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Pessimistic portraits

Books | Two Jewish authors offer Ecclesiastes-flavored novels

Issue: "Broken beyond repair?," Sept. 25, 2010

Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement for Jews, begins at sunset on Sept. 17 this year. It's the 10th and last of the High Holy Days: The operating idea is that on the first day, Rosh Hashanah, God judges most of mankind and pencils in His judgments in the Book of Life-but He can make changes until Yom Kippur, when the Book is closed and sealed.

It's partly true that Judaism is a religion of works, with the Orthodox trying to keep most of the 613 Torah commandments and ending up with more pluses than minuses, but that's too simple. Yes, actions are central, but the High Holy Days are a time for repentance that can make up for a multitude of failures. The last hour of Yom Kippur includes a service called Neilah: It's the only service during which the doors to each synagogue's Ark (home to Torah scrolls) stay open throughout, indicating that the gates of Heaven are still open but will imminently close.

Christians can learn much from Judaism, and in the process increase our thankfulness that because of Christ's full atonement for all our sins the gates of Heaven are always open. For that matter, most American Jews could learn much from Judaism, because most know little about it.

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Sadly, the Old Testament book that resonates most strongly with many Americans is the most apparently pessimistic, Ecclesiastes, with its signature line, "Vanity, vanity, all is vanity." Two tightly written, dark-humored books by Jewish authors, Joseph Epstein's The Love Song of A. Jerome Minkoff and Other Stories (Houghton Mifflin, 2010), and Susan Messer's Grand River and Joy (University of Michigan Press, 2009), meticulously echo that semi-wisdom.

Epstein's short stories, almost all of which hurtle toward curdled conclusions, are pitch-perfect in capturing slices of thought and speech among middle-aged or elderly Jewish Chicagoans. Story summaries don't do justice to Epstein's immaculate style, but they'll give you a sense of content: A widower decides he'd rather remain alone than marry a rich widow. An old professor goes crazy, falls off a roof, and dies. A nasty writer grows old and miserable. A daughter who becomes a business success disappoints her arts-loving parents. A businessman shows compassion to a homeless man, who then becomes his enemy.

Want some optimism? Try story 8: A man wonders whether to tell his best friend that the friend's wife is having an affair. Or story 9: A late middle-aged man reaches out to a high-school friend from a different culture, but they cannot communicate. Or story 10: A son is close to his elderly father, who dies of cancer. Or 11: A brilliant Yiddish novelist dies, but few people can read his work or care about it. Or 12: A heralded but self-centered author eventually kills himself. In a couple of stories younger women cheer up elderly men, but that's about it. No meaning to life, no hope of heaven, no High Holy Days, low holy days, or any holy days.

Grand River and Joy, named after a landmark Detroit intersection, also echoes Ecclesiastes: Set in 1967, when a race riot left 43 dead and more than 2,000 buildings destroyed, the novel brings together wholesale shoe warehouse owner Harry Levine and an African-American father and son who live above the warehouse. Debut novelist Messer has Levine working without joy or meaning: Judaism provides not a purpose for life but some insignificant ritual: His wife says at one point, "We should light the candles. And the latkes [potato pancakes] are going to get soggy."

Messer does offer some hope for racial reconciliation. She also provides an inkling of the possibilities for vertical reaffiliation when Levine is dragged into an orthodox synagogue and finds himself praying: "He let the prayer shawl fall forward around his face and shoulders, and he withdrew into it, a private tent."

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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