debates than their personal loyalties. Zach considers interfaith marriage impossible, even though he cannot articulate a reason other than his childhood promise to his mother. Cleo is securely rooted in Christianity. This portrait of deep, doomed love across the lines of denomination is one of the best I’ve read since the Jewish-Catholic romance that David Klinghoffer described in his memoir “The Lord Will Gather Me In.”
After breaking up with Cleo, Zach discovers she is pregnant with his child, a child he feels paralyzed from acknowledging. In Pogrebin’s provisionally happy ending, Zach looks up the rabbi who had been his boyhood mentor and comes to realize he can only imbue his child with Judaism once he himself can again embrace it.
“Tell me something, Mr. Levy,” the rabbi says, “how many Jews do you know who are carrying our heritage forward? How many are equipped to teach our tradition to their children? ... If you’ll pardon my rudeness, you can trace your genes back to Moses and Aaron, but can you carry our heritage from here to the bus stop?”
Such concerns animate, inform and infuse “Single Jewish Male.” They are the concerns of America, a country of such surpassing tolerance that it is perversely the greatest danger to the nation’s Jews. The postwar exit from the ghetto has allowed American Jews the exhilaration of making bonds across the lines of race, ethnicity and religion. This liberation has also seen the rate of interfaith marriage soar past 50 percent for the non-Orthodox, and Jews are overrepresented among the growing share of Americans (23 percent) known as “nones” for their professed lack of religious identity.
I can only imagine that the issues that engaged Pogrebin as the writer, and me as the reader, must seem petty indeed to our Israeli brethren amid the Obama-Netanyahu meltdown. Our problems must look luxurious to anyone with the Islamic State, Assad and Iran over the horizon. But I am grateful for a novel that trusts itself to plumb an American Jewish dilemma that, if not lethal, is corrosive and real.
Samuel G. Freedman writes the “On Religion” column for The New York Times and is the author of seven books including “Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry.”