Book Review: Love and identity

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

What role does the sexuality of a beloved play in our own identity? Answers range from “less relevant than other aspects of our personalities” to “it informs a major part of our lives.” This question and potential answers are explored in three recent novels whose characters belong to the LGBTQ community. Sometimes their sexuality is the main focus of the novel, while in others, it plays only a minor role. 
“The Right Thing to Do at the Time”
The PR pitch was impossible to resist: It claimed that “The Right Thing to Do at the Time” by Dov Zeller (Tiny Golem Press) was a mix of Jane Austen and Sholem Alecheim – that is, if they’d agreed to write a Jewish, queer version of “Pride and Prejudice” with gender roles reversed. After reading the novel, my only disagreement with that statement is that Zeller’s novel also contains a heaping dose of Woody Allen “Annie Hall”-style Jewish angst. The characters are some of the most neurotic I’ve read about in ages. However, once I relaxed, and figured out who was who relative to Austen’s book, the novel was good fun, even though the plot takes awhile to develop.
Ari Wexler, the main character, is a trans man in his late 20s whose personal and professional life are stagnating. His father makes it clear he prefers Ari’s friend, Itche Mattes, to his older son, and also dotes on his ne’er-do-well younger son, Josh. The parental roles are the reverse of “Pride and Prejudice”: Ari’s father is the whiner-worrier, while his mother is absorbed in her books and scholarly writing. Ari is also close to his grandmother, who moves from the hospital to a nursing home in the early part of the novel and nudges Ari about his life – or rather lack of life. Ari’s new supervisor at a music library where he works makes his life a misery. The few pleasures in Ari’s life are Itche, who has been his close friend since camp; playing the violin; and going to Shabbat services. Both Ari and Itche long for a loving relationship with that special someone, but that person is nowhere in sight.
That changes when a famous actress, Tanya Weisberger, attends Shabbat services. Itche falls in love and that love seems to be returned – that is, until Tanya’s snooty friend, Helen Zonkerman, makes her opinions known. Ari is also offered a job opportunity that will allow him to work on his own music, but, like many of Woody Allen’s characters, he has difficulty getting past his neuroses to take a chance on something new. The novel generally follows the plot of “Pride and Prejudice” – well, mostly, because there are a few surprises. There are also witty editorial footnotes about Jewish practices on many pages and a wide cast of characters who echo those in Austen’s novel – although the talking butter dish is limited to Zeller’s book.
One of the additional pleasures of “The Right Thing to Do at the Time” is the characters’ religious observance. Ari and Itche regularly attend Shabbat services. In fact, Shabbat plays an important role in Ari’s life: “The weekend was coming fast and he had plenty to look forward to. Shabbat was one thing. Being in shul with Itche. Seeing [another friend]. Singing and sending his prayers up to heaven.” That observance remains steady even when everything else in his life is in flux.
Will “The Right Thing to Do at the Time” become a classic like Austen and Alecheim’s works? That’s impossible to predict, but readers with a sense of whimsy and a curiosity about how these authors might mesh will enjoy this unusual and clever novel.
“The Parting Gift”
Love or lust? Desire or jealousy? Which defines the relationship between the main characters in Evan Fallenberger’s “The Parting Gift” (Other Press)? This wild, sexual, erotic roller coaster will leave readers gasping for breath.
In a letter, the unnamed male narrator explains to the U.S. college friend with whom he is staying what occurred during his recent visit to Israel. The narrator’s life took an abrupt turn when he met Uzi, a spice merchant whose attractions he could not resist. After abandoning his studies and moving into Uzi’s house, he began to help run the spice business and the household. Although Uzi has been married twice and has children, he didn’t seem disturbed by his affair with a man and Uzi’s family quickly adjusted to the narrator’s presence. What seemed paradise at first changed, though, when the narrator began to doubt Uzi’s fidelity and found himself campaigning against all those for whom Uzi cares. The reader begins to question the narrator’s nature – all the while watching in horror as events take a dark turn.
“The Parting Gift” grabs readers’ attention with its portrayal of a person in the grip of a sexual obsession. The novel contains explicit sexual details, but their purpose is to show the physical connection and attraction between the two men. Once I started reading, I found the book difficult to put down, while, at the same time, I questioned the nature of the two men’s relationship. Love or lust? Desire or jealousy? Fallenberg makes readers wonder at the power of these deeply-held emotions.
“Yeled Tov”
Jake Stein, the main character in Daniel M. Jaffe’s “Yeled Tov” (Lethe Press), would have been unable to imagine the world portrayed in Zeller and Fallenberg’s novels – one where homosexuality is accepted. In the 1970s, all Jake wants to be is a yeled tov, a good boy: “He didn’t swear using God’s name. He didn’t do homework on Shabbes. He tried hard to treat his parents with respect. He didn’t steal or murder or do anything bad. He ate only kosher food, put on teffilin and davened every morning, saying every word of his prayers.” Yet, on Yom Kippur in 1974, Jake notices the verses in Leviticus that condemn homosexuality and his world is overturned. Jake doesn’t want to be attracted to men. In fact, he periodically dates women so he can be a yeled tov who will make his parents proud, but the dates are not a success. Not even his metaphorical discussions with God allow him to change his nature.
College is even worse than high school because Jake falls in love with his roommate, although he finds it difficult to admit what’s occurring. The rest of the world doesn’t make it easy for him: when a gay group forms on the campus, its members are attacked. When the rabbi of his home synagogue claims that “you can’t be a homosexual and Jew at the same time,” Jake doesn’t know which way to turn. He takes his rabbi’s words to heart – believing his feelings have “made him an abomination... if [his] obscene phase didn’t pass, if he continued to be one of those abominations, then – was it true that [he] couldn’t be Jewish and...?” Jake fears the rabbi who welcomed him into adulthood at his bar mitzvah will expel him from the Jewish community and sees only one way out of his predicament.
The pain and anguish Jake feels is vividly portrayed in “Yeled Tov.” The tension builds as Jake begins to doubt he can ever be true to all parts of himself. One can’t help but wonder how much of the novel is autobiographical because the anguish feels so real, something which also makes it difficult to read at times. Jaffe does offer readers – and Jake – hope, but one can only trust and pray that the contemporary Jewish community is more welcoming to the Jakes of today.