Reprinted with permission from American Jewish Fiction: A JPS Guide(Jewish Publication Society).
When reading Jewish fiction, it is surprisingly easy to forget about God. Fiction has traditionally been the domain of secularists, and, with a few salient exceptions, even novels dealing with Orthodox and Hasidic communities tend to focus on the behaviors of these groups as an anthropologist or sociologist might. devoting considerably less attention to theology and spirituality.
Yet if 20thcentury history teaches us anything, it is that no matter how thoroughly science and rationality have countered superstition, religious and spiritual beliefs continue to exert a tremendous influence on people all over the world. In America, the recent Kabbalah fad provides one powerful and bizarre example of the durability of spiritual thinking. The pop singer Madonna has been the most famous and ardent non-Jewish devotee of Kabbalah, but the confluence of new age culture and ancient Jewish mysticism also plays out in Myla Goldberg’s book group favorite, Bee Season.
The novel’s captivating conceit links Kabbalah with a traditional ritual of American elementary education, the spelling bee. Eliza Naumann, an otherwise undistinguished fifth grader, wows her classmates and family by spelling her way to the national finals on the basis of her supernatural ability to envision letters and words forming inside her head. Eliza’s father, Saul, is a Reconstructionist hippie-style cantor who discovered “LSD and Jewish mysticism at the same time,” in college, and though he has given up the drugs he has continued his pursuit of “shefa, the influx of the Divine.”
Believing that Eliza’s spelling bee triumphs result not from a healthy vocabulary but from a kabbalistic gift, he sets out to train her in the practices of Abraham Abulafia, a 13th-century mystic whose works Saul has, conveniently enough, personally translated into English. Saul and Eliza aren’t the only ones in the family with high aspirations, either. Eliza’s brother, Aaron, seeks enlightenment in Eastern religions, finding his way to a Hare Krishna temple, while their overachieving mother, Miriam, pursues an illegal obsession that she, too, considers Jewish: she views her compulsive stealing as part of a project of tikkun olam, repairing the world, in a mystical sense.
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