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November 20, 2003

A Debut Teeming With Love and Lore

http://www.jewishjournal.com/arts/article/a_debut_teeming_with_love_and_lore_20031121

"An Hour in Paradise: Stories" by Joan Leegant (Norton, $23.95).

People imagine that, as a book critic, I read so much that there must be dozens of books I enjoy each year. But the truth is, books about which I am totally enthusiastic appear only every few years. Joan Leegant's terrific first book of stories, "An Hour in Paradise," is one of those books.

The fleeting nature of wondrous, sometimes miraculous, experiences is alluded to in Leegant's title, derived from a Yiddish proverb, "Even an hour in Paradise is worthwhile." In "The Tenth," the first of 10 stories in this book, Leegant writes of a tiny old Boston shul's "elusive search" for a 10th man to complete its minyan. Eighty-six-year-old Nathan Lefkowitz, charged with the search, "had been privy to a variety of techniques in his day, from strong-arm tactics laying the guilt on reticent Jews to the ultimate in discretion that it verged on code, so much so that it was sometimes impossible to know what religion was involved or even if it was religion at all."

What distinguishes "The Tenth" is the strange and somewhat upsetting presence, then absence, of Lefkowitz's latest find, conjoined twins by whom he is approached in a student apartment building. A flurry of halachic questions arise -- do they count in a minyan as one or two? Pouring through texts, the rabbi realizes there are few simple answers to life's queries, "That even compassion was a layered thing."

Yet where else could the twins be as comfortable as among these aged men, "already moving toward the peripheries of life. What better place for such guests than among those for whom even the most extreme oddities hardly mattered anymore? Among them, they could be ordinary Jews ... their strangeness lifted, removed."

The appearance -- and disappearance -- of the twins is mirrored in Leegant's haunting story, "The Lament of the Rabbi's Daughters." A rabbi and his wife have three daughters in the throes of major identity crises, involving both their love lives and their Jewishness, which two have all but abandoned. Miri, the fourth daughter, dead in a plane crash 15 years before, had "been petitioning ever since to be allowed to come back and try to make things right, to be the big sister she never was, help her sisters find some happiness." She appears casually in the rabbi's apartment where his daughter Shaindey lives, and a hasty, much-needed reunion of the four sisters is set into motion. By the time Miri, like the twins, disappears, her sisters have decided to take radical steps toward returning to their Jewishness and toward finding love.

During the course of Leegant's tales, several lost souls are given a second chance at getting things right, at restoring a wholeness to their broken, sad lives. This is not to say things always work out perfectly. In "How to Comfort the Sick and Dying," Reuven, a former small-time drug dealer, is sent by the rabbi who got him off the streets to visit a man dying in a hospital from AIDS. The story is punctuated by Reuven's thoughts juxtaposed with snippets of Jewish wisdom, both italicized. For instance, while he dreads the visit, he recalls, "One who leaves the bedside of the dying is worse than a father who denies his own child bread ... that one who visits the sick extends the boundaries of heaven."

"Lucky in Love" is narrated by the daughter of Blanche, finally married to Solly Birnbaum, the love of her life who for 40 years was married to Blanche's best friend. The daughter has flown to Sarasota, Fla., to see the happy couple, sensing, correctly, that Solly is not well. To her surprise, indeed consternation, Blanche informs her that Solly -- and not her ex-husband -- is her biological father. Adjusting to a "suddenly revised ancestry," the daughter realizes how little she knew about her parents and stands in awe of their love. Less lucky in love is the heroine of "Henny's Wedding," who is unceremoniously dumped by her new spouse after three days, upon discovering she is pregnant by another man.

Other stories tell of attempts to correct what seem to be hopeless situations. In "Accounting," a couple's marriage has been plagued by their son's failures and total untrustworthiness: "Cleaning up after Eliot had become for them not only an act of penitence but an attempt to correct the balance, an effort to ensure that the world did not suffer a net loss on account of their son."

In "The Diviners of Desire: A Modern Fable," a set of seemingly random connections unite a young woman in Jerusalem with the love she had sought through a matchmaker who had just given up on her case.

Leegant's provocative and memorable stories, suffused with Jewish lore and wisdom, are not just terrific Jewish short stories that will doubtless be anthologized as such. It is Leegant's characters who are unforgettable; the situations in which they find themselves are as mysterious and complicated as their own flaws and shortcomings, hopes and dreams.

Joan Leegant will be speaking, reading and signing books on Tues., Dec. 2 at 7 PM at the Jewish Community Library of Los Angeles, 6505 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. The event is free. Please R.S.V.P, (323) 761-8648 or email info@jclla.org .

Susan Miron is a harpist. Her CD of Scarlatti sonatas was recently released by Centaur Records.

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