Book Review: Men in crisis

By: Rabbi Rachel Esserman

Few lives run smoothly. For some people, the crisis that occurs is so severe it undermines their sense of self. Take, for example, the two men featured in the novels “The Other Hand” by Andrew Kane (Berwick Court Publishing Company) and “The Book of Israela” by Rena Blumenthal (Resource Publications). Each of their lives is thrown in turmoil, although for different reasons. These very dissimilar men – a prominent American Orthodox rabbi and a secular, philandering Israeli psychologist – do have one thing in common: the current course of their lives is threatened, leaving them forced to analyze their past and determine a new path for the future.
“The Other Hand” focuses on the family of Rabbi Jonathan Bauman. Life is comfortable: Jonathan is happy at the Modern Orthodox synagogue he leads in Brooklyn, although he wonders if his sermons are becoming boring after 28 years in the same pulpit. His wife, Sarah, is a doctor who leans more to the left religiously than he does: she was the force behind their three children attending a coed religious day school. Their eldest son is a married rabbi with children, who, although more traditional leaning, still maintains a close relationship with his parents and siblings. Jonathan’s two younger children are more of a concern: neither is married, although they are both past the age when most young adults in their Orthodox community have already settled down and had children.
It is these younger siblings – Miriam, who is getting her doctorate in clinical psychology, and Noah, who will start attending Harvard Law School in the next year – who are the cause of the crisis Jonathan faces. Not only does he learn that Noah is gay and will no longer pretend that he wants to marry a woman, he discovers that Miriam is dating a non-Jewish man in her doctoral program. Unfortunately, his congregants do not separate the life of their rabbi from those of his children. Congregants looking to move the community away from Modern Orthodoxy begin plans to unseat Jonathan. This move is complicated by the fact that one of Jonathan’s biggest supporters, and a personal friend, has been indicted for fraud and will most likely be spending the next few years in prison. Miriam and Noah also are conflicted about their lives and worry their father will no longer accept them as part of the family. Jonathan must not only deal with the religious dilemmas offered by his children’s decisions, but the impact they may have on his professional life. 
Kane does an excellent job portraying all the members of the extended Bauman family, showing how these thoughtful people love and care for each other. In fact, the characters are so reasonable that sometimes they feel unrealistic – although any child would wish for such wonderful parents. Jonathan, especially, has to reconcile his ideas about Judaism – the very foundation of his world – with his children’s decisions in order to decide if he can accept the changes in their lives. He must also evaluate his position as a pulpit rabbi: can he still lead by example, or do Miriam and Noah’s choices mean he can no longer serve as a role model?
Although most of Jonathan’s problems were not caused by his own actions, the same cannot be said of Kobi Benami, the main character in “The Book of Israela.” Kobi’s wife has had enough of his philandering and thrown him out of the house. His daughter, whose bat mitzvah party is scheduled to take place shortly, refuses to speak to him. The new director of the clinic in which he works has put him on probation for his sloppy work habits and has ordered him to see more patients. Since the story begins in Israel in 2002 during the second intifada, more people are seeking help at the clinic due to the increasing number of suicide bombers. Kobi has little or no interest in his patients until a new patient, Israela, arrives in his office.
Kobi finds her story fascinating, even though he is certain she suffers from delusional fantasies. Israela claims to be married to an older man she calls Y, who controls a powerful, but little known, organization. She claims Y loves her, but Kobi suspects that she is a deserted and abused wife. Events take a strange turn when emissaries from Y find Kobi and explain their understanding of Y and Israela’s relationship. These emissaries – from an extreme right-wing settler to a leftist who believes Israel has mistreated the Palestinians – feel Y has only Israela’s best interests at heart, even though Israela had betrayed him.
Readers familiar with the Bible will soon understand that the stories Israela tells are based on biblical tales, including those of the patriarchs, Moses and the Exodus from Egypt, and the kings of Judah and Israel. The use of these tales is very clever since readers can understand the novel without knowing the specifics of the stories, although that creates an additional level of meaning. While Kobi is at first not an especially likeable character, this psychologist, who has no insight into his own behavior, manages to keep readers’ interest, even when his behavior is inappropriate. Learning about Kobi’s parents, who are Holocaust survivors, puts his life choices into perspective, although it clearly does not excuse them. The novel’s conclusion – especially concerning Israela – is ingenious and gives this unusual work a very satisfying ending.