CJL: Jewish mystic or psychological breakdown

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

The essence of some novels is open to debate. Even when readers learn about the character from several viewpoints, there are questions that may never be fully answered. To be fair, some readers of Toby Lloyd’s “Fervor” (Avid Reader Press) will feel confident that they know exactly what happened to Elsie Rosenthal, while others will still be puzzled at the novel’s end. What is clear is that something happened to Elsie after her grandfather, Yosef, a Holocaust survivor, died. 

Hannah and Eric Rosenthal are observant Jews who live in North London with his father, Yosef, and their three children, Gideon, Elsie and Tovyah. As Yosef approaches the end of his life, Hannah interviews him about his experiences in the Holocaust, something that greatly affects her children. To make matters worse, once he dies, Hannah publishes a book about their conversations, which reveals a secret Yosef would have preferred to take to his grave. But the family’s splintering really begins when Elsie disappears for several days. It doesn’t spoil the plot to reveal that she is found, but the Elsie who returns is noticeably different in behavior and actions.

The aftereffects of her disappearance continue almost a decade later. Due to her uncontrollable and dangerous behavior, Elsie has been in and out of mental health institutions. Gideon moved to Israel to remove himself from the family sphere. Tovyah attends Oxford University where, because of his serious and pedantic nature, he is disliked by almost everyone. The one exception is his next door neighbor, Kate, who finds his behavior and ideas intriguing. While Hannah’s first book and controversial support of Israel has made her an unpopular figure on the Oxford campus, it is her latest work that has pushed Tovyah even further from his family: she writes that Elsie’s issues are being caused by her involvement with Jewish mysticism, which has left her either possessed by a spirit or lost in a different spiritual sphere. However, Tovyah, who has disavowed religion, believes his sister’s problems are caused by their dysfunctional family.

Kate’s own relationship to Judaism is interesting, partly because she had no idea she was Jewish when a child. In fact, her father only learned that his mother was Jewish after she died. It was also then that he discovered the man whom he thought was his father was, in fact, his mother’s second husband. As to whether any of his mother’s extended family still existed, that remained a mystery. Since both her parents were not religious, Kate had little experience with Judaism beyond her brother’s Jurassic Park-themed bar mitzvah, one her brother decided he wanted on his own. Tovyah notes that, according to the laws his family follows, she would not be considered Jewish, although Kate does feel a connection to Judaism. 

Although a majority of the novel follows Kate and Tovyah at Oxford, Elsie’s behavior underlies the interactions that occur. Readers will debate whether Elsie really has had mystical experiences (one section featuring Kate will make that seem a possibility), if she does suffer from mental illness (other sections lend credence to that possibility) or if she is deliberately self-destructive (a thought offered in still others). This may leave readers feeling unsatisfied if they wish to have one idea completely confirmed. Even reading Elsie’s thoughts in one section did not completely solve the mystery.

The most interesting parts of the work, though, focus on different family members’ feelings about Judaism. Tovyah challenges his family’s Orthodox practices and opinions. For example, he ponders “the problem of God. God, who is everywhere, all places at all times, and yet also was nowhere ever. The constant intrusion of nothingness. Tovyah had to thank him for every scrap of food that passed his lips but couldn’t even say his name... This was the twenty-first century, wasn’t it, they lived in liberal, democratic, modern Great Britain. In affluent North London! The indignities of feudalism, of expulsion, of shtetl life, of the Pale of the Settlement, were centuries behind them (centuries!) And here they were, behaving like the lowliest, mud-licking serfs, thanking the invisible Lord for the food they ate.” 

What Tovyah does not realize is how important being religious is to his mother, who came from a secular Jewish background before becoming Orthodox. Her parents were “affluent, liberal, and fully assimilated” and felt “no need of old-world hocus pocus.” It was a personal revelation that brought her to Judaism: “As she closed her eyes she was aware of a crowding presence, infinitely perceptive; a judgement more intelligent, more penetrating than her own; an eye without dimensions; an ecstatic vision, searing hot. The dizzying realization that she and everything was turning. Forever.... Every act of cruelty or kindness is both known and recorded, everything thing we’ve ever done weighted in the balance. And we are never, any of us, isolated. Think these thoughts, take them seriously, and you must change your life.” That was when Hannah felt the need to find a synagogue and become part of the traditional Jewish world.

Between their different feelings about Judaism and about how best to help Elsie, Tovyah and Hannah are unable to come to terms because they inhabit extremes, each refusing to acknowledge the feelings and thoughts of the other. That includes the disturbing event at the end of the novel, one which Kate also experiences and which changes the direction of her life.

Readers may have mixed feeling about “Fervor.” The novel is well written, but the different narrative threads – some told in first person and some in third person – didn’t always hold together. As mentioned before, there seems to be no one clear understanding of Elsie’s experience, something that may appeal to some readers, but which others will find off-putting. Lloyd is definitely a writer to watch, though; it will be interesting to see his approach to Judaism and family life in his future works.