Secular and Holy Duke It Out-With the Catskills for Scenery

Kaaterskill Falls , by Allegra Goodman. Dial Press, 324 pages, $23.95.

Ah, the Jews. Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going? What makes a Jew a Jew? Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. After all this time, you have to wonder, how can we possibly keep people, even ourselves, interested?

Well, I have this friend, her job is to prepare exhibits for the Harvard Libraries–where the exhibits are usually about Harvard University and Its Libraries, Through Stress and Storm. Once, after lunch, she said, “Gotta go. Gotta get back to Harvard’s endless rumination on itself.” As with cats, maybe there’s something fascinating about an institution so endlessly, contentedly concerned with itself. Compare and contrast another auto-ruminative place: The New Yorker , where “We” remember what it was like under Ross/Shawn/Gottlieb/Brown, Even as We Look to the Future.

Each organization previously named is not catholic; they pointedly do not include all. (I’ve never been published by The New Yorker . But I’m Harvard, ’70 and Jewish throughout all past lives, and until, and after, the Messiah arrives.) Enrollment is kept low while world interest remains high.

The Harvard admissions committee chooses you by that Indefinable Something that only they can see. Harvard offers instruction in, and future-life guidance by, the Liberal Arts. The New Yorker ? Submissions are selected for Literary Excellence; taste is the only guide–and maybe (the magazine implied) the only guide you’ll ever need in life. Anyway, that was the feeling I got, leafing through its pages as a teenager in Great Neck.

The principals of selection and the fonts of guidance seem dubious to me now in the secular cases. I don’t think they have legs. While the Jews … Ah, the Jews. We were selected by … well, opinions differ here. But let’s say, for purposes of argument–for starting arguments, anyway–that God gathered all our souls at Sinai to receive the Law. Said Law, it is said, is the only guide you’ll need in life. (I didn’t precisely get that feeling in the Great Neck Reform Temple, but I met people who knew people who had had that feeling.) These ideas–with their mixtures of the transcendent, the uncanny and the haimish –have allowed us to keep up a near continual chatter about ourselves. After all, we’re also talking about God! And that (God knows) has sparked the interests of others, as they contest the election; or watch our history as a long-running drama about the Relationship, the one between God and his people.

But after all this time, you ask, can the Jews still keep people interested–especially an audience, say, that’s not so sure He even existed long enough to choose us? Kaaterskill Falls , the first novel by the accomplished short-story writer Allegra Goodman, is, again, the Jews and their musings about the Jews, done this time in a relaxed, but artful and exact way, always emphatic, but rarely overheated. It is, so to speak, the Jews on summer vacation. In a lower key than Abraham’s binding of Isaac, or anything by Philip Roth, Kaaterskill Falls held my attention throughout by this strategy of underplaying what has usually been done at very high volume, and by putting the stories of women on an equal footing–particularly, of course, the story of women not being on equal footing. It refurbished for me a conflict that any novel–after all, it’s a novel, not a midrash–has already decided, the fight between the secular (e.g., The Jazz Singer ) and the Holy, which is one of the Modern Jewish Debate Club’s favorite topics. The observant community: Does it sustain or stifle?

Of course, after so many years of rumination, you’ve already heard a lot of the good ones about the sacred-secular conflict. By now, even a novel ( nouvelle , news) like Kaaterskill takes on overt tones of archetype and parable–a veneer that pleases me, like patina on old wood. At the center of this book’s community is the Strict Rav (non-Hasidic, all head, little heart), a refugee from Germany who leads his flock to the mountains, summer after summer. This cold, severe, dying refugee–linchpin, judge, father–was, for me, the most interesting character in the book, though he presents the writer with the same difficulties as portraying a great composer. How do you convince the reader without actually giving the man’s work, his exegesis, his scholarship? Here, the Rav’s magnetic force is best shown by the bending effect he has on his flock; their endless worry, adoration and rebellion; or in the case of the novel’s secular Jews, their irony.

Ms. Goodman tells, which means retells, the conflict between this Patriarch and his Worldly Son–the Rav’s dead wife’s favorite–who was quick at Torah, but was fed, too, all the secular culture she’d loved in Germany. Seduced by it, he has seemingly abandoned the Law for the university, where he applies all the old talmudic passion to secular texts. On the other side of the archetypal teeter-totter: the Obedient Son, less gifted but observant and dutiful. Will the prodigal son return, place the bindings of the Law on himself again, take over the congregation?

The novel has the good sense not to refry these beans at too high a heat; it has the climax depend on something as simple or–from the Law’s point of view–as momentous, as what time the prodigal arrives for a Sabbath dinner. Best of all, though, Ms. Goodman does ring a fine, crucial change on this story, casually bringing into the background the most momentous of events for the modern Jew, the Shoah. The Rav and his congregation in Germany, she says, had both a vast secular and religious culture. His New World enforcement of the most punctilious obedience to the Law is his way of remembering while rejecting the secular culture that turned murderous. That is to say, for him the hidden meaning of obedience is mourning. Again, there was something moving to me here in the quiet tone in which Ms. Goodman speaks–or tactfully only almost speaks–of the unspeakable.

The novel braids in a large number of other stories, each character allowed her moment, in an artful drift from mind to mind. We meet a Holocaust survivor who must make his way back into life; his young daughter dreaming of the World beyond this world; and an observant follower, Isaac, whose distinction is to be without distinction, to follow the Law so exactly that he’s never noticed.

Isaac’s unobtrusiveness is disrupted by his wife, Elizabeth’s, fervent dream to do something “more than watch … [to] move outside the fixed and constant realm in which she lives.” This passion focuses down to opening a store for kosher food. Elizabeth, one might say, dreams the secular romantically–as I, no doubt, dream the observant Jew for whom such small fantasies as opening a food store can have enormous consequences. Done wrongly, they may offend God and/or the community. They may delay the coming of the Messiah. How both reassuring and terrifying–and how interesting–that is, to have your smallest action be of moment to the Most Holy! Or, as here, how interesting to consider again those who see their lives that way.

Elizabeth’s dream and her faith are disrupted when the new Rav turns against her store. She feels then how stifling her life is, how it reduces even her daughters’ dreams. This leaves her with small faith and great regret, but not much bitterness. As I’ve known it, anyway, life doesn’t allow for that balance. Even when I give up ice cream for nonfat yogurt, I feel more bitter, endless, fretful pulling than Elizabeth does.

But I accepted her acceptance. This novel about time in the mountains was like time in the mountains for me. Without too much schmaltz, it made me feel again for a few moments the attraction of the Law; and its costs. Or perhaps, I simply here display my desire to believe; or to believe that someone, somewhere, whose consciousness I can at least understand, still believes. That that path might still lie open to me; or that telling stories about–even if not actually living–that Law-ordered life will still make for good art, something even more interesting than alumni notes, or Remnick versus Brown.

Secular and Holy Duke It Out-With the Catskills for Scenery