Monthly Archives: April 2009

Yori Yanover: An Interview

This entry was posted in Culture, History on by .

Yori Yanover is an intense personality. Hey, the guy has a Gawker category named after him, Yori Is the Next Shmuley.

He’s also the author of The Cabalist’s Daughter, which we told you about yesterday. It’s a novel that’s sort of 24-meets-Apocalypse Now-meets-the-Apocalypse novel about the Lubavitcher Rebbe dying, his followers creating a clone, and the clone turning out to be a girl.

Last night, at Mimaamakim‘s remarkable Jewish open mic, we got a chance to meet in person. It’s always awkward to meet someone whom you’ve just written about. Square that when it’s onstage in front of a bunch of people. Factor in any potential uncomfortability that might come about if the book wasn’t a good one. Fortunately, it was, and fortunately, Mr. Yanover is just as large and funny and unhinged in real life as he is on the page — and even more Douglas Adams-dik — and so all was good on the Lower East Side.

A few days previous, we’d corresponded via email. Here’s our first e-meeting, in all its unexpurgated glory. He opened by talking about The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
which, somehow, was not surprising.

How did you first get the idea for writing The Cabalist’s Daughter?

The moment I opened the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I knew I wanted to do to Yiddishkeit what Douglas Adams had done to science and philosophy: Turn it into a comic book, into brain candy. This is definitely a work of love.

The Messiah is a 20-year-old sexy redhead who’s a Hasidic Jew and sometimes — allegedly — dresses like Wonder Woman. Why her?

First, because I’m the father of a daughter (who’s almost 18 — will be this summer). Also, in Hasidic tradition, as well as in the general culture, the Princess represents the spirit of the nation (in Likutei Moharan, more than anywhere else). Knesset Israel is also [represented by] a young woman in Song of Songs. So there’s a lot in our common memory that makes a young woman very precious and standing for everything that’s good in us.

Your first book was a nonfiction book about the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, published in Hebrew. There are a lot of specific characters with more than a passing resemblance to actual figures in Chabad. What’s your background with Lubavitch?

Dancing and Crying, published in 1994 and written over the previous two years, was my first introduction to Lubavitch. Through the interviews with everybody who was anybody, I could appreciate how some in the movement responded as grownups to the illness of their leader, others behaved as children.

But you couldn’t help falling in love with this group, which has accepted the role of modern-day Levites for the Jewish people. In 1998 I practically twisted the arms of the bosses at the Lubavitch News Service to hire me as editor of their news and as idea man in the effort to create their international website. I look at it these days and I feel a great deal of affection, and some pride. These days, though, my relationship with Lubavitch is strictly friendship.

What made you specifically decide to portray Chabad in the book, as opposed to another Hasidic denomination or making up your own? What made you change their name?

The early drafts used the actual Rebbe and the actual movement. I later realized that the less specific those details would be, the broader the scope of potential readers. So I made the Chabad references an inside joke in the book — if you get it, it’s meaningful; if you don’t, it won’t detract from your pleasure.

Is this your first novel? What were you doing in the 14 years since your last book?

This is my first published novel. Coming soon from Ben Yehuda Press: Gideon Trumpeted, which is written under a pseudonym, and intended for children. It’s a biblical time travel novel. They’re planning it as a series.

There’s a book for young adults coming as well, about a crazy couple with eight adopted children on Grand Street. I’m also working on the next grownup novel, which will be a bit darker than the Cabalist’s Daughter, but also on a Jewish theme.

Since Dancing and Crying, I worked as editor of the Jewish Communication Network, the very first Jewish webzine (1994-98), then LNS, which I ran concurrent with, the first daily Jewish news blog. Back then, I managed to make money on the news blog. Then the Internet died for a while and I worked as designer for the new Reform prayer book. In 2004 I founded The Grand Street News, a local monthly, which I own and publish on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

It’s a pretty wild story you’re telling. It’s part road trip, part action movie, and part, well, Bible. How did you get the experience to write the small-town sections, the military sections…the woman sections? And how do you know about, say, El Paso, Texas, and Scranton, PA?

I’m 54 years old, I’ve done a lot, took part in one war, worked as journalist on and off since age 17, and I’m married. I was involved for a while, back in the 1980s, in a stereo business, and drove out a lot to Binghamton, NY, where the famed Macintosh amps were made. On the way I always stopped in Scranton, which to me remains the face of middle USA. I also traveled a bit cross country as a younger man. I know Texas from visiting San Antonio.

Some allusions and concepts in The Cabalist’s Daughter will probably only be fully understood by Hasidic Jews. On the other hand, there are some very un-Orthodox parts to the book, like when Nechama Gutkind touches men…not to mention some of your reinterpretations of the Torah. Who did you have in mind when you were writing this?

I’m not a serious scholar. This is a comic book about the tradition, not a study book. It’s certainly not a book of halacha. And its central message is that you don’t have to be Jewish to be redeemed. So my target audience are readers who hunger for something spiritual, but don’t take themselves or life too seriously. At least, not all the time.

What was going through your head when you wrote the excerpts from the Cabbalist’s Handbook for Practical Messianic Redemption? Were there specific commentators? Specific authors?

Almost all of those segments, with one or two exceptions, are based on midrashim. Our homiletic literature is so rich and so wild, I used to gulp it up like the wildest works science fiction. The Spiritual Continuum of Everything is my invention, though, and there I get to enter all my own political and social biases. I even get to be nasty to Jimmy Carter (yeah!). A little bit came from the Guide to the Perplexed. A little is straightforward Gemara.

What sort of response has the book gotten so far? Has there been anyone, Jew-wise, who you were afraid of showing it to — and have you shown it to them yet?

I was stunned by some of the positive responses. There isn’t a person to whom I would be afraid to show the book. Including the pope.

Why do you think the Lubavitcher Rebbe never had kids?

Because he couldn’t.

Shlomo Carlebach said that Reb Menachem Mendel Schneerson had a choice between being the rebbe of the world or the rebbe of Lubavitch, and he chose the latter. I definitely think that he could have been as big as the Dalai Lama in terms of universal reach, and even more opinionated and more influential. I don’t know why he opted not to go to the max. I think that’s a much more crucial question than the one about his not having children.

Posted on April 29, 2009

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

The National Day of Prayer Mystery

This entry was posted in Holidays, Practices on by .

Two years ago I wrote for Jewcy about how offended I was by the National Day of Prayer which could also have been called, “Day For Christians To Pat Themselves On The Back For Electing Bush.” Under the Bush administration, the NDoP was a very Christian focused event. Christian focused events don’t really bother me, but they do when they’re sponsored by the government.

This year, it’s not clear if the Obamas are going to observe NDoP, or in what manner they would observe it. The Washington Post reports: obama_praying.jpg
Now the Obama White House is facing questions of inside-the-Beltway etiquette: Should President Obama maintain the open door to conservative critics like James and Shirley Dobson, and if so, should they accept?

Or, will the White House have an official observance at all?

With those questions unanswered less than two weeks before the annual observance, the National Day of Prayer Task Force, headed by Shirley Dobson, is moving ahead with other plans.

“We’re not the coordinators of that event,” said Brian Toon, vice chairman of the task force. “That’s controlled completely by the White House. We have been honored to be guests at the event in the past, but we have not heard a peep from them.”
The task force’s work has been criticized in recent years by those who say that the observances have become events for evangelical Christians. Several interfaith groups this week wrote to Obama saying that members of Dobson’s group are “exclusionists” who have “taken over” the National Day of Prayer. Leaders of the Interfaith Alliance and Jews on First asked the president to endorse an “inclusive” prayer day.

Emphasis mine.

Here’s my idea for the National Day of Prayer: the President and his family come to daily minyan with me, and afterwards we have breakfast at the diner next door and talk about how prayer is important, but sometimes it sucks. Who’s with me?

Posted on April 28, 2009

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Breaking The Silence: Israel Activism & American Students

This entry was posted in Israel on by .

Just days after the Durban II conference in Geneva, and on the eve of Israel’s Independence Day, New York University’s campus is being inundated with anti-Israel events and propaganda. Just today, Ynet news reported an anti-Israel event that was fraudulently planned as a climate change event and promoted as ‘The Hidden History of Zionism: The Road to Gaza’s Killing Fields’. Today, on the sidewalks around the village campus I spotted the statement “Zionism is Racism” written in chalk. On Wednesday, there is a “Free Palestine” gathering organized by BDS (Boycott Divestment Sanctions) Intifada and the NYU Palestine Solidarity Coalition in Washington Square Park.

Why am I publicizing these events instead of shoving them under the rug so I can enjoy my falafel on Israel’s Independence day? Because Jewish students have to start caring more.

Zach Novetzky, a fellow NYU student who attended the Durban Conference recently stated in a an article titled, “A Shift is needed on American College Campuses:”

“During my time spent with the European Union of Jewish Students (especially the French students), I have seen a passion for action that shames the campus activism in America, where a real and unjust war is being waged against Israel. Yes, there are exceptional students  in America who do great things but sadly, such characters are rare. The EUJS students are not concerned with “not sounding politically correct” or “being ostracized by the larger community” because they fervently believe in the political correctness of their message.

There must be a paradigm shift on campuses across America: Jewish students need to stop being complacent, remaining silent and acting cowardly when libelous events like Israel Apartheid Week (IAW) sprout up on campus. When the charade that is IAW began, it was unknown; now, it is on more than seventy-five campuses. Why is there no American Union of Jewish Students uniting nationwide to combat this farce? Why are there no students ready to dress up as clowns, peacefully disrupt and expose the parody of IAW? There must be a revolution on the American campus, composed of creative students who are both human rights advocates and defenders of Israel. (Jerusalem Post)”

Just last Friday StandWithUs organized a protest at the UN in New York in response to the Durban II racism conference. The protest was sent out on Facebook, Twitter, listervs and beyond. Much like the French Jewish students did at the conference, the protesters at the UN wore clown wigs to expose Durban II as a masquerade, as well as taped their mouths shut to express the “Silence of the UN” on issues of oppression and racism.

I was excited to gather all of my friends and make a public statement representing young, American Jews. I emailed friends about the protest, messaged people on Facebook and invited hundreds to the event. When I arrived on Friday at the UN, I was greeted by 50 other students impassioned to show their disdain for the conference.

It definitely sent a powerful message, but where were the thousands of Jewish college students who care so much about Israel and Human rights?

They, like most others, remained silent.

I just saw this Youtube video below from a 2007 Human Rights Council meeting which sends a powerful message about speaking out, even in the midst of adversity.

Here’s a description:

“Ambassador Luis Alfonso de Alba of Mexico, first president of the council, duly thanks every offensive statement at the supposedly reformed council: denial of crimes in Darfur; mocking of human rights experts; invective against women and gays; glorification of terrorism; Holocaust denial; demonization of Israel — all of that was admissible. De Alba ruled only one statement “inadmissible”: UN Watch’s criticism of the Council for ignoring victims of violations in 192 countries, and its failure to live up to the noble dream of its founders” (UN Watch)

Hillel Neuer knew that his message was right and just. He read his speech even though he knew he would be condemned for his honesty and accusations. American Jewish students must wake up and start defending Israel on their campuses. If they don’t speak up then who will? If they remain silent, the lies about Israel will continue to spread and the definition of human rights will continue to be distorted.

Here’s some footage for inspiration from the StandWithUs protest last Friday.

I’ll see YOU at the next one.

Tomorrow at NYU their is a Pro-Israel Rally in Washington Square Park from 1-3. Come show your support for Israel and bring your Israeli Flag. Isn’t it time to break the silence?

Posted on April 28, 2009

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Shared Future, Shared Resources

This entry was posted in General on by .

(Jason’s note: I’m sharing a piece that I co-wrote with two colleagues on the subject of collaboration with other Jewish organizations in response to the current economic crisis.)
by Jason Brzoska, Adam Gaynor and Becky Voorwinde

(cross-posted at eJewish Philanthropy)

The economic downturn and the Madoff scandal have escalated discussion in the Jewish communal world about collaboration. In fact, the recommendations of the just-released report The Innovation Ecosystem: Emergence of a New Jewish Landscape indicate that organizations want to and should be collaborating and sharing resources. The report says organizations should “collaborate and cooperate to reduce costs.” As organizations who are productively partnering with one another, we found that the initial time and effort put into building relationships between our organizations has truly paid off in saved time and money.

In nature, when resources are scarce, survival instincts kick in. In the Jewish organizational world today, funding, the lifeblood of not-for-profits, is limited. Strategic collaboration with like-minded organizations, while often beneficial in normal times, can be one of the most effective means of stretching our dollars in these lean economic years.

Strategic collaboration goes beyond personal catch-ups and coffee meetings; it is about identifying opportunities to share resources effectively. As small organizations, we can achieve ends beyond our own means through the sharing of both knowledge and infrastructure.

This past Fall, through informal networking, Rebecca Voorwinde, Director of Alumni Engagement for the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel (BYFI), and Adam Gaynor, Acting Executive Director of The Curriculum Initiative (TCI), learned they were both interested in investing in a new database platform. BYFI was able to identity the best platform to use through their initial research, while TCI did the legwork to identity the most knowledgeable and cost effective database consultant. In the end, both organizations saved time and money by choosing the same platform and same consultant.

After (MJL) opened the doors of its new office in 2008, its leadership realized that MJL was only using its conference room for a couple of hours a week, so it decided to invite other organizations who need such a space but do not have their own. When out-of-town organizations need a home base while working in New York, MJL opens up its offices to allow other professionals an “office away from home.” MJL understands the value of this because, for 6 years, lived as a largely remote organization in several such shared office spaces, including that of the Bronfman Youth Fellowships’ office in Albany, the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, and the 90 Oak Street communal space in suburban Boston.

MJL and TCI frequently share fundraising and outreach strategies. As young fundraisers, we are learning from our successes, and our failures, all the time. By exchanging information about best practices, successful strategies and research, we are maximizing our ability to raise money, expanding our reach, and in the process creating an informal peer network.

The Jewish people are not a private mailing list. It is in our best interest to share contacts and potential supporters. All three of our organizations have utilized each other’s networks to promote opportunities of relevance to our constituencies. For example, students who participated in TCI’s programs have become Bronfman Youth Fellows because of TCI’s willingness to promote this opportunity to their networks. If an opportunity offered by another organization can benefit our constituencies, we believe it is our obligation to promote it to them.

In addition to financial support, the best way that individual funders and Foundations can assist is by acting as a convener of these relationships. From their unique perch, they have a bird’s eye view of the Jewish communal world, giving them the ability to speak with multiple organizations who are constantly experimenting, and to hear the needs of each organization. Funders can use their higher level perspective to disseminate lessons learned and to make shidduchim for potential resource sharing.

The shift from a closed organizational culture to one that is more open to working together requires a certain level of commitment among individuals, organizations and their supporters. There needs to be sincere follow-up, and a genuine trust between each party engaged in such collaboration.

We are writing as a call to action, both to non-profits and funders. Fostering a collaborative and open culture among Jewish organizations is key to the survival of many organizations during these difficult times. We believe in the power of collaboration to further our individual visions which, though not identical, complement one another and add to the collective well-being of the Jewish community.

Jason Brzoska is Chief Operating Officer of; Adam Gaynor is Acting Executive Director of The Curriculum Initiative and Rebecca Voorwinde is Director of Alumni Engagement for the Bronfman Youth Fellowships in Israel.

Posted on April 28, 2009

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Every Nebbishy Boy’s Dream

This entry was posted in Culture on by .

Israel is a Jewish state. There are all types of Jews there. In explaining the nature of the state, someone once told me, “Everyone is Jewish. The police are Jewish. And even the prostitutes they arrest are Jewish.”

Maybe that looks something like this:

Posted on April 28, 2009

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Yom HaZikaron

This entry was posted in Holidays, Israel on by .

I would not redo high school for a billion dollars. I’m pretty sure the damage done by my four years in Orthodox day school will follow me for the rest of my life. However, I will begrudgingly grant that there are a few things these schools do well, and one of them is assemblies. We didn’t have them all that often, and when we did they were highly effective, especially the ones related to Israel, because so many of us had already or were shortly going to be spending a lot of time in Israel. I always cried during the Israeli Memorial Day Assembly, and usually it was during or immediately after the reading of these two poems:silver_platter.jpg
The Silver Platter
by Nathan Alterman
Translated from the Hebrew by David P. Stern

…And the land will grow still
Crimson skies dimming, misting
Slowly paling again
Over smoking frontiers

As the nation stands up
Torn at heart but existing
To receive its first wonder
In two thousand years

As the moment draws near
It will rise, darkness facing
Stand straight in the moonlight
In terror and joy

…When across from it step out
Towards it slowly pacing
In plain sight of all
A young girl and a boy

Dressed in battle gear, dirty
Shoes heavy with grime
On the path they will climb up
While their lips remain sealed

To change garb, to wipe brow
They have not yet found time
Still bone weary from days
And from nights in the field

Full of endless fatigue
And all drained of emotion
Yet the dew of their youth
Is still seen on their head

Thus like statues they stand
Stiff and still with no motion
And no sign that will show
If they live or are dead

Then a nation in tears
And amazed at this matter
Will ask: who are you?
And the two will then say

With soft voice: We–
Are the silver platter
On which the Jews’ state
Was presented today

Then they fall back in darkness
As the dazed nation looks
And the rest can be found
In the history books.   


Blessed Is the Match
By Hannah Szenes

Blessed is the match, consumed in kindling flame.
Blessed is the flame that burns in the heart’s secret places.
Blessed is the heart that knows, for honor’s sake, to stop its beating.
Blessed is the match, consumed in kindling flame.

Oy. Pass the tissues.

Posted on April 28, 2009

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It Bears Repeating

This entry was posted in Israel on by .

Remembering fallen soldiers is a weird thing. Personally, I find it difficult to really feel pain and sorrow for people who I didn’t know. While most of the Israeli soldiers who have died over the past 61 years have been my age or even younger, it is still difficult to imagine what their lives were like, how their families reacted, etc. For me, it’s one of those “you had to be there” things.

Then there is Michael Levin. Last year, Meredith wrote a great piece about the Philadelphia native, who grew up in Camp Ramah and USY, then died in the Lebanon war, so I won’t repeat what she said. But on a personal level, Michael’s life and death is one of the few stories that I really have felt a bond with.

After his death, a movie called A Hero in Heaven was produced to tell the story of Michael’s life. I remember, last summer, showing it to my 70 campers, all of whom were 12 and 13. I wasn’t sure how they would react to it. It was really hot day, and I just wasn’t sure if they would take the movie seriously. For 45 minutes, they sat silently taking in every word, with the occasional kid being shocked to see a picture of Michael with someone they knew (like the girl seeing a picture of Michael with is arms around her sister).

For some reason, Michael’s story really hits home with people more than others. I think, more than anything, Americans see themselves in Michael and, in some way, wish we could have been more like him.

Today, Harriet Levin, Michael’s mother, is in Israel for Yom Hazikaron. In an interview with YNet, she puts it into perspective for us:

“Mikey did what I always wanted to do and never did. He made aliyah to Israel and enlisted in the IDF. I always dreamed of doing more for my country, of coming and volunteering. After all, it’s the easiest thing live in a big, beautiful house in the United States and to write a check for a pro-Israeli organization every once in a while. I wanted to give a lot more, but I didn’t think I’d give so much, that I’d give my son.”

Here is a short clip from A Hero In Heaven:

Posted on April 28, 2009

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

Jew on the Train

This entry was posted in Culture, Life on by .

Judaism is one of those cultural identities that, for most people, is able to be turned on or off. Matt Bar has an awesome song about it (“I’m Not White, I’m Jewish”) and we have an awesome video about it. But for some of us — those of us who wear turbans on their heads or have big, puffy beards and bigger, puffier sidelocks — it’s an all-the-time sort of thing. (Ironically*, these people who insist most loudly that Judaism is a religion and not a culture are the ones who look most culturally Jewish.)

people on the subway

On the subway most mornings, people are in as bad a mood as it gets. They elbow old ladies and pregnant people out of the way for seats. They play their music loud and their iPod TV shows even louder. They sneeze and cough on you. And once people do sit down, they make sure to spread their legs as wide as they can, protecting their territory, the likes of which the world hasn’t seen since the serf & vassal systems back in 9th-grade Medieval English History.

And this entire time, everyone is ready, eager, even, to be the one to catch the odd-looking Jewish kid doing something untoward. Taking up two seats, maybe, or squashing some baby beneath the seat so that he can make notes for a new blog entry. Suddenly, the stakes seem much higher. Instead of being just some potentially-rude punk kid, I’m a potentially-rude ambassador of an entire culture.

We have a special sort of term for it, because this is Judaism and we seem to have special terms for everything. It’s called a hilul Hashem, or a desecration of the name of God, when someone who’s obviously Jewish does something that’s not befitting someone who looks obviously Jewish.

Well, I’ve got the better hand — in the almost-a-year since I started working here, I have mastered the art of writing while standing up. I don’t even need a pole or a door to prop against. I sometimes wobble during the treacherous zig-zag beneath the East River, but for the most part, I’m solid.

And this all came about through the canniest of ways: J.K. Rowling (or, as we at Scholastic like to call her, J-Ro). Shortly before I started working here, I was reading an interview with her in which she was talking about people who don’t have time to read. Paraphrased, she basically said: “I don’t get those people. I read in the bathtub. I read waiting for appointments, and while I’m on hold on the phone. I read walking down the street, and I generally trust that, even if the other person’s reading, one of us will fortuitously steer clear of the other.”

I realized, I have a lot of empty time on my hands. Every day, I’m at work 8 hours, and riding the subway for another 2. (Which leaves me with almost no time with my daughter…but that’s another story.) I’m pretty sure Rebbe Nachman says something about taking advantage of time and making every moment count, too, but, well, nobody says it like J-Ro.

* — I say ironically because, at (ahem) certain Jewish websites, we tend to stigmatize ourselves into a common battle of pitting the culture of Judaism against the religion of Judaism, as though the two were opposites. And, culturally, it isn’t the bagels-and-lox Jews who are most commonly identified visually as Jews, like other people are identified visually as black or Asian or Martian — it’s the religious Jews.

Posted on April 28, 2009

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

We Remember

This entry was posted in Holidays, Israel on by .

When one speaks about Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, almost always the first thing mentioned is the the two-minute siren that blasts through the country. All people stop what they are doing, whether on the street driving, shopping, or just going about their daily business to stand in silence.

This video from Jewlicious, shot today in Israel, captures that moment at the Machane Yehuda shuk:

Posted on April 28, 2009

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

The Cabalist’s Daughter

This entry was posted in Culture, History on by .

The Cabalist’s Daughter is a bipolar sort of book. On one hand, it’s a crazy, unhinged vision of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, starting with a wild supposition and growing steadily wilder from the first page onwards–what if the Lubavitcher Rebbe had a clone? On the other, it’s a pretty serious book that touches upon messianism, rape, global warming, peace in the Mideast, and those perpetually-impending nuclear crises that the news people are so fond of reporting about.

the cabalist's daughterOf course, it’s not actually the Rebbe, and it’s not officially Chabad that’s being portrayed here — it’s the Cosmic Wisdom movement, a Hasidic group filled with “Cosmic Wisdomnik” rabbis with hospice houses spread out all over the world. The book opens with the leader of the Cosmic Wisdom movement, known only as the Cabalist, visiting the grave of the previous CW leader, his father-in-law, and having one of those supernatural rabbi conversations.

Soon after, the Cabalist has a heart attack. In the hospital, boys from the Cosmic Wisdom yeshiva keep a vigil over their leader and recite psalms, believing that, as long as there’s a Jew keeping watch, the Cabalist is safe from death. Of course, one of the boys falls asleep, and the Cabalist immediately dies — but, as the moment of death, the boy snatches a shirt with some some stray genetic material on it, runs it across the street to the Columbia University laboratory that his father funds, and instigates a procedure to clone the just-departed (and heirless) Cabalist.

Genetics being what it is, the cloning works — but, unexpectedly, the Cabalist’s clone is a girl. She’s taken in by one of his chief followers and raised, knowing that she’s adopted, but ignorant of her true parentage. At the age of twenty, however, her true nature begins to be revealed. First, at a brothel in Scranton, Pennsylvania, the unlikely Nechama (a near-anagram of Menachem, the name of both the fictional Cabalist and the real-world Lubavitcher Rebbe) makes miracles happen and heals the mentally and physically injured women there. She then travels the country helping the disadvantaged, giving strength to labor unions, and riling up the populace…basically, exercising her messianic powers and building up her stamina to fight against the powers of the devil, or Samael, whose minions soon come after her.

The promotional copy compares Cabalist’s Daughter to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. In reality, it’s more similar to Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s novel Good Omens, a retelling of the Christian Apocalypse, both satirizing religion and complementing it. It’s like when you make fun of one of your friends, clapping him on the back and promising that everything is okay while knowing that, at the same time, knowing there’s an element of truth to the barb.

By most accounts, Yanover displays an intimate familiarity with certain leaders of Chabad. A few mistakes — sometimes trivial, sometimes glaring — occasionally make their way through: when Nechama’s adoptive father, one of the most hardcore Hasidim in the book, who kisses and touches her freely — which most Hasidic men wouldn’t do in public with their own birth daughters, let alone adoptive daughters, who, according to Chabad halakhah, are treated with the same stringencies as two unrelated people. Lengthy excerpts from the fictional Cabbalist’s Handbook for Practical Messianic Redemption — again, a massive hat-tip to Hitchhiker’s Guide — round out the story, digressing into sometimes-Midrash-based, sometimes fantastical apocrypha of Biblical characters and mystical techniques.

At times, Cabalist seems like it’s written for complete insiders, with its esoteric allusions and extended winks at the reader. But then you’ll arrive at footnotes, some of them necessary — and some of the explanations, among them Purim (Festival of Lots) and tefillin (phylacteries), more obfuscating than the words they’re supposedly defining.

But that’s just me nitpicking. For part of my criticism, I should issue a caveat: I’m not Lubavitch, but I have a lot of familiarity and family within the movement, including, if I’m not mistaken, one or two of the elder rabbis portrayed here. There’s something about watching your home turf fictionalized that’s both jarring and thrilling, and I suppose I’m reacting within that. As weird as it is to see both Chabad and Judaism given a clinical once-over within the confines of this book, it’s also really cool, like seeing an action movie shot in your home neighborhood. As the aliens land and military bases storm the streets and sidewalks, it makes you want to shout out in the theater: “Hey! That’s my sidewalk!”

And, indeed, when all Hell breaks loose in the second half of the story — starting with (spoiler!) a cool little East Village bar exploding, and continuing with an all-out bombing of the main street of Crown Heights — it almost fills the reader with a feeling of giddiness. Yanover has taken his time and arranged his chess game meticulously; now he’s smoothly, calculatedly blowing it up, piece by piece. And when the concepts and characters that seemed tedious at first are set in motion, piece by piece, it’s Glorious — both in the quotidian and Divine senses of the word — to watch.

Tomorrow, we’ll talk to Yori Yanover himself about his girl messiah, his ties to Chabad, and how it felt to blow up Brooklyn.

Posted on April 27, 2009

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