by Rhoda Lerman, New York: Henry Holt, 1989, 309pp., $19.95
In the unlikely setting of a Chassidic commune in the wilds of Kansas, Yussel Fetner, heir to a fictitious dynasty of prophetic wonder-rebbes, stars in a comic romp of a novel with some odd twists along the way.
Yussel, struggling against his birthright, just wants to be an observant Jewish insurance salesman — but his “territory” knows he’s inherited the Fetner gift of prophecy. His clients want the inside tracks on, for instance, hemlines for the fall (almost all are in the shmatte — garment — business). Pressed, Yussel tells them to examine the Bible portion of the week. They’re ecstatic. The word “calf leaps out at them, a sure sign from the heavens that “midis” are returning.
Getting past the book’s inaccuracies in references to Jewish observance and in transliterations from the Hebrew and Yiddish, the patient reader receives from Lerman (author of Call Me Ishtar and The Book of the Night among other novels) a novel that at times can be laugh-out-loud funny, with a kernel of both pathos and progress. And while the novel’s detailed and self-conscious absurdities do grow a little tiresome, both hero and reader get some interesting lessons about women and men along the way.
The ghost of Yussel’s late father appears frequently, Banquo-like, to offer counsel, telling his son to “pay attention to the details” — a piece of advice most men (women, too) probably need. After Yussel gives in to his father’s imprecations and manipulations and goes out to Kansas to minister to the broken people who were his father’s followers, the details matter more. His late father’s ex-hippie second wife meets tragedy partly because Yussel isn’t keeping track of all the action, as a good rebbe must. And Yussel’s own wife he ignores, avoids, or sees only as a dedicated consumer of goods and services, even as she’s enjoining him to behave more humanely.
Yussel does take instruction from some of the women around him — the lost-and-found souls in his commune, and especially from “Lillywhite” his haunting, gorgeous, tough, larger-than-life neighbor and nemesis. We’re rooting for her as she forces him — and the dead — to hear a woman’s kaddish (prayer for the dead) in the book’s moving — and at the same time absurd — conclusion.
It’s the conclusion — and the presence of Lillywhite — that save this novel from being only an absurdist (though basically sympathetic) portrait of derailed Chas-sidism. Although Lillywhite is revealed to us almost exclusively as she appears in Yussel’s active fantasy life — as archetype and stereotype of the powerful redhead — and in no way seems the product of a feminist imagination, the book’s finale wraps up the comedy in a message about women’s role in liberating and transforming a traditionally religious male Jew. Listening to Yussel explain life with yet another tidy Chassidic epigram, Lillywhite concludes, “I think it’s time to make up some new stories.”