"Joy Comes in the Morning" by Jonathan Rosen (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25).
"Joy Comes in the Morning" by Jonathan Rosen is, among other things, a modern love story. A Reform rabbi who's beginning to question her certainties meets a science writer putting aside his skepticism. They meet at Roosevelt Hospital, where she is visiting his father after a botched suicide attempt. Their first date is at a funeral of one of her congregants, where she's officiating.
It's a novel with humor and a good share of darkness as well as light, the contrast alluded to in the Psalm from which the title is drawn, "Weeping may endure for a night. But joy comes in the morning." There's a wedding that's called off and another that begins, faith that's lost and then recovered, pain and healing; there's death -- as the first line suggests, "Someone was dying" -- and in the last line there's song.
"Joy Comes in the Morning" is also the name of an unfinished memoir that Henry Friedman, an émigré who lost most of his family to the Nazis, has set aside, and the full line is one that Rabbi Deborah Green might share with the hospital patients she visits. In a recent interview in New York, before he set out on a national book tour, Rosen says that the book is dedicated in memory of his late father and in honor of his two young daughters.
"The poles of the dedication," he said, "are the poles of weeping and joy. It's almost as if certain themes are in the genetic material of the novel, the way that every cell contains the whole genome."
Although Amy Sohn's new novel, "My Old Man," stars a female rabbinical student (who ultimately drops out), Deborah Green might be the first women rabbi to play a major role in a novel. An assistant rabbi at a large Manhattan Reform congregation, she's spiritual and sensual, beautiful and complicated; the senior rabbi suggests that her skirts may be too short for the rabbinate. She sings in a voice that's often complimented for its angelic qualities, and she tries to spread goodness in the world. Early on, she finds in her hospital visits "an air of truthfulness and, strange to say, vitality, that she could not account for. She sometimes felt the way she imagined a solder might feel who discovers to his astonishment that he likes war."
Deborah is a Reform Jew who chooses to observe a great deal.
"Something in the tradition transcended the individual and became a living embodiment of God for her, even if the pieces were all man made. But it was not her only conduit to religious life. Always, outside the system, she felt God lurking, gleaming around the patches of law and tradition and improvisation she had half inherited and half stitched together."
In the novel's first scene, she dons her grandfather's tallit over a pair of shorts and begins her daily prayers. She loves the praise parts of prayer.
"To praise God made her feel whole." Lines of text make their way into her thoughts and speech.
For journalist Lev Friedman, Deborah's faith was consoling; "being around her gave him a strange sense of getting closer to Judaism without being annihilated by it."
He sees her faith in contrast to the dry rigidity of his yeshiva days. Rosen's characters take their Judaism seriously. They are very much alive in religion and its questions.
Scenes unfold at weddings she performs as well as funerals, hospitals and nursing homes, in the Friedman apartment and at Deborah's, at her synagogue and in Central Park, where Lev likes to go birdwatching. When Deborah feels that her faith is eroding, she runs away for a bit, and Lev ends up leading a funeral service, impersonating a rabbi.
"Joy Comes in the Morning" is told from the point of view of an all-knowing narrator, who sees into souls of all, revealing their inner lives. It has much in common with the 19th-century novels Rosen favors, books about families with strong characters where things happen, and where people ask big questions. As an influence, he cites George Eliot's novel "Adam Bede," featuring a female preacher who has a powerful presence. He says that writing a book with religious themes is "almost like writing about sex at the dawn of the modern period, what had only been written about by indirection."
Before his stroke, Henry Friedman is careful and refined, the kind of man who wouldn't venture outside without a tie. After, he suffers many indignities. Other characters include Lev's childhood friend Neal, whose mental illness overtakes him and Reuben, Deborah's former Orthodox boyfriend. When she runs into him again and admits that she can't pray and is feeling estranged from God, he responds, "Jews aren't expected to feel God's presence. That's why there's the Torah."
Rosen's characters are compelling and knowable. He says that he creates characters and then tries to simply remain in their presence - they are beings that cease to be like him or like anyone else, yet are mysteriously fueled by his own experience and knowledge.
"I wanted my characters to have a soul in that real sense," he said.
The author of the novel "Eve's Apple" and the nonfiction "The Talmud and the Internet," Rosen speaks thoughtfully and eloquently, with care, favoring long answers that give him a chance to wrestle with ideas before deciding what to reveal; he is, as he admits, a wandering Jew in conversation.
The author is, in fact, married to a conservative rabbi, although he insists that his wife is not the rabbi in his novel.
"But I'd be lying if I told you that being married to a rabbi hasn't had a huge effect on my life," he said.
He's also a birdwatcher and the son of a father who escaped from Europe. And his own father penned a short story that he titled, "Joy Comes in the Morning."
One of the challenges in writing this novel, the Manhattan resident explained, was to put aside his ideas of what a modern American Jewish novel ought to be and just write: "You just have to imagine a world and then inhabit it."
He added, "Caring about what happens to imaginary people reminds you at some level how much you should care about the actual people around you."
Although he has written a novel about faith and holiness, Rosen, who is editorial director of Nextbook, admits that those are difficult subjects to speak briefly about.
"The answers to those questions are a conversation," he said.
About tradition in his own life, he noted, "I'm constantly negotiating -- it's a dance with the tradition. To me it's the dialogue that matters. The argument itself is a kind of prayer. To be in dialogue with these questions is a form of worship."
Sandee Brawarsky is the book critic for the Jewish Week.
'Natasha' Takes Reform Judaism Title
David Bezmozgis has been named winner of the 2004 Reform Judaism Prize for Jewish Fiction for his debut collection of stories that center on the life of a Latvian Jewish immigrant in Toronto, "Natasha: And Other Stories" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). Bezmozgis will receive $5,000. The judges also named two finalists for the 2004 prize: Michael Andre Bernstein, for his novel "Conspirators" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux); and Naama Goldstein for "The Place Will Comfort You" (Scribner).
The Reform Judaism Prize for Jewish Fiction was created in 2003 by Dr. Alexander Mauskop, a neurologist in Larchmont, N.Y., to encourage promising Jewish fiction writers. Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel serves as honorary chair of the prize committee, and this year's judges were Sanford Pinsker of Franklin and Marshall College; Janet Burstein of Drew University; and author Dara Horn, who won the 2003 Reform Judaism for her novel "In the Image."