Off the Shelf: Searching for paradise by Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Pardes, paradise, the orchard: the opening epigraph of David Hopen’s novel “The Orchard” (Ecco/HarperCollins) quotes from the Talmud, telling the story of four rabbis who visited paradise. One dies, the second becomes insane, the third becomes an apostate and only the fourth emerges whole. Readers will rightfully wonder how this legend will relate to the life of Ari Eden, the high school senior who narrates “The Orchard.” After moving with his parents to Florida, this transplant from a traditional background in Brooklyn will now attend a Modern Orthodox high school that resembles a prep school more than a yeshiva.

Ari’s father is almost immediately uncomfortable with the Jewish nature of their new community – starting with their neighbors who invite them to a barbecue where, although the food is kosher, women’s arms are not covered, men are drinking beer, and teenage boy and girls swim together in the pool. Ari feels out of his element, but is more open to change because he was unhappy in Brooklyn. When he is befriended by Noah, the neighbor’s son, Ari finds himself in the elite group at his new high school and in a world that seems almost completely foreign to him. At first refusing the alcohol and drugs that members of the group regularly partake, Ari finds himself slowly and clearly changing.

The elite group Ari becomes a part of have been friends since grade school. Noah is the prince of the group: friendly, charming and a superior athlete, and the only one with a steady girlfriend. Oliver, the richest, cares little about school and lives to get high or drunk. Amir is the most serious: his focus is on school and getting into college, although, at times, his competitive nature – he wants the best grade and the best test scores – irritates his friends. The one puzzling figure is Evan. Clearly the intellectual of the group, he continually challenges Ari, competing with him not only for the interest of Rabbi Bloom, the principal of the school, but for Sophia, Evan’s former girlfriend. Ari finds himself intrigued and in love with Sophia, an excellent pianist who suffers from doubt and sorrow. Evan has also known sorrow: his beloved mother passed away the previous year and he dislikes his father.

Yet, as much as part of him wants to belong, the group’s behavior disturbs Ari, particularly that of Evan who clearly seems unstable. Taking part in their activities – which includes staying out late, even on weeknights, drinking and drugs – puts him at odds with his father who begins to regret moving to Florida, especially when he sees his son becoming less observant. When Ari begins to contemplate attending a secular university, his father makes it clear that he wishes Ari would spend a year or two studying in a yeshiva before looking for a secular occupation. However, Ari has come to love discussing philosophy with Rabbi Bloom, something that makes him desire an education wider than can be found in a yeshiva.

“The Orchard” contains some fascinating thoughts about Judaism and Jewish practice. For example, Ari and his mother appreciate spending time together on Shabbat for different reasons: “For my mother, Shabbat suspended time, providing a moment to breathe. For me, Shabbat restored equilibrium. We went to shul, we ate together, we sang, and for twenty-five structured hours, time resumed a more bearable pace. I grew up finding beauty in Shabbat for precisely the opposite reason that Erich Fromm and most Jews loved Shabbat: once a week, I had the chance not to overthrow time, but to slip happily back into its shackles.” Evan, on the other hand, challenges everything he and his friends have learned about Orthodox life. When talking about their upcoming graduation, he asks his fellow students, “[Now that independence is] here, what will we do with it? Will we live, after all, like everyone else? Will we opt to be precise replicas of our parents’ lives? Will we perpetuate what’s broken? Gossip, hypocrisy, greed, overpriced food, competition over cars and houses and tzedakah – everything we’ve been born into.... can end.” Unsatisfied with his life, Evan is looking for something beyond the mundane world and wants to share that experience with his friends.

However, the most beautiful thought about religion comes from Rabbi Bloom when he describes to Ari and his friends how God is both an adversary and a comfort: “We need [God] when we need something larger than ourselves to thank and something larger than ourselves to blame. We need Him to feel as if we’re not alone. And we need Him to feel as if our loneliness isn’t our fault. We need Him when we rejoice, when we want happiness, peace and quiet, but we also need Him when we mourn, when we experience dread, loss, insanity... We need Him more than He needs us. And that, I think is what it all amounts to. So did we make [God] up... Does it matter?” It’s clear to readers that Rabbi Bloom’s answer to that question is, “No.”

“The Orchard” is a complex, compelling novel because it not only discusses the daily lives of the students, but their thoughts about religion, philosophy and life. Hopen has created fascinating characters whose depths and secrets are slowly revealed. Yet, some of their decisions may chill and horrify readers, leading one to wonder if the academy’s attempts to educate its students failed or succeeded. Readers may also find themselves returning to the story of the four rabbis as they ponder whether that ancient text came to accurately reflect the lives of these young men.