Staying Pure in America

The theme of the red heifer is the moral epicenter of this unique Jewish-American story, which swirls around the double tension of freedom and contamination

"The Red Heifer," by Leo Haber, Syracuse University, 289 pages, $24.95

Move over, Mr. Roth. (That's Henry Roth, not Cecil or Philip.) With Leo Haber's poignant, page-turning new novel, "The Red Heifer," we may very well have the "Call It Sleep" of the 21st century. And if Henry Roth wasn't looking over Leo Haber's shoulder when he was conceiving the novel, then certainly James Joyce was.

Let's deal with the puzzling title first. Why strap such an odd name onto a book about a Jewish boy growing up on New York's Lower East Side in the 1930s and 1940s? Yet the title is one of the keys to understanding not only the novel but the entire cultural-literary perspective of the author, whose wide-ranging knowledge of Yiddishkeit is never allowed to supersede the needs of the narrative.

"Red Heifer" is the English translation of the Torah phrase "para aduma." When the red heifer is sacrificed, it purifies someone defiled by contact with a corpse and renders impure the one administering it. The statute of the red heifer is one of the few ritualistic laws in the Torah with no known significance or reason, and is a classical example of a statute for which no rational explanation can be adduced. The red heifer ceremony has no parallels in other cultures of the time and, religion aside, smacks of the hocus-pocus of primitive paganism.

Yet within the context of the novel, the first-person narrator's father gives a satisfactory explanation. He says that it refers to the "double nature of a good and democratic country like America. It purifies its citizens by giving them freedom and, at the same time, gives them the opportunity to contaminate themselves through the same freedom. Especially the Jews."

The theme of the red heifer, then, is the moral epicenter of the tale, and around this double tension of freedom and contamination (read: licentiousness), swirl the events that inform the book.

A gallery of characters

Haber's work could be narrowly called a coming-of-age novel. But it is more than that. Besides creating a gallery of credible and fascinating characters - Jews and non-Jews, saintly men and street toughs, pool-hall hangers-on and sex-starved women, loan sharks and freethinkers (there is even a self-proclaimed, Southern-born messiah) - Haber's story line is enriched by scenes that echo or recast memorable biblical episodes. Nor are these scenes - including an updated version of the rape of Dinah and her brothers' subsequent revenge, and a retelling of the story in which Abraham passes off his wife as his sister to save his neck - haphazardly layered onto the text to make it more literary. On the contrary, they are seamlessly woven into the fabric of the story.

For those who do not know these seminal tales in Genesis, Haber's modern reprise stands by itself. But for those who sense the biblical parallels, the text becomes immeasurably enriched and the knowing reader marvels at the author's sleight of hand. Like knowing the Jonah story while reading Father Mapple's sermon at the beginning of "Moby Dick," an extra dimension is added to the joy of reading.

The rape of Dinah, for instance, is transmuted into a gripping tale of a young, foul-mouthed, anti-Semitic Pole who seizes a Jewish girl and wants to marry her. Her brothers tell him that if he and his entire family undergo circumcision and a 25-hour fast, he will get the girl. Wait till you see how the Simon-Levi revenge is re-created!

Nowadays one needs a flashlight to find a Jewish-American fiction writer with such a deep understanding and fluid employment of the Jewish tradition, both scholarly and liturgical, along with a knowledge of Hebrew and Yiddish. Haber fuses a deep psychological understanding of the soul of a boy who, while growing up, intertwines his inner life of music (he is a soprano in a synagogue choir), studying and love of family with his adventures on the street. Here is where the red heifer theme - purity at home, possible contamination outside of it - manifests itself.

We watch the youngster growing up, see him relate to his beloved parents. His father is a yeshiva teacher who studies Talmud and is uncomfortable with the modern way of life; his devoted, loving mother works as a janitor in the apartment house they live in, which allows them to live in the building rent-free. It is a touching portrait of a pious family (so rare in American Jewish fiction) struggling against powerful outside forces. "The Red Heifer" is also richly detailed in its historic frame - the Depression, World War II and the Holocaust (the father's never-ending anxiety about his brother and family left in Poland is another sub-theme and leitmotif in the book).

It is equally unusual for a first novel to have such an impressive admixture of cultural nexus. All too often, when American writers try to create a "Jewish" work, their ignorance shows. Haber sets his literary creation squarely into the two rich and evocative traditions, Jewish and Western, and uses them both to the advantage of the narrative.

Bilingual puns

A writer may easily recall (or create) situations and characters from his childhood, but it is the most daunting of artistic tasks to recreate the thought process and language of children while still maintaining the aesthetic of an artist in full control of his material. Like Joyce's "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man," the narrative commences with a child's point of view, using a 5-year-old's understanding and perception of the world as filtered through an adult's mind. We see his naive misunderstanding of language as well as his inadvertent bilingual punning.

Torquemada, the notorious inquisitor from Spain, for example, becomes "talking marders." When an old friend teaches him about Christianity, he asks, "Why is Jesus hanging on a plus sign?" When friends tie the boy up for sacrifice, they tell him that the Incas in Peru sacrificed human beings to the Gods. In response, the boy declares that "peru" in Hebrew means to have lots of children ("peru u'revu" - "be fruitful and multiply" - is the first mitzvah in the Torah). He continues, "It doesn't mean kill your children; so it's impossible the Incas did that."

Here is another irresistible bilingual pun: When the little boy hears the word "bookie" from the street loafers, he says that his Torah-loving father is also a bookie. Everyone laughs, but he knows only one meaning for the sound "bookie": The Hebrew/Yiddish word of the same pronunciation for a man who is expert in Jewish learning.

American Jewish fiction of the latter part of the 20th century was rich in negative portraits of the American Jewish mother - crass, uncultured, bossing her henpecked husband, thoroughly unlikable (see Bruce Jay Friedman, Philip Roth and others). I have often wondered what happened to the loving, quiet, self-sacrificing mothers we see in the work of such writers as Avraham Reisen, Sholem Aleichem, Henry Roth, Chaim Grade. Did a mere Atlantic crossing radically change the personality of the Jewish mother? Or could it possibly be the hang-up of hypercritical, self-indulgent American writers?

The portrait that Haber draws of the narrator's mother puts the maternal figure of classical Yiddish/Hebrew literature squarely back where it belongs, resuming her role as "eshet hayil," a woman of valor.

Like "Call it Sleep," Haber's novel probes both the inner and outer worlds of a little boy with particular sensitivity to idiom and language. Unlike Roth's novel, Haber's strongly accents the positive sides of Judaism and shows how one can be both an American and a Jew, achieving purity in America and deftly avoiding contamination.

"The Red Heifer" is a slice of America in a discrete time zone, an entire miniature civilization limned with compassion, perception and wit.

Curt Leviant is the author, most recently, of the comic novel, "Diary of an Adulterous Woman" (Syracuse, 2001).

By arrangement with the Forward.