Diversity Within the Return to Religion: The Baal T’shuvah Phenomenon in Three Works of Recent Jewish American Fiction. (Martin Ras)


home list theses contence previous next  




            At the end of the 1970’s, the distinguished literary critic Irving Howe expressed his fear that an American literature with a distinctive Jewish voice would no longer be possible because Jewish American literature drew too heavily on the immigrant experience, which, as time passed, would disappear from the memory of those who experienced it (Jewish American Stories). Thus Howe believed that Jewish American literature was destined to slowly die out. However, Jewish American identity is certainly not only defined by the immigrant experience alone. Victoria Aarons points this out when she states that: “More and more, Jewish writers speak about and within American culture, transcending an earlier “immigrant” identity imposed by an alien culture”(“The Outsider Within” 379). As a result, contemporary Jewish American writers create a distinct Jewish-American voice. Such a process is currently taking place, and a small part of it, namely the return to Judaism, will be the focus of this thesis.

            Several contemporary literary critics and scholars have been eager to point out that today’s body of Jewish American literature is currently being transformed by a literary renaissance. “The current resurgence of Jewish American writing in a world rife with assimilation,” Morris Dickstein writes, “is as surprising as the survival of the Jews themselves”(“Ghost Stories” 33). In the Nov.-Dec 1997 issue of the Jewish American  intellectual magazine Tikkun an entire literary symposium was organised and devoted to the current renaissance entitled “The Jewish Literary Revival”. Thane Rosenbaum, the literary editor of that Nov.-Dec edition, as well as a novelist, notes in his short introduction to the symposium that: “Tikkun is proud to be among the first to observe a new, surprisingly uncelebrated movement – the  resurgence of Jewish writing in America” (33).


Evidently, a new generation of young Jewish American writers, among whom Pearl Abraham, Allegra Goodman, Tova Mirvis and Michael Chabon, are starting to manifest themselves in Jewish American literature. As Andrew Furman points out, these third generation and post-acculturated writers are simultaneously attempting to widen the concerns of Jewish American literature from those of immigrant adjustment of the first generation and the experience of marginality of the second generation to topics that are more connected to Judaism (Israel Through The Jewish-American Imagination 199). These authors show a new attitude towards their Jewishness. Furman notices a shift in the focus of contemporary Jewish American literature and he expects that this new generation will increasingly emphasise the Jewish side of the hyphen rather than the American side, thereby creating what he calls the “ “Jewish” Jewish American novel” (“Is the Jew in Vogue?” 31). Furthermore, Furman also states that “[a]n unprecedented number of young Jewish Americans, raised largely ignorant of Judaism, have become part of the baal t’shuvah (returnee) phenomenon,” meaning that a significant amount of today’s third and fourth American Jews return to Judaism, and most notably embrace the particularistic features accompanying Orthodox Judaism (Contemporary Jewish American Writers and the Multicultural Dilemma 17). 

However, to fully understand why this “return” is taking place, it is necessary to provide some background information on the social and cultural changes which have occurred in the last 80 years with regard to the position American Jews, as a group, occupy in American society. Furthermore, it is useful to illustrate how these changes were translated into various works of fiction during the different periods these changes took place. This will help to understand that the changes and developments in the social, economic and cultural position of American Jews paralleled the changes, and developments in themes and content of Jewish American fiction.

Around the turn of the nineteenth century, millions of immigrants left Europe and entered the United States with hopes of fulfilling their American Dream. A major group among them were Jewish immigrants from Russia and Eastern Europe, who had fled the persecution in their homelands. As most Jewish immigrants settled in America’s major cities, and most notably the Lower East Side of New York, participating fully in American society proved to be an extremely challenging task, since they faced an entire new reality in almost every aspect of their lives. Naturally, the Jewish immigrants brought with them their own language and culture, which set them apart from the dominant American (read WASP) mainstream society. The ultimate challenge for these newly arrived Jews was therefore how they could adapt and assimilate their immigrant culture to the dominant American culture in order to become part of and participate fully in American society.

            The process of integrating proved to be long and difficult for the first generation of American Jews due to the necessary cultural and religious adaptations American society demanded of them. Adaptation often evoked negative emotions due to cultural loss and the accompanying changes in immigrant identity. In his highly praised study of immigration, The Uprooted, Oscar Handlin observes that “the history of immigration is a history of alienation and its consequences” (qtd. In Halio and Siegel Daughters of Valour 29). Thus, despite its many blessings, immigration is always accompanied with cultural loss, a change in identity and, as a result, leaves emotional scars.

Especially for Jewish immigrants such changes were significant because they were both culturally as well as religiously alien. Jewish religious celebrations and traditions, such as for instance the Sabbath and Rosh Hashanah, were incongruent with the dominant American Christian religious celebrations and holidays. Furthermore, especially for Orthodox Jews to become fully acculturated entailed that the men had to shave their beards and sideburns, while the women were expected to remove their sheitels, their traditional marriage wigs. They had to wear different clothes, and had to grow less observant in religious laws such as the laws of kashrut, the dietary laws, while they often had to desecrate the Sabbath to hold desperately needed jobs. Hence for many immigrant Jews both cultural loss and cultural gain resulted in shifts and insecurities with regard to their identity.

These experiences and their accompanying emotions were also translated into the fiction written by the immigrant generation. Jewish American writers such as Anzia Yezierska and Abraham Cahan, who chose to write in English instead of Yiddish, constructed works of fiction which thematically reflected the immigrants’ struggles, experiences and achievements. For example, Yezierska’s short story “America and I” expresses the experiences of a Jewish female narrator who wishes nothing more than to believe in the promises and ideals which America is supposed to embody, while desperately trying to become an American. Similarly, Abraham Cahan’s novella Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto probes the impact of America’s social and economic forces and their power to influence acculturation and assimilation. In Yekl, Jake compromises his religion, values, dress and behaviour to become an American and to acquire money, rise on the social ladder and adopt a new identity. In sum, the Jewish immigrant experience, the struggle to assimilate, the choices which needed to be made and the crisis of identity were common themes in much of Jewish immigrant fiction.

As the second generation, the sons and daughters of the immigrant generation, became adults during and after the years following World War II until the end of the 1960’s, a generational conflict emerged. The second generation felt far more at ease in American society and culture, because most of them were born in America, and thus grew up,  as Jews and Americans, in American society. However, the second generation wanted to assimilate even more into American society and as a result they gradually felt themselves less strongly attached to Old World traditions and conventions, while their parents tried to keep that original culture strong and alive. Howe remarks that: “One’s parents were to be cherished yet kept in the background; to be loved yet brushed aside”(The World of Our Fathers 181). So these children started to move away and depart from the values and traditions of their parents and embraced the standards of American society even more. During the 1950’s and 1960’s  Jews successfully assimilated into American society as they became prominent among intelligentsia such as lawyers, university professors, doctors etc. Moreover, commenting on this period Karen Brodkin writes, “This was also a period when white America embraced Jews and even Jewishness as part of itself – you didn’t have to be Jewish to love Levy’s rye bread or to tell Jewish jokes. Jews could become Americans and Americans could be like Jews . . .”  (140). So American Jews seemed to be moving away from their immigrant roots by emphasising more and more the American side of the hyphen instead of the Jewish side.  

The literature of the period also reflected these changes. For instance, Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (1949) “[s]hows no explicit Jewish traces, though it was derived from his own family experiences” ( Jewish American Literature 578). Furthermore, neither J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951), nor Norman Mailer’s White Negro were outwardly Jewish works of fiction (Norton Anthology 579). Moreover, Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King (1959), Bernard Malamud’s The Natural (1952) and Henry Roth’s When She Was Good (1967) are novels without a significant Jewish character. Thus the second generation of American Jews almost fully assimilated  into American society, while they simultaneously were embraced by America as equals and thus were considered to be part of the dominant WASP culture. Dickstein points this out when he states that: “By the Sixties young Jews were living much the same lives as other Americans. If anything singled them out, it was their widespread attraction to radical politics, not Jewish experience” ( “Ghost Stories” 33).


Throughout the 1950’s, American Jews had laboured to become more American, and to adopt the ways of “real” Americans more fully. However, during the first years of the 1970’s, an opposite trend, namely a search for a more Jewish identity emerged and gained more influence among American Jews of whom by then many were part of the third generation. Born out of the remnants of the Civil Rights Movement and black separatism, multiculturalism began to celebrate diversity and emphasise ethnic and racial cultures. Or, as Sylvia Barack Fishman puts it: “Immigrant groups, once urged to suppress distinctive characteristics in favour of the melting pot, are now frequently encouraged to preserve their ethnic heritage” (6).

However, as mentioned earlier, the second generation of American Jews became part of the dominant white society, and merged into the mainstream. Furthermore,  as Biale, Galchinsky and Heschel explain, Judaism as a religion came to be accepted by American society as the third major religion of the nation, besides the already established religions such as  Protestantism and Catholicism (4). Jews in America achieved to an extremely high degree that social and economic emancipation that had eluded them in Europe.  Interestingly however, multiculturalism assigns no meaning to these achievements because it ignores the voice of the mainstream, while emphasising and intensifying the marginal and ethnic voices. It was exactly the same marginal position the Jews previously occupied as immigrants, and which the second generation had struggled so hard to leave behind, that multiculturalism was emphasising. As a result, “today’s modern Jewish American confronts contemporary multiculturalism with great ambivalence, trepidation and even hostility” (Biale 4). Simultaneously, multiculturalists started to define multiculturalism increasingly along racial lines, coloured vs. white, instead of highlighting ethnic pride and culture regardless of race. Moreover, as Biale, Galchinsky and Herschel point out: “As important is the consciousness Jews have of themselves as occupying an anomalous status: insiders who are outsiders and outsiders who are insiders. They represent that boundary case whose very lack of belonging to a recognisable group creates a sense of unease” (5). All of these issues have resulted in American Jews becoming suspicious and even anxious about multiculturalism and multicultural America.

This anomalous status and lack of belonging created tensions among American Jews with regard to their identity. Because the second generation assimilated and merged into the American mainstream, the American mainstream saw these sons and daughters of the immigrant generation as “white,” partly  because these Jews themselves were willing to be seen as “white”. By allowing themselves to be “whitened” by both American society, as well as through a changing self-image, they became part of the majority whose very self-definition as a majority was based on the exclusion of those termed non-white. However, this did not mean that the second generation American Jews fully identified themselves with the American mainstream. They still felt distinctly Jewish in many respects. For example, many Jews still observed the dietary laws or the Sabbath and traditional Jewish holidays. This automatically entailed that they performed actions, or adhered to traditions which clearly separated them from the mainstream. It is therefore important to bear in mind that social acceptance should not be confused with religious and cultural homogeneity. Nowadays Jews see themselves as “white” when they compare themselves with people of colour, but consider themselves to be a distinct ethnic group when they compare themselves to the American mainstream they are both insider and outsider. Due to assimilation combined with the structural racism in America that favours “white” skin, Jews are no longer marginalised in the same sense as they were in Europe or in the sense that groups of colour or sexual minorities often are in contemporary American society. As a result Jews have been excluded from the multicultural debate, or as Michael Galchinsky puts it: [J]ews are caught betwixt and between the liberal white dominant culture and the multicultural minority world. If we attempt to follow the old liberal model we need to continue to “mainstream” ourselves, to pass, to lead a double life. On the other hand, since we can pass, Jews cannot be included in the emerging culture of diversity” (“Glimpsing Golus” 366).

In contemporary multicultural America this has created huge contradictions in Jewish self-consciousness. Identification and integration with the majority stand at odds with the Jews’ equal desire to preserve their identity as a minority. Furthermore, the high degree of assimilation and acculturation has led various contemporary scholars and sociologists to believe that American Jews are the on the verge of extinction. “The bad news,” Alan Dershowitz writes,” “is that American Jews – as a people – have never been in greater danger of disappearing through assimilation, intermarriage and low birth rates” (1). Such alarming doom-mongering only intensifies the identity crisis many modern Jews are currently facing. Following the lead of other ethnic and racial cultures, Jewish Americans, now significantly distant from their immigrant past, are exploring their roots as well. The baal t’shuvah phenomenon is an example of how American Jews are currently responding to their social status within multicultural  American society.

Evidently, the changes in the social and cultural position of American Jews, namely from being a marginalised immigrant group, to becoming American, to presently occupying an anomalous status due to the effects of multiculturalism, have left deep emotional and psychological marks. These changes were also explored and reflected by the different generations of fiction writers. As briefly discussed above, the development of Jewish American literature paralleled and reflected these social and cultural changes, climaxing today with the phenomenon of a return to tradition, Jewishness, and Judaism.

Interestingly enough, the sociologist Marcus Lee Hansen predicted as early as 1938 that such a return would happen. In that year, Hansen addressed the Augustana Historical Society, a group devoted to the study of the history of Swedish immigrants in the United States. His speech was devoted to a presentation of what became known as “third-generation return” theory as it interpreted the saga of immigrant settlement in the New World. Focussing upon the process of adjustment of immigrant families, Hansen argued that: “Anyone who has the courage to codify the laws of history must include what can be designated the principle of third generation interest” (206). Furthermore, Hansen believed this principle to be of crucial importance to explain revitalised movements which seemed long extinct. Consequently, Hansen formulated for students of immigrant history the notion that “what the son wishes to forget the grandson wishes to remember”(206). 

Clearly, three distinct phases in immigrant history can be identified in Hansen’s thesis. The first phase represents the first generation, the immigrants themselves, who are bound to the old country and old ways, struggling to learn the language and the customs of their new home and to survive in it economically. The second phase reflects the experience of the second generation, who were born in America, and started to see themselves as Americans, while they desperately wanted for others to see them as such too. Consequently, they tried to distance themselves as much as possible from the old ways that identified their parents as aliens and outsiders, as marginalized and outside the mainstream. The third phase mirrors the third generation, who actually disagree with their parents, and start to explore their roots.

As Adam Meyer explains, Hansen’s theory seems to apply very well in terms of the history of Jewish American fiction, “[a]s long as we employ a liberal definition of generation, considering it more in a metaphorical than a biological sense” (109). Indeed, as one looks back to the literature written about the immigrant experience, writers such as Abraham Cahan, Anzia Yezierska, and Mary Antin, constitute what Hansen calls the immigrant first generation. These immigrants managed to make those adjustments necessary to function in American society, or at least to make a living, and as Meyer points out, were able to “begin democratising American literature through adding their Jewish voices to it” (109). The second generation of Jewish American writers emerged  just before World War II, and reached a greater audience than the sole Jewish audience for which Yezierska and Cahan wrote. The works of Bellow, Malamud, and Roth gradually merged into the mainstream of American literature to stand alongside Faulkner, Hemingway and Steinbeck.

Clearly, many second generation Jewish American fiction writers rebelled against their parents’ literary tradition and Jewish heritage. Dickstein points this out when he states that: “They grasped at culture as a refuge from poverty, bigotry and superstition. They were a secular generation that had broken out of the ghetto and broken into university . . .” (“Ghost Stories” 34).  Furthermore, Dickstein explains in his article “Never Goodbye, Columbus” that “[t]he second stage [of Jewish American literature] was debunking and satirical, even parricidal” (30). Moreover, he argues  in the same article that: “Their [Bellow and Malamud] determination to navigate the literary mainstream prevented them from getting too caught with specifically Jewish subjects (32).

Thus the desire of second generation American Jews  to become part of American society resulted in a generational conflict. Andrew Furman points this out as well when he states that: “ If we leap beyond the 1950’s and 1960’s –the literary period often referred to these days as the Golden Age of Jewish-American writing – we see that the most popular Jewish protagonists continue to affirm their Americanness well over and beyond their lingering Jewishness (“Is the Jew In Vogue?” 30).

The next logical step in the development of Jewish American culture, as well as literature, if one applies Hansen’s predictions, leads to a Jewish American experience centring around the principle of third generation interest. Academic research on contemporary Jewish American culture seems to affirm Hansen’s predictions because during the last decade or so several scholars have noted that more and more Jewish Americans are discovering, rediscovering and intensifying some impulse to Jewish identity. Various scholars attribute this return to Judaism and Jewish identity as a reaction to several changes which have occurred, or are currently in the process of occurring, such as the high level of assimilation, the whitening of the Jews during the last 50 years, and the ambivalence many Jewish Americans express towards multiculturalism.

Not only have these changes been very important reasons for the contemporary renaissance in Jewish American culture, they have also inspired the present flourishing of Jewish American fiction. By deploying the t’shuvah phenomenon, many contemporary Jewish American writers have represented  these changes in their works of fiction. Undoubtedly, the current renaissance in Jewish American writing confirms Hansen’s prediction because many contemporary authors seem to be preoccupied with themes of a rediscovery of ones roots, and a search for identity in their works. Allegra Goodman’s Kaaterskill Falls (1999) deals with such issues, as well as for instance Tova Mirvis’s The Lady’s Auxiliary (2002) and Rebecca Goldstein‘s Mazel (1995).

My aim in writing this thesis is to illustrate that at least three contemporary Jewish American authors have dramatised the experience of t’shuvah in radically different ways, and because of this, the characters’ experience of t’shuvah vastly differs  as well. In other words, I will argue that at the heart of each novel a different return to Judaism is experienced by its main character. For instance, in Tova Mirvis’ The Outside World (2004) the main character experiences a return to Orthodoxy, while in Jonathan Rosen’s Joy Comes in the Morning (2004) a more spiritual and emotional return is the thriving force behind the narrative. Finally, Allegra Goodman’s main character in her latest novel Paradise Park (2002) experiences a t’shuvah in which she is enabled to pick one of the three different types of Orthodox Judaism encountered by her. Although all novels are thematically similar, in that the heart of the matter in each of them is the t’shuvah phenomenon, the diversity within the representation and dramatisation of the t’shuvah phenomenon is the main focus of this thesis. I will conclude this thesis by making the argument that due to the diversity present in the dramatisation of  t’shuvah, one can only reach the conclusion that in spite of what contemporary multiculturalists believe, the Jewish American experience, at least when it is restricted to the literature written by those authors discussed in this thesis, cannot be overlooked. As a result, these Jewish American works of fiction must therefore be read and understood for what they are:  clear ethnic texts highlighting the diversity present within the Jewish American experience, which, in my view, should suffice to claim a strong position within America’s contemporary literary multicultural debate.

However, before I start to discuss the t’shuvah of the main characters in these novels, it is necessary to elaborate on the complex question of who is considered to be a member of the Jewish people, and which elements constitute Jewishness and Jewish identity. This is important because a t’shuvah is a reaffirmation or redefinition of exactly these concepts. According to Steven J. Whitfield “[t]he classical definition” of who is a Jew “is anyone whose mother is Jewish, even if Judaism is not practised, so long as he or she has not been converted to another faith” (6). However, this definition entails that someone who has a Jewish father but a non-Jewish mother would not be counted as being a Jew, even if he or she actively practises Judaism. Thus Ben Siegel points out  that: “In recent years the state of Israel has struggled to develop a broader definition of Jewishness acceptable to most of its citizens. Logic dictates that anyone who  practises Judaism is a Jew” (18). However, many individuals who know little or less about Judaic and Hebraic culture, and do not adhere to Jewish religious practises might still consider themselves to be Jews. Thus Siegel notes that: “The most generally accepted definition is that a Jew is any person who identifies him or herself as such, anyone, in short, who affirms a Jewish heritage” (18). Evidently, being a Jew does not automatically mean that a person is religious as well, or as Whitfield claims: “To be a Jew can be a social identity as well as a religious affiliation”(7). 

            Clearly, an all-inclusive definition of Jewishness is difficult, if not, impossible to formulate since Jewishness might contain extremely diverse elements. Furthermore, selecting those elements which are considered to be important or crucial in (re)creating or (re)affirming a Jewish heritage or identity varies from person to person. Therefore, the feature of Jewishness which I would like to emphasise is diversity. No matter how one approaches the concept of Jewishness, with all its possible definitions and connotations, it is an essential element of the American experience of Jews, and plays a significant role in contemporary Jewish American fiction.            Bearing this in mind, let us now turn to a discussion of the t’shuvah phenomenon as it figures in the three novels which form the base of my thesis.



1: The Outside World




            Aarons argues that “Jewish American literature is still an “immigrant fiction” because of the complexities of the question of what it means to be a Jew in America (“The Outsider Within” 381). The answer to this question is exactly what Tova Mirvis, in writing The Outside World, addresses through her dramatisation of the different, changing and conflicting experiences her characters undergo as a result of their t‘shuvah. I have chosen to analyse the t’shuvah of Bryan Miller, one of the main characters in The Outside World, because in redefining his Jewishness, he decides to adopt an ultra-Orthodox identity, which causes conflict and friction between him and his relatives. I will analyse his journey back to Judaism by dividing his return into three different phases. During my discussion of the first phase, I will reveal Bryan’s initial situation, the way he was before he embarked on his t’shuvah, while I will also discuss the reasons for his return. In describing the second phase of his return, I will discuss the transformations and resulting conflicts due to Bryan‘s identity change. During the last phase  I will examine his struggle to reconcile his newly adopted identity to the pressures and demands of the outside world. 



Phase 1: The Reasons For T’shuvah


            On the surface, Bryan Miller seems to be a normal Jewish American boy destined to follow the path his parents, Naomi and Joel, have laid out for him. Passing through high school with flying colours Bryan has been able to secure his place at Columbia University, a distinguished Ivy League school. He wants to become a corporate lawyer, just like his father Joel. Bryan seems to be a fulfilling his parents’ wishes and conforming to their envisioned form of Modern Orthodox Judaism. Mirvis emphasises this when she writes that “[t]hey [Naomi and Joel] believed in being part of the modern world. They believed in the integration of the religious and secular. In coed classes, in jeans and sneakers, they [Bryan and his younger sister Ilana] studied English and math half the day, Jewish law and Bible the other half”(26). Moreover, Bryan had also gone to Israel between high school and college, to attend one of Israel’s Yeshivot (schools for religious study), just like all of his friends had done. Upon his return Bryan immediately starts begging his parents for another year, and although Joel and Naomi reluctantly agree to his request, they make him promise that after this extra year he would attend Columbia University as planned.

            However, when Bryan returns from his second year of yeshiva he seems to have changed. Naomi notices this as well when she states that he has returned “[f]illed with religious fervour and a love for the letter of the law”(26). This sudden religious fervour changes Bryan’s behaviour as well. Following the advice of his mother, who had once written the phrase “Roots to grow and wings to soar” on some of his birthday and graduation cards, Baruch (as Bryan wants to be called from the moment he gets back) had decided to trace his roots. However, Naomi feels that Bryan has taken her advice much too seriously because “[t]heir son wanted to pass through Ellis Island in reverse, to find a Poland, a Lithuania, a Gallicia, he was sure still existed somewhere”(27). Baruch’s search for his roots confirms Dickstein’s observation that it would become “[a]s fashionable to explore your roots as it had once been to transcend them in Jewish American literature from the 1970’s to the present” (“Ghost Stories” 33). As it turns out, Baruch is taking part in what seems to have become a trend among the youngsters of the Jewish community in Laurelwood, New Jersey, to which the Miller family belongs. “Everyone was afflicted,” Mirvis writes, “with this new malady, this fierce, fervent virus. And they, the parents, couldn’t figure out how to treat it”(41). Baruch’s parents also do not understand why this change is taking place but they reassure themselves by thinking “[t]hat he would soon return to a more comfortable middle ground”(28).

            Remembering Hansen’s predictions about third generation return, it is not surprising that Mirvis describes Baruch and some of his contemporary compatriots becoming part of this “fervent virus”. As Donald Weber so aptly puts it: “Perhaps the most memorable aspect of Hansen’s speech is its confident prophecy of the grandson’s third-generation “interest” - or “return,” as the notion was later reformulated- in the ethnic origins of their grandfathers after an interval of purposeful “forgetting” on the part of the anxious worried second generation” (320). Naomi and Joel constitute the second generation in The Outside World, and their “purposeful forgetting” is partly reflected, at least in Baruch’s view, through Naomi and Joel’s practice of Modern Orthodox Judaism. 

            Although Joel and Naomi do keep kosher, and observe the Sabbath, and some of the other rituals, they cannot physically or outwardly be identified as Orthodox Jews. That this is of great importance to them becomes clear when Mirvis informs us that Joel always removes his yarmulke (skullcap) and “[t]ousles his hair to remove the circular indentation it left behind” to look like everyone else by the time he enters his office building. Moreover, when Joel was growing up he had always felt that “[h]e could be an Orthodox Jew and be many other things at the same time. His religion did not have to identify him, constrict him, define him”(85). 

            Joel and Naomi are confident about the fact that “[t]hey managed to find a space for the modern, and possibly problematic concepts of pluralism and multiplicity of interpretation,” by expressing that they do not feel the need for “added strictures of separate seating at weddings,” or by not having anything against “interdenominational dialogue or R-rated movies” (41). However, these middle-of-the-road compromises between Judaism and American culture constitute the central issues against which Baruch rebels. He feels that his parents are not really being religious in a Jewish way, listening to and observing the laws of God, but that they are trying too much to be American and to fit into American society. Clearly, Baruch is searching for authenticity. He always felt that he missed out on something during his childhood, which becomes clear when he is having a conversation with Tzippy Goldman, his soon to be wife, in a lobby of a hotel in Jerusalem: “[I] grew up religious right? Shabbos, kosher, the works. But we weren’t really religious, not in a way that meant anything. . . . I thought about my family, and I said to myself, I don’t think they really believe. And then I had to ask myself the same question: Do I really believe? ( 68).

Baruch is trying to answer this question by comparing his home situation, namely living as a Jew in America, to being an American Jew temporarily living and studying in Israel. The significance of this comparison is that Israel has always been portrayed, and represented as the Holy Land. The fact that so many adolescents turn to Israel’s Yeshivot to study the Talmud must be seen as the last stop in their ultimate search for authenticity because “[i]n Israel the outcropping of Jewish history, Jewish Law and the Jewish people began, while it simultaneously is host to some of the holiest Jewish places, such as the Temple Mount and the Western Wall” (Lerner xxiii). Baruch is convinced that he has found in Israel  what he has been looking for, a real connection to the past and to his roots. He experiences this sense of authenticity most fervently when he watches the Hasisdim in Mea Sharim, one of the most ancient neighbourhoods of Jerusalem. “Baruch wanted to go back in time and rejoin his ancestors who had looked and lived like them,” Mirvis writes. “In his family,” Mirvis continues, “there was little connection to the past. But these devout Mea Shearim Jews seemed unaware that the cobblestone streets they trod weren’t the same as those in their ancestors’ villages and shtetls” (65).

During his stay in Israel Baruch believed that he had found some sort of uniformity which he finds lacking in his parents’ modern, materialistic American society. Baruch rejects modern America because it offers too much freedom. However, Baruch believes that tradition and religious adherence are sacrificed along the way because he feels that to his parents “[l]earning for the sake of learning, because it was the will of God” had no value. They only learned because to them knowledge meant achieving a better life and more opportunities to rise on the social scale. In America, you can be whatever you want to be, and this is what makes Baruch feel left alone and abandoned. Back in Israel ,at Yeshiva, the choice to be different was not granted and therefore abandonment and a sense of alienation did not exist because “[i]n their matching garb, the yeshiva boys were never alone”(47). Paradoxically, one of the greatest idealised American values, the freedom to choose who you want to be, and what you want do with your life sends Baruch searching for uniformity.

            The fact that Israel is seen by Baruch as the ultimate point of authenticity also supports Ted Solotaroff’s claim that “[g]iven the welter of new social and cultural influences that are redefining America as a multi-ingredient soup rather than a melting pot, it is not surprising that the subject of Jewish identity is increasingly being set against an Israeli background” (xxii). Because Israel functions as the ultimate point of reference with regard to the notion of authenticity, it makes sense to read that Baruch is heavily influenced by his rabbi, Rabbi Rothstein, who teaches that “[M]odern Orthodoxy had simply come up with a rationalisation for their lack of faith, a way to feel better about being seduced by the charms of the outside world” (34). Baruch convinces himself of this truth when he thinks about what religion means for his parents: “They practised a watered down version of the truth. They did what was convenient and, ignored what wasn’t. Picking and choosing, this was their true religion” (34).

            Evidently, what Baruch is looking for is a form of absolutism, where everything is clear and where there is no space for ambiguity, instead of the-middle-of-the road sort of religion his parents are practicing. He seems to have found this authenticity by carrying out the traditions and celebrations which Orthodoxy requires.

            Stuart L. Charme argues that “[t]radition is the collective expression of a group’s essence. Accordingly, authenticity is often associated with loyalty to a primordial and largely homogenous tradition. The glorification of tradition has often reflected an anxiety that the present moment or wider culture is fake and artificial, corrupted and alienating”(136). Clearly, this statement explains Baruch’s attraction to Orthodoxy and Israel. Baruch feels that his parents’ culture is a farce. However, he does acknowledge that he used to belong to that same culture as well, trying to even out the influences of on the one hand the American dominant culture, and the preservation of the particulars of Jewish culture on the other. For example Baruch had always worried during his studies at secondary school whether or not he would have enough spare time to go and play baseball. In order to become “authentic” himself, he decides to become ultra-Orthodox. This sense of authenticity is also present in the way Baruch clings and adheres to the rules and traditions accompanying ultra-Orthodoxy. Baruch needs these rules because they offer him directives and guidelines in how he can be, and live his life as an authentic as possible Jew. For example, when he is disturbed by Ilana’s rock music when he is trying to daven (pray) he actually believes that “[H]e [God] was using the music of the Top 40 to test his resoluteness . . . just as He had tested Avraham on Mount Moriah, Mosche in the desert. The only way to pass this test was to seek refuge in prayers”(29). By comparing his own situation to two of the most authentic Jews, Baruch shows that in order to be authentic himself he needs to pray.

            What is important to bear in mind is that Baruch defines himself as a Jew in relation to his parents, who are also Jews, in stead of defining himself as being “the Other”, which would automatically label him as being different from the American mainstream. This is undoubtedly the result of his parents having managed to secure a safe socio-economic status for him due to their own rise in American society. This meant that Baruch and his compatriots “[w]ere supposed to be the generation that knew no limits,” who “[c]ould be anything they wanted” (84).

            Read within this context, Baruch is no longer marginalised and restricted in his options by the American mainstream because the American mainstream perceives him as a member of the white majority. In addition, Baruch is allowed voluntarily to embrace his Jewishness and Jewish identity when he feels the need to, but he has also been given the ability to pass as an American boy. Therefore, Baruch is able to construct and deconstruct his Jewishness when relevant or needed. In essence, Baruch is able to choose in various circumstances whether or not he wants to pass as an American or as a Jew. This proves to be congruent with Rubin’s claim that: “While various works of fiction by Jewish American authors emphasise the sense of inescapability of inherited identity, at the other end of the continuum are those that focus upon Jewishness as construct, as a matter of voluntary affiliation rather than of primordial ties” (513). Because Baruch had been provided with the opportunity to be anything he wanted, his embrace of Orthodoxy must therefore be understood as an act of “voluntary affiliation”.

            However, as Danzger notes, “[T]he implications of being a returnee are particularly illuminated when Israeli and American [Baruch] returnees are compared . . . for the Israeli it is a religious return; for the American it is largely an ethnic return” (7). Baruch’s return to Jewishness must therefore be seen as a voluntary return to ethnicity as well as religion. Subsequently, a return to ethnicity can only take place in a society where religious and ethnic diversity is celebrated, a multi-cultural society, which finally leads to an individual being comfortable enough with displaying his or her own culture in the mainstream of America. Or as Wertheimer puts it so aptly: “The decline within American society at large of the “melting-pot” model of assimilation, and the growing legitimating and acceptance of ethnic “diversity,” also functioned to encourage a more open display of Orthodox styles of dress and demeanor and to bolster Orthodox self-confidence” (“The Orthodox Movement” 22).

            Baruch’s t’shuvah is therefore possible in a multicultural society and should be interpreted as a response to the “anomalous position of American Jews as members of an ethnic minority with majority status” (Rubin 510). Although Baruch could have redefined his Jewishness within the context of cultural pluralism by, for instance, going to shul more often, or by upholding the laws of the Sabbath a bit stricter he chooses to break radically with his parents’ and American culture. Baruch’s conscious decision to relinquish his Americanness by adopting an ultra-Orthodox identity and by carrying out the accompanying particulars, initiates a change in his identity which provokes many conflicts with his next of kin.



2: Transformation and Conflict


            When Baruch returns from his second year of yeshiva, the first thing he insists upon is that he no longer wants to be addressed by his American name Bryan, but by his Hebrew name, Baruch. His parents are abhorred by this change in name because for them Baruch recreates a part of a past they had struggled so hard to erase. They are particularly anxious about the fact that Baruch’s name “[c]arries with it the dreaded ch, the modern-day shibboleth . . . . Not a Ch as in Charlie, not a Sh as in Shirley, but a guttural sound that came from the back of those throats that had been trained to utter it from birth” (27). The phonological feature ch is therefore symbolised as being un-American because it does not match the sound in either Charlie nor Shirley, which are well- known American names.

However, a more profound meaning lies at the heart of this change in  name. Hana Wirth-Nesher argues that “[H]ebrew is a sign of an even older identity, not of family history but of ancient history, not of relatives but of ancestors”(110). By insisting on the use of his Hebrew name, Baruch not only communicates to the outside world that he is a Jew, but also demonstrates that he is aligned to the most authentic of all the Jews, namely those who speak Hebrew. However, what disturbs his parents the most is that by using his Hebrew name, Baruch throws away his ability to pass as an American when he chooses to, and this is something which his parents have so long struggled for to obtain. 

            Moreover,  because all Jews are given a Hebrew name upon birth alongside their “other” name, Bryan was also given the name Baruch when he was born. By re-establishing the use of his biblical Hebrew name as opposed to his American Christian name, Mirvis demonstrates the resilience of Baruch’s decision to adopt a different identity, while it simultaneously signifies a break-up with his own past as well as a renewed connection to previous era’s long before he was born.  

            Evidently, by adopting his Hebrew name, Baruch has made the first step to disconnect himself of the boy he used to be, and even with his Modern Orthodox past. However, Judith Oster argues that: “Whether sought or come upon accidentally, a view in a mirror is instantaneous, not a gradual process over time; the unexpected difference reflected in the mirror is a trope (as well as a crucial incident) expressing identity disruption or formation” (36). Baruch is still a bit unsure of his new identity and this strongly surfaces when he stumbles upon his old Yankees baseball cap, puts it on, and for a small moment recognises in his own reflection the former Jewish American boy he used to be:

In this  mirror he had practised looking cool. He had flexed his muscles, he had fussed over his outfits, he had gelled his hair. Now, as he looked into the mirror, his recently required humility left him and his body changed. He stood differently: shoulders tall, hips jutting out, muscles flexed. He saw a proud boy who worshipped at the temple of music, sports, and girls. . . . The old Bryan was still peeking out. He could feel him in there, like a second soul.  (48)

Baruch immediately responds to these confusing emotions by ripping the baseball cap off his head and burying it in a pile at the back of his closet. This action shows Baruch’s perseverance to stay loyal to his new self, the ultra-Orthodox Baruch. This becomes even more clear when Baruch substitutes the Yankee cap for his black hat, a Borsalino fedora which simultaneously evokes deep emotions : “The hat made him feel more religious,” Mirvis writes, “It wasn’t just an item of clothing but a term of identity; not a description of what he was wearing but of who he was”(48).

            I believe that in Baruch’s case, the first mirror reflection he sees, when he is wearing his baseball cap, is an expression of identity disruption, because for a moment he feels like the boy he used to be all his life. However, this tiny identity crisis is quickly conquered and wholly replaced by the second mirror image in which Baruch is wearing his  fedora, the large traditional black hat symbolising his new identity. This mirror image affirms Baruch’s view that dressing yourself according to your beliefs makes a difference. For the moment, a change in identity seems to have taken place because Baruch’s “new self” prevailed.

            However, identity changes rarely only affect those people undergoing the change. “In bicultural families,” Oster writes, “differences in language, customs and assumptions can loom as conflicts or require identity decisions daily”(36). This is exactly what Baruch and his family are facing everyday, because Baruch’s strict adherence to Haskalah (Jewish law) and Ortho-praxis, two crucial components upon which his new identity heavily relies, result in many conflicts between him and the people around him.

Judith Shulevitz argues that “[t]hat the new generation embraces . . . the past, a godly past hedged in by community and ritual that will one day perhaps - or so they dream - be restored”(“The New Jewish Novel” online). Baruch clearly embraced the past when he was in Israel, and when he is back at home he wants to recreate the past as well because he wants to preserve “[t]his world, which had existed so fully in yeshiva (38). Inevitably, conflict is luring. When he is having an argument with his sister Ilana, because her music disturbs him while he is in prayer, Baruch reminds her that he wants to be addressed by his Hebrew name which leads into another quarrel between them. In the end, neither of them are prepared to give in but Ilana does seem quite determined to reject and condemn her brother’s new identity because “[s]he wasn’t going to listen to this new Baruch boy who had returned in her brother’s body”(31).

            This intense feeling of disapproval Ilana experiences is due to the fact that she really does not understand why she is also caught in Baruch’s blasts of disapproval for almost everything she or her parents do. This becomes clear when, during her fight with her brother, she once again experiences the hurt feelings she had been nursing due to a previous clash between her and Baruch. When Baruch returned from Israel, Illana had, back at the airport, shouted his name and thrown her arms around him. Baruch’s response had been very cold and distant, though in her enthusiasm of seeing him again, she had ignored this. Later Baruch told her that he is not allowed to hug his sister because it’s “assur”, forbidden (32). These clashes with Illana are perfect examples of how Baruch’s return to Orthodoxy affects not only Baruch himself, but also the people who come in close contact with him.

            A second example to justify this claim, revolves around the conflicts between Baruch and his father. In 1976, Irving Howe claimed that because the children of the immigrant generation often wanted to embrace the standards of American society, a generational conflict between the generations emerged, which Howe called a “Kulturkampf” (World of Our Fathers 262). Although Howe’s remark referred to the fact that a development had been set in motion which signified a break-up of traditional forms, principles and idea’s caused by the younger generation’s desire to be part of American society, I would argue that between Baruch and his father, a similar Kulturkampf is taking place in the Outside World. Interestingly however, the entire process which Howe described is reversed. In The Outside World, it is not “the younger generation” (Baruch) which distances itself from traditional forms and beliefs, but the “older generation” (Joel), clearly supporting Hansen’s claim of third generation return. Furthermore, this reversed “Kulturkampf” is actually a consequence of the forces of multiculturalism. Instead of choosing homogeneity, as Joel has done, Baruch chooses diversity, which is symbolised through his Orthodoxy. Apparently, Baruch is “[b]eginning to be confident enough to reclaim Jewish culture” (Rapoport xxx). Clearly, Mirvis’ response, through her dramatisation of Baruch’s t’shuvah,  to multiculturalism in The Outside World eventually leads to a generational conflict, which is provoked and inspired by a return to ethnicity and particularism. Moreover, in comparison with Joy Comes in the Morning and Paradise Park this generational conflict is actually only present in the Outside World. In Jonathan Rosen’s Joy Comes in the Morning the t’shuvah of the main character, Lev Friedman, is partly set in motion because Lev wants to live up to his fathers wishes, which is more indicative of some sort of reconciliation between two generations rather than a break-up resulting in conflict. Furthermore, Sharon Spiegelman’s  t’shuvah in Allegra Goodman’s Paradise Park does not have anything to do with generational conflict or distinct or abnormal behaviour between family members at all. Sharon embarks on her voyage from an outsider position, being alone, abandoned and stranded in multicultural Hawaii. Thus Mirvis’ interpretation of the theme of t’shuvah has clearly other and perhaps even more serious consequences for her characters than the events, which have been set in motion by Rosen and Goodman’s interpretation of t’shuvah, have on either Lev or Sharon. Baruch is clinging to tradition and religion, and consequently experiences to be different from most notably his immediate family. Joel, however, seems to be moving more and more in the opposite direction, detaching himself further and further from his religion but also from Ortho-praxis. I will argue that it is Baruch’s chosen form of his t’shuvah, namely a return to Orthodoxy, is the cause of the expanding generational gap between Joel and Baruch.

            Joel Miller is a corporate lawyer who works long hours and who would like to see his children attending one of the prestigious Ivy League schools. In fact, he has even convinced Baruch to promise that he would attend Columbia University after his second year of yeshiva was completed. However, when Baruch returns with his new self, he does not feel obligated to uphold and respect prior agreements he might have had with his parents. “He wasn’t going to college, not this year, not next year, not ever,” Mervis writes, “Instead, he was going back to yeshiva” (35). Baruch knows that with this announcement he would traverse the outermost limits of his parent’s tolerance, because for them a son “[c]hoosing yeshiva over college was an embarrassment” (35). When Baruch finally has the courage to tell them that he is breaking their deal, a discussion erupts in which both Baruch and Joel respond to each other with total bewilderment because “[t]hey looked at each other and, in a brief, unintentional meeting of minds, they wondered: This is my father? This is my son?” (50). Although they both agreed to discuss this conflict about college later because of Shabbos, it is clear that their mutual response to each other signals the beginning of their “Kulturkampf”.

            If Baruch’s refusal to go to Columbia University caused some feelings of dissatisfaction with Joel, his announcement that he has decided to get married strikes Joel with plain fear and panic. Although overwhelmed with this news, Joel and the rest of Miller family simultaneously realise that “[m]arriage ended their hopes that this was a phase. It locked these changes into place”(81). By marrying Tzippy Goldman, an ultra-Orthodox and very religious girl, Baruch his old self, Bryan, would be gone for good.

            However, Baruch’s fervent religiosity is what disturbs Joel the most. This is partly due to the fact that: “On Shabbos, he [Joel] stood in shul and watched people daven and sway, only to hear that this one cheats on his taxes, this one cheats on his wife. He had seen hypocrisy masquerading as faith, and now he could not see beyond it. The more religious his son became, the more estranged he felt”(86). Joel not only perceives Baruch’s religiosity as a threat, he also does not understand where Baruch’s confidence in religion comes from. This hostility towards the concept of religion is partly because Joel has lost his faith in God himself. He finds faith “porous,” and  he had always had “[t]rouble believing in the importance of each word, the law divided up and parcelled in the tiniest of applications” (85). Furthermore, Joel cannot grasp that by performing the rituals and upholding the strict dietary laws, Baruch feels more connected to God. Joel “[c]ouldn’t help but wonder where God was in what his son did and said. Was He under the hat? In between the plastic slats of the dish racks? Was His spirit sweeping through the house, a thrumming audible only to his son?”(86).  

Joel’s scepticism and suspicion towards Baruch’s form of Orthodoxy might be explained by Shapiro’s argument that: “Eager to become part of America, American Jews were skeptical of ideologies and movements that impeded their movement into the American mainstream”(15). Joel was raised believing that the ultimate goal for every Jew living in the United States was to rise in American society. Achieving that goal meant adaptation to the mainstream culture. Naturally, Joel is regarding Baruch’s ultra-Orthodoxy with suspicion because his son is part of a movement which  identifies its members as being different from the mainstream. As a result Baruch’s position in American society, is threatened by this process, and that is something Joel is trying to prevent. Clearly, Joel does not understand the change in behaviour and identity which has taken place in his son, and as a result feels more estranged from him than ever before.

            So, on the one hand Joel does not understand why Baruch has suddenly become so religious. On the other hand, Baruch attacks his father for being too secular, for believing not enough.  When Baruch is at shul to pray, he really feels part of this group of men “[s]waying while the black hats and suits swayed along in synchronous motion”(150). All of these men are Orthodox and Baruch knows that their day “[a]lways ended where they began it, back in shul”(151).To Baruch, his father’s desecration of the Sabbath, his refusal to create some space in his everyday life for praying and studying at the synagogue, as well as the fact that he has let his work become his life, represent his father’s middle ground way of living. Baruch completely opposes any moulding or bending just to fit in, because he feels that: “When it came to God- His will, His rule, His law- there was no room for compromise”(122).

            Clearly, it is from the perspective of his newly adopted Orthodoxy that Baruch condemns his father’s way of life and culture, while Joel’s disappointment in Baruch’s decision making equally results from Baruch’s reinvigorated religious adherence. Baruch’s articulated and visible differences from Joel’s way of life and beliefs serve as the fuel for their hot debates which finally evolve into a generational conflict between father and son. Paradoxically, Orthodox Judaism, in which, as Danzger claims, “[e]mphasis on family and community is a major source of cohesion and attraction to followers”, apparently leaves no space  to allow diversity (27).



3: Identity and the Outside World


            “Modernity,” Steven M. Cohen writes, “invariably meant new opportunities for participation in the larger polity and economy as well as in the social mainstream” (170). Furthermore, he argues that due to modernity “[J]ews quickly assumed new demographic configurations, in particular, new generational, residential, socio-economic, and family characteristics”(170).  Clearly, modernity has the power to change and influence your identity, an this is exactly what happens to Baruch as well. Having adopted his new Orthodoxy, the last stage in completing his identity change revolves around the inevitable conflict between on the one hand preserving his new identity, and on the other hand combating the influences and forces of modern America. As a result Baruch’s strong-willingness to strictly adhere to his new Orthodoxy clashes with the push and pulls of modern American society.

            Modern life really starts to challenge Baruch and his new identity when he accepts a job as manager of a restaurant. “Nothing went smoothly,” Mirvis writes, “as Baruch struggled to fix one problem, another arose. . . ”(170). Furthermore, he also has to adjust to the needs and wishes of his customers who are ignorant of the fact that he is really at a loss what to do. It seems to Baruch that “[i]n Memphis, he was the only one in a hurry”(171).

            Baruch is experiencing the rushes and pressures of having a job. What complicates matters even more for Baruch is the fact that this actually is his very first job, because up to this point he had been in and at school his whole life. The change is hard for him to bear, and soon he starts to think that he has made a mistake in coming to Memphis: “[H]e had given up college for yeshiva, and he had given up yeshiva for this. In yeshiva, he had tried to step past the physical needs. In yeshiva, the world of the spirit mattered above else. In Kroger, he was at the epicentre of the physical world”(171). What stings Baruch the most is that he actually has no time to study, because he is so incredibly busy with his job that “[t]here was not even time to think”(172).         

            Baruch is swamped with work, and he gradually starts to forget that he originally wanted to combine work and making a living with teaching, but now “[h]e no longer thought about elevating the physical to the level of the spiritual. He couldn’t imagine preparing classes, let alone getting anyone to sit  and listen to them. With so much to do in the here and now, who had time to think of anything beyond?”(185).

            Before he ventured out into the outside world Baruch used to believe that “[j]obs are at best a necessary evil”, and that the only thing worth doing was “[t]he study of the Talmud” (83). However, Baruch slowly starts to think differently about having a job and he also realises that “[T]he pull of everyday , the needs of the moment, had become pressing. Being busy did not surprise him. He had accepted the need to work”(202). Baruch has compromised, just like so many other people do when they go out into the modern world. What really surprises Baruch the most is that he realises that he “[d]erived satisfaction from this necessary evil” (202-203). As he reflects upon what it is that he finds so pleasurable about his job, Baruch feels that the satisfaction derives from the fact that he actually is able to finish something. The items on his list could be checked, and then his job would be finished, while in yeshiva Baruch felt that he was never able to say that he finished studying or discussing a passage from the Talmud because “[b]ehind every door, he found another door. Behind every answer, another question”(29). Satisfaction was an emotion Baruch had been unaware of while he was studying in Israel. He finally realises that “[h]e too was different than he had been a few months before. He hadn’t been able to go out into the world and remain the same“(203). Mirvis illustrates that being an ultra-Orthodox Jew with absolutist views while living and being part of modern American society is extremely difficult if not impossible to uphold. Already a short time after his transformation Baruch has to water down his absolutist views and therefore has to relinquish a small part of his new identity due to the fact that one of the most celebrated American ideals, namely self reliance, forces  Baruch to adjust and compromise.





            Evidently, Tova Mirvis has interpreted and dramatised  the theme of t’shuvah from the perspective of Orthodoxy. Baruch’s re-embracing of ultra-Orthodoxy combined with his religious fervour not only causes friction between himself and his immediate family but also proves to be the cause of a new generational conflict. Interestingly, these changes are ultimately initiated by the effects multiculturalism has had on American society, causing Baruch to relinquish his Americanness while opting for a return to Judaism and particularism. The experience of belonging he felt while he was staying in Israel proves to be an idealised version of practising Orthodoxy. Forced to acknowledge that modernity still has a tremendous hold over everyday life, Baruch  eventually compromises and relinquishes some of his absolutist views to sustain himself and his family. 



2: Joy Comes in the Morning




            In The Outside World, Baruch Miller returned to ultra-Orthodoxy, marked by its emphasis on the past and its strict adherence to tradition and ritual. Jonathan Rosens Joy Comes in the Morning radically differs in setting because this novel revolves around a different stream of Judaism, namely Reform Judaism. The authors of the website of the Union for Reform Judaism argue that in addition to the belief that Judaism must change and adapt to the needs of the day to survive, the following principles distinguish Reform Jews from other streams of Judaism in North America:

Reform Jews are committed to the principle of inclusion, not exclusion. Since 1978 the Reform Movement has been reaching out to Jews-by-choice and interfaith families, encouraging them to embrace Judaism. Reform Jews consider children to be Jewish if they are the child of a Jewish father or mother, so long as the child is raised as a Jew.

Reform Jews are committed to the absolute equality of women in all areas of Jewish life. We were the first movement to ordain women rabbis, invest women cantors, and elect women presidents of our synagogues. (What is Reform Judaism online)

Clearly, Reform Judaism values different characteristics of Judaism than for instance Orthodoxy. Furthermore, this fits in with Whitfield’s claim that “[R]eform Judaism made it easier to be a good Jew,” because it demands less rigorous sacrifices of its adherents than other more stringent strands of Judaism do (232). Due to the differences in emphasis and values between the various streams of Judaism, the experience of being a religious Jew in America is therefore different as well. For instance, a striking difference between Reform Judaism and Orthodoxy revolves around the fact that the essential rituals of Orthodox Judaism are learned in the process of socialisation, because according to Danzger, “[t]he most central aspects of religious practice occur in the home”(28). As a result, the home-centred nature of Orthodoxy presents a problem for the Jewish returnee to the extent that if the essential rituals of Judaism are hidden from the public, just how and where could the new Orthodox learn these rituals? Returnee’s to Reform Judaism, however, actually might be able to learn the essentials of Reform Judaism at shul, because Reform Judaism puts less emphasis on ritual, and therefore fewer particulars will have to be mastered.

            Clearly, differences between certain types of Judaism are bound to have different effects on converts and returnee’s simply because different rules and regulations must be mastered. In Joy Comes in the Morning, the main protagonist, Lev Friedman also experiences a renewed interest in and a return to Judaism. However, it is important to bear in mind that Lev is experiencing his tshuvah within the framework defined by Reform Judaism while for instance Mirvis’ The Outside World has a clear Orthodox setting. As a result, emphasis on tradition, authenticity as a point of reference, and strict religious observance play a less important role in Joy Comes in the Morning. Rosens novel is far more involved with the spiritual status of its characters and their understanding of divinity and the presence of God, and how to adapt these concepts to their modern lives. However, this does not mean that tradition, authenticity and religious observance do not have function or meaning in this novel. They also represent markers for changes in identity, but when compared to Bryans transformation and return, they are less rigorous and less important.

            This means that a more spiritual return to Judaism is what constitutes the heart of Joy Comes in the Morning, as I will illustrate by analysing the tshuvah of Lev Friedman. I will start out by sketching Lev‘s character as well as Deborah‘s, his soon-to-be wife, because this will illustrate what Lev’s attitude towards life and his profession was before he returned to Judaism. Furthermore, this discussion will reveal which specific set of characteristics Deborah, possesses to which Lev, living at that point a secular life, is so fiercely drawn. The second part of my analysis will reveal to the reader that Lev’s tshuvah is first and foremost an emotional as well as a spiritual experience, which leads to Lev increasingly creating and allowing more space in his life to practise Judaism. Finally I will argue that Lev has reconnected himself spiritually to Judaism and to the notion of God, and as a result has been able to mend his own heart.



1: A First Step in Re-exploring Religion


            Lev Friedman is a scientific journalist who writes articles on various topics for the scholarly magazine Eureka. When the reader first encounters Lev, he has just returned form a conference at Princeton University entitled The Ethics of Cloning”. One of the best qualities of life to which Lev is drawn is the fact that life is fleeting. Lev does not like the idea that one could do something which could last forever. This partly explains why Lev ran away from his wedding to Jenny, the girl he was engaged to at the time, before the photo-shoot. Clearly, he is afraid of commitment, and the photographs only intensified his anxiety that he was making a decision which would affect the rest of his life. However, the thought of what he has done comes back to haunt him every day [l]like a remembrance of illness(29). After four months, Lev is still unsure if his decision to abort the wedding has been a run toward life or away from it, whether or not he [h]ad doomed himself to loneliness and incompatibility or-with admittedly bad timing- set himself free(31-32).

            There is, however, more going on inside Lev’s mind. He also has great doubts about religion. For example, Lev believes that “[G]od didn’t even create us in the past. Maybe he created some blue-green algae . . . that slowly morphed into us” (145-146). He seems to be skeptical about religion. Although he does not consider himself to be religious he does recite a Shehechiyanu, a brief Hebrew prayer thanking God for the experience, whenever he sees a new bird. Reciting the small prayer gives Lev an inexplicable pleasure, while he simultaneously feels that the action is irrational and [p]erhaps even further evidence that he was losing his grip on reality(33). Clearly Lev Friedman is a man wrestling with  contradictory emotions, namely being a scientist who really does not understand science, and a non-believer who cannot explain why he thanks God when he experiences a joyful occasion. However, when Lev finds out that his father, Henry, is in the hospital he immediately rushes over to see him. Finding his father in relatively good health, he once again recites a Shehechiyanu. Although it was the only prayer he could summon to mind, he imagined that his father, who after his own return to religion had come to regret the way he had brought up his children, [w]ould have hoped for more. . . . [H]e wished he knew other things to recite(45).

Although Lev does not know why he recites these Jewish prayers, Nancy Flam argues that at [a] time of illness, pain, or loss, our yearning for Gods presence is often more acute than usual. Indeed, in the midst of tragedy many of us Jews find ourselves suddenly needing to explore or re-explore our Judaism”(33). The tragedy of his fathers stroke (which was actually a failed suicide attempt, although Lev is unaware of this at this point in the narrative) in combination with Lev his own doubts, contradictions and accompanying emotions, serve as a cause for Lev to seek support and consolation with something or someone. Although he does not yet look for support in renewed religious fervor or a return to tradition, he does find consolation with one of Gods servants, namely Rabbi Deborah Green whom he first meets at the hospital where his father is recuperating, and under whose wings Lev starts to re-embrace Judaism.

            Lev is actually attracted to Deborah because she is constantly forced to coalesce two very different roles, namely that of being a rabbi as well as an incredibly attractive woman. Rosen clearly highlights these two very different sides of Deborah by portraying her as a spiritual leader, a rabbi, but also as an ordinary human, with human needs and thoughts.  Being a rabbi, one would expect Deborah to be strict and religiously fervent but this is not the first impression reader gets when Rosen introduces Deborah when the book opens. She actually has to remind herself to start praying because she promised herself that she would “[p]ray more regularly(4). In the same scene, however, Rosen skilfully reveals her rabbinical and spiritual self as well, because during her prayers Deborah feels “[a] keen, delicious ache in her heart as she sang the verse over and over(10).      

Moreover, Deborah not only derives satisfaction by continuously praising God through prayer, she also feels that she is constantly encountering God wherever she is, feeling His presence in various ways. For instance, such an occasion occurs when she encounters an elderly man on the street who seems to be unable to tie his own shoe laces. Without asking permission, Deborah kneels down before the man to tie his laces, and this humble gesture [f]looded her with joy(9).

            This is the spiritual (divine) side of Deborah. However, her human (ordinary) side soon surfaces as well. Deborah is not only distracted from her prayers by this mysterious presence she experiences in her room, but also by various recollections about her ex-boyfriend Reuben, who is Orthodox, but still had slept with her anyway- [n]ot, she felt sure, the only one of the 613 commandments he had violated . . .(5). Furthermore, while swaying, her thoughts also drift away to a marriage ceremony she is due to perform in a couple of days. Although she loves performing marriage ceremonies, the sheer thought of it arouses a feeling of unrest and anxiety in her as well. This is due to the fact that she is thirty and still single herself, which causes her to [f]eel more profoundly alone than she ever had in her life(8). So on the one hand Deborah is portrayed by Rosen as a spiritual leader, a guide who provides people with answers to religious questions, but on the other hand Rosen portrays her as being human as well. The combination of these factors, the divine and the ordinary, are exactly the qualities which attract Lev to Deborah when he meets her for a second time at the Sinai Centre, a rehabilitation clinic to which Henry had been sent to recover from his failed suicide attempt. When Lev recognises her he starts a conversation. During this conversation he is continuously admiring how [h]er spontaneous self kept skipping out from behind her rabbinical self(84). When Lev invites her to a game of the New York Yankees, she has to perform a memorial service first and Lev asks her if he can attend the service and wait for her, because [t]he idea of watching her perform appealed in an odd, almost perverse way(90). During the ceremony Levs looking at her and is extremely attracted by her bright eyes, and her full lips forming words he could scarcely focus on(95). Clearly, Lev is attracted  to the woman Deborah here, and not to Deborah the rabbi.

            However, when Lev and Deborah are ready to drive off after the service, the daughter of the deceased comes up to them to thank Deborah for the beautiful service. While Lev is eying the woman, he [c]ould feel the longing in her, the need. She wanted something, some intimacy, some answer. . . . As if she needed Deborah to pilot her through the valley of the shadow of death. Lev felt that way a little himself (101). Clearly, Lev (which is  Hebrew for the word “heart”) is not only searching for someone to be with, but he also feels he needs someone to help him cure his own heart, to mend his soul. The ordinary and the divine are both present in Deborah, and that’s why Lev is instantly intrigued with her, the moment he lays eyes on her.



2: Reconnecting to the Jewish Tradition


Due to his developing relationship with Deborah, Lev increasingly starts to open up more and more to religious ideas and to the notion of spirituality. After having lived a secular life for almost 15 years it is not surprising that Lev needs help to guide him back to his former self. Lev  used to actively practise Judaism, and during his college years he even studied at yeshiva in Israel. Although born as a Jew Lev “lost” his Jewishness, and his connectedness to the Jewish tradition. However, as Rosen explains in his essay “The Citizen Stranger,” Judaism is  [a] religion that maintains that all Jews stood at Mount Sinai to receive the Torah; even if they are converts, their souls are retroactively invested with a kind of primary authenticity(13).

            In Joy Comes in the Morning Rosen skilfully portrays various religious converts and returnees to Judaism. As the story progresses it becomes clear that Henry Friedman and Deborah Green serve as primary examples of Jews whose souls are invested with authenticity. What is interesting is that both these characters are in fact returnee’s to Judaism. Henry returned to Judaism after abandoning Judaism due to the atrocities committed to the Jews by Nazi Germany, while Deborah fell in love with Judaism  because of a Jewish friend she had when she was a child. No matter where they were or what they did, they still possessed that sense of “authenticity” to eventually return. For instance, to Deborah converting to Judaism was “[a] matter of finding a vocabulary for what [she] had always felt intuitively”(146). To Deborah Judaism and Jewishness provides her with a sense of community, stability and uniformity. She actually believes that religion “[w]as a communal cloak that fit individuals too”(171). Furthermore, she believes that through practising Judaism and  by living a Jewish life she can be a better Jew because one cannot “[b]e a Jew without God” (130).  Deborah and Henry have been able to reconnect themselves with their Jewishness again, and Lev is about to do the same, he only needs a push into the right direction, maybe some sort of event or sign to set things in motion. His father’s attempted suicide and the note he leaves in which he utters the hope that Lev knows how to say to say Kaddish (a prayer proclaiming the glory of God said by mourners) provides Lev with a reason to re-explore his own Jewishness because he feels ashamed that his father thinks that he is not Jewish enough to say Kaddish.

However, tempting as it may be, it would be a mistake to claim that Lev embarked on his tshuvah solely because his father had written this in a suicide note. Equally, if not more important is the fact that Lev has always been Jewish, and therefore knows what it is like to be Jewish and to practise Judaism. Rosen acknowledges this when he admits to interviewer Blake Eskin that: [L]ev already has in himself pockets of religious longing or even feeling, as if the tradition were working in him even though he wasn't necessarily working actively in the tradition (Eskin). Being Jewish and experiencing Jewish culture is something which Lev already carries within himself. The only thing he needs is someone who can guide him back to this.

            Unsurprisingly, Lev turns to Deborah for help, because he knows he is not “[a]ttached to tradition,” and therefore doesn’t “[k]now where to begin”(133). Instructed by Deborah to learn a prayer by heart Lev feels energized by reading the directive although “[m]ore in the realm of inner expansion(142). He slowly becomes aware of his own spirituality. Furthermore, as Rosen informs the reader, “[L]ev had never felt that chemical explanations were sufficient to describe his experience of being alive. He had a category, an unnamed sensation in his being, that attached it self to the word soul (142). Although this tiny prayer does not yet transform Lev in a returnee, its content and message does make him realise that [p]erhaps his religious life was undeveloped and childish(142). Lev opens up more and more to religious renewals, because the thoughts and emotions the prayer evoked in Lev provides him from that moment on with [a] small glint of unarticulated belief (43). Evidently, it is the meaning hidden behind the act of praying which provide Lev with a spiritual and emotional connection to God. Clearly, the first step in his tshuvah has been fulfilled.

            However, this does not mean that Lev does not need a guide to reintroduce him to, for instance, studying Torah or reacquaint himself with Jewish tradition. Lev himself acknowledges this when he realises that [i]n Deborahs presence religious assertions and the metaphors that communicated them seem to work” because “[h]e he did not wish to break them down(145). Simultaneously a different process had also been set in motion. As Lev wakes up one day, reciting his modeh ani lfanecha (thank you God for giving back my soul),  [a] sort of redefinition [was] going on inside himself, an incorporation of God into his actual daily life, not as a form of bleak renunciation but something that filled him with excitement(170). Furthermore when Lev recites a little post-meal prayer Deborah taught him he feels [a]lmost physically . . . the presence of something more(253).Clearly, Judaism, and the incorporation of God into his everyday life, gains more and more influence.     

            Lev’s increase in religious awareness might be explained by Jonathan Sarna’s argument that “[J]ews value ritual, because it brings them closer to grandparents, parents, partners, spouses, children and grandchildren, while it simultaneously “[i]nfuses life with meaning(327). Levs increasing involvement in Jewish practice illustrates this claim beautifully because by leading a more Jewish life, Lev responds affirmatively to the underlying meaning enclosed in his father’s imperative to Choose life”, with which he meant that Lev must start to live more as a Jew. Simultaneously, praying regularly and observing more rituals (Shabbat) are the instruments through which Lev is able to reclaim his Jewishness. Undoubtedly, Lev is starting to work and live actively within Jewish tradition.

            Deborah, however, is moving more and more in the opposite direction. Although both characters are struggling to affirm the presence of God in a world permeated with pain and injustice, it is much harder for Deborah to hang on to her faith partly because during her visits to the hospital she is confronted with all kinds of agony, pain, and extremely distressed individuals. As Furman rightly points out: [T]he illness and death Deborah faces each day . . .  finally sends her reeling(Hidden Truths6). As a result Deborah is filled with doubts about her faith and God, and because of this, is thrown into a deep spiritual crisis.

            Surprisingly, Deborah starts to observe all the rules and laws more stringently. By becoming more observant and therefore more Orthodox, she temporarily tries to cleanse herself from the religious insecurity she is experiencing. In his essay, Charmé argues that “[a]uthenticity is often invoked when referring to the Jewish content in a persons life. In other words, to call someone an authentic Jew may be a statement about the depth of Jewish knowledge, observance or commitment (134).

            Interestingly, it is actually during Deborah’s spiritual crisis that Lev feels an “[u]ncharacteristic surge of optimism”(251). When Lev is around Deborah, he feels more at ease and therefore is more comfortable and more open towards Judaism. Although Deborah serves as his guide during his re-exploration of his Jewishness, it is Lev who increasingly embraces Jewish ritual and law, working his way back into the tradition. When Deborah shows the first signs of disaffection Lev responds immediately. He starts to come to synagogue on Friday nights more and more, and when Deborah, whom he had started dating, declines an invitation for a Shabbat dinner with some of their friends, he “[f]elt a surprise of disappointment”(213). He had gotten used to Sabbath gatherings with “[t]he candles; the ordered table with its twin loaves of bread. . . and the little booklets containing blessings and songs that had been swiped from Jewish weddings and bore the names of bride and groom and the date of the wedding embossed on the cover. . . (213).


Moreover, when Deborah insists on watching TV, although it is a Friday night, Lev again feels disappointed. Even though it was the sort of normal Friday night Lev [u]sed to crave for in the past, the act of watching TV on a Friday night now makes him uncomfortable, because he finds himself “[m]issing the communal spirit of the evening they had given up, the song welcoming the Sabbath angels that preceded the meal(214). Evidently, Lev opened up to Judaism, and what is more important is that he no longer needs Deborah telling him to pray or be observant, because he has been able to reforge the connection with Judaism by himself. The once skeptical and secular scientist Lev Friedman increasingly has started to organise his life more around Hashem (God) and Judaism.     



3: A Renewed Spiritual Link


As I have tried to argue, Deborah’s spiritual crisis served as a foil to Lev’s gradual reattachment and opening up to Judaism, and to Jewish tradition. However, real change only starts to manifest in Lev in the absence of Deborah. When Deborah is staying at her sisters, Lev is left behind in Deborah’s apartment. Due to an incredible turn of events, Lev finds himself performing a funeral, posing as rabbi Friedman, the husband of rabbi Deborah Green. As Lev is performing the service he suddenly realises that he is eulogizing an actual individual who had once lived, and “[f]ound, to his astonishment, that there were tears in his eyes(298). The striking resemblance with Deborahs spontaneous crying when she is praying or performing rituals immediately springs to mind. Deborah’s absence makes Lev feel insecure about their relationship, but not insecure about his renewed faith. It seems like they have swapped places. Lev has become the spiritual guide, pretending to be a rabbi, while Deborah represents a sheep looking for its shepherd, symbolised by her loss of faith in God.

            When Lev and Deborah, who had returned from her stay with Rachel, are discussing the funeral service, Lev tells her that  because his audience thought he really was a rabbi, thus taking his act for real, made it real for him as well. Wondering if therefore all rabbis are impersonators and therefore false because they always put on a show, Deborah tells Lev that [t]hats how tradition works. . . As long as you dont lose sight of the thing that inspired tradition in the first place(314). Deborah acknowledges that Lev has changed, that he has been thrown back into Jewish tradition, while she also makes him realise that he was not impersonating anyone at the funeral, but that he was being himself.

            Although Lev does not yet fully realise that he has changed, he does starts to live his life more and more as a Jew in America, instead of being a Jew living his life in America. When they decide to get married Lev is actually looking forward to the wedding, which sharply contrasts to the first time Rosen introduced Lev, running away from his wedding to Jenny in panic. Moreover, it is Levs idea to fashion a wedding canopy by tying his fathers tallis to the tallis Deborah had inherited from her grandfather, the one she always uses when shes praying in the morning. For Lev, the tallis is a token of survival and triumph. It was the only token his father had left of his grandfather, due to the fact that Henrys father had been transported and shot by the Nazis during the war. Moreover, for his father Henry, the tallis is a constant reminder about what happened to his parents during the holocaust. For years Henry had not been able to look at the tallis because  the story it told “[w]as a bitter one (331). Henry does not want to be reminded about this period and as a result he turned his back on Judaism. Rosen beautifully symbolises the survival of Jewish tradition, because for Lev the tallis serves as a source of authenticity and return, while it marked the beginning of Henry’s disaffection with Judaism.  Clearly a renewed link to the past has been forged and Lev starts to feel that he is part of a group who has suffered but endured, and to which he feels connected.

Although Lev used to belong to the group to whom, as Shapiro argues, “[b]eing Jewish has little to do with practising Judaism,”(20), he has evolved from being a secular scientist into a conscious and spiritual Jew reconnected with his own Jewishness. Before he met Deborah, he did not observe any religious laws, and he was actually planning to marry Jenny, a non-Jewish girl, which would likely have caused Levs total assimilation into America society and abandonment of any form of Jewishness, and Jewish identity.

            However, as Whitfield points out , “[o]nly religion can form the inspirational core of a viable and meaningful Jewish culture. Its fate depends upon faith”(224). Lev has succeeded in becoming part of the Jewish tradition, and therefore of Jewish culture, due to his renewed spiritual connection to God and Judaism. This is symbolised through the feeling he experiences when he’s observing some rituals such as the Sabbath and regular prayers. Lev focuses less and less on the meaning of the rituals, but more on the feeling evoked in himself through performing rituals or reciting prayers, and, as a result, has been able to invest his life with content and meaning. Lev’s return really draws to a close when he wakes up on the morning of his wedding reciting the prayer modeh ani. As he utters these words he really feels the “[l]ion like resolve to serve his creator” that the prayer speaks of  (370). For the first time after the debacle with Jenny, Lev feels happy and proud, and heroic because he has “[e]arned a new life for himself that he could not have imagined”(370). Lev is really grateful for the fact that he no longer swells upon the shivering panic and shame that made him ill for months after his busted engagement, and above all else he thanks God for giving him back his soul.





            I have tried to show in my discussion of Joy Comes in the Morning that Lev Friedman’s t’shuvah consists of Lev trying to make more space in his modern life for God and Judaism. He used to be a scientist who was skeptical of religion, and after having run away from his own wedding, started doubting everything he knew, did, or felt. However, when he meets Deborah, a beautiful woman rabbi, he realises that he is not only missing someone to share his life with in the literal sense, but also someone which will guide him “[t]rough his shadow of death”. Because modern-day America concerns the choices that modern life permits, instead of the ascription that ancestry determines, Lev had been permitted to be Jewish while he simultaneously was not actively working “within the tradition”. This paradox is what sent Lev searching for a guide. Eventually he finds Deborah, and slowly he starts to work his way “back into the tradition”, climaxing with a wedding to a woman rabbi and an uttered prayer in which Lev thanks God for giving him back his soul.

Clearly, Rosen has been able to add a different element to the experience of t’shuvah. In The Outside World the main focus was on a strict adherence to Ortho-praxis and rabbinic law.  These seemed to be the only elements needed to accommodate Baruch’s t’shuvah. Although Rosen also revealed the importance of several religious laws and regulations, these rules primarily function in the novel to indicate the boundaries in which Lev should experience his t’shuvah. Lev’s t’shuvah actually does not centre around his adherence to or performance of Ortho-praxis. Lev’s return rather revolves around the fact that through Ortho-praxis he is able to evoke and arouse a spiritual and emotional state within himself, which prompts him to continue on his chosen path. As a result, Rosen has been able to make Lev’s experience of t’shuvah strikingly different and more diverse than Baruch’s experience of return in The Outside World.



3: Paradise Park




            Undoubtedly, Allegra Goodman is one of the most widely praised and highly acclaimed contemporary Jewish American novelists. Not only has her work appeared in The New Yorker, Allure, Commentary, and Slate magazine, but she has also been the recipient of a Whiting Award and the Salon magazine award for fiction. Kaaterskill Falls (1999), her first novel, was a national bestseller and a National Book Award finalist. She is considered by many to be an inheritor Abraham Cahan’s “look what we have become” line of fiction” (Shechner 41). Although accredited to be one of the most talented of contemporary Jewish American fiction writers, some critics question how far she can push her material before exhausting it. Having written previously on themes such as the different ways of negotiating a Jewish heritage of tradition and loss in present day America (Kaaterskill Falls), and the exploration of the difficulties and experiences of three generations of American Jews (The Family Markowitz), she addresses the theme of t’shuvah in her latest novel Paradise Park (2002). 

            Previously, I have shown that in The Outside World Bryan Miller eventually became an ultra-Orthodox Jew, while in Joy Comes in the Morning Lev Friedman finally managed to re-explore his religion spiritually by starting to organise his life more around Hashem (God), and Judaism such as for instance going to shul and praying more regularly. However, in both these novels the main characters knew they were Jewish because they had been raised Jewish. In sum, Brian Miller and Lev Friedman were described as having always been part of the Jewish tradition and Jewish culture. They only needed to redefine  or re-explore what that means to them. What makes Paradise Park different is that Sharon Spiegelman, the novel’s protagonist, actually does not know who or what she is, which allows her t’shuvah to be different and more diverse than either Bryan or Lev’s return was. In accordance with Silberstein’s claim that identity no longer refers to “a fixed condition” or a “defining body of traits or characteristics” but nowadays is considered to be “[a] process of becoming,” Sharon experiences, and encounters several cultures and religions before she makes amends with Judaism and re-explores her Jewish roots and identity (3). I will argue that Goodman manages to add different elements to Sharon’s experience of return by creating an outsider position as the starting point for Sharon’s first explorations of religion and divinity, after which she allows Sharon to travel back and re-embrace the particularism her grandparents were so familiar with when they reached American shores. I will illustrate this by revealing how this social position, created within a contemporary multicultural setting, affects and diversifies Sharon’s t’shuvah with regard to the fact that her outsider status combined with her nominally Jewish upbringing initially allows her to search for meaning, spirituality and religion outside the Jewish tradition and faith before Goodman finally pushes her back towards Judaism.   

           Secondly, I will argue that during the process of discovering who she is and where she belongs, Sharon merges liberal American ideas into her understanding of her Jewish identity, which diversifies her t‘shuvah as well, especially during the final stages of her return. To conclude this section, I will discuss why Paradise Park is an excellent example of a multicultural text emphasising the diversity within the Jewish American experience, and why this particular work of fiction and its themes cannot be ignored in the present multicultural literary debate.



The Outsider’s Search for Identity and Belonging


When Goodman responds to a question put forth by interviewer Peter Kramer concerning a possible parallel between the main character in Kaaterskill Falls, Elizabeth Shulman, and Paradise Park’s Sharon Spiegelman, she states that: “You look at Elizabeth in “Kaaterskill Falls”- she is making a life for herself in a confined space, using her imagination; and then you look at Sharon who has the opposite set of problems, has seemingly every choice- except nobody cares what she is doing, she is cut off” (“Ticket to Paradise” 3). Clearly, a sense of alienation and loneliness is evoked by this statement, and this feeling of being insignificant already rooted itself in Sharon during her upbringing because she actually had a very difficult childhood. When she was only a little girl her father left and remarried; at eleven, her only sibling, a beloved older brother called Andrew, perished in a car accident. When she was thirteen, her alcoholic mother abandoned her giving her no explanation. Then Sharon went to live with her stepmother and father, who lectured her on how hard she has made his life. At Boston University, she fell into drug-dealing to make ends meet after her father, a Berkeley University dean, refused to provide her with enough financial support, and when she is caught he works assiduously to ensure her expulsion.

Thus being a twenty-year-old Boston University dropout, Sharon decides to go west with her folk-dancing partner Gary, and via Oregon and Berkeley they reach Honolulu, Hawaii. Soon, however, she finds herself abandoned and alone while she wakes in a hotel in Waikiki. Flooded in light, she feels the loneliness of being an “[i]nsignificant particle against the enormity of God” (1). With Gary gone, Sharon sits in a hotel room surrounded by her few worldly possessions and wonders “[w]hy all his harebrained schemes are so important? I mean, what about my journey, and my odyssey?” (17). And with that, she cuts her losses, sells her return ticket to Boston and takes off to mend her wrecked spiritual compass. This is the baggage Sharon brings to Hawaii. She has been an outsider all her life, and even within her own family she is the black sheep. Furthermore,  Sharon comes from a background of  “staunch secularism” and her family is only “nominally Jewish” (48). Sharon says that her family even “[d]id Halloween and trick -or-treating, and then Thanksgiving . . . then Christmas- but not as religious festival or anything, just presents and a tree . . .”(49). Although born Jewish, the only link she still has to Judaism and her sense of Jewishness are the nights when she teaches Israeli folkdances. Evidently, Sharon is unaffiliated and on her own.

Sharon occupies the position of “the outsider” throughout the novel, which supports Aarons’ claim that “[i]n the literature of American Jews there arises a conspicuous shift from community  to the isolated individual, from a communal sense of shared identity, shared past . . . to a disconcerting sense of isolation and fragmentation”(23). Clearly, Sharon is the literary embodiment of this shift from community to isolation. In addition, Allegra Goodman has cleverly taken this outsider theme as the starting point for writing this novel, and creatively adapted it to incorporate the effects multiculturalism has had on American society. In stark contrast to the immigrant generation, who were forced into the “outsider” status for having too much cultural baggage with them, and therefore, as Hedges argues, “[c]onstantly needed to consider the nature of their inclusion or exclusion,” Sharon’s outsider position is actually created because she has no cultural baggage with her at all (825). As American society has been opening up to multiculturalism since the beginning of the 1960’s, group membership, tradition or religion provide individuals with a sense of security and belonging while it simultaneously can give meaning to their lives. As a result, being particular or different has become one of the most important markers to base ones identity on.  However, Sharon possesses none of the necessary qualities to effortlessly merge into the multicultural Hawaiin setting Goodman created, and is therefore unaffiliated and outside the mainstream. Sharon seems to be stuck in this marginalised position because multiculturalism actually seems to reinforce her outsider status.

However, Goodman offers an escape route for her character. In her essay “Writing Jewish Fiction”, she argues that: “[I] write from the inside, taking . . . an idiom in which ritual and liturgy are a natural part of my fictional world, and not anthropological objects to be translated and constantly explained”, and that she practices a kind a fiction which is “[u]napologetic and energetically ethnic” (271-272). Socolovsky interprets this by claiming that Goodman “[s]uggests that Jewish American literature needs to become an ethnic category in order to be taken seriously” (27). Indeed, this is reflected by Sharon’s response to her outsider status. Feeling abandoned and alone, she repents for the time lost while realising that her life has had no meaning because she had been following someone else’s dreams and ambitions, namely Gary’s, instead of her own. In order to satisfy her need to belong as well as the need to give meaning to her life, while she is simultaneously trying to re-define who she is, Sharon actively and voluntarily starts to search for a suitable ethnic culture. Similarly to the immigrant generation, Sharon also has to make up her mind who she wants, or feels the need to be. To achieve a sense of “belonging” Sharon has to return to some form of particularism. Up to the point when Goodman starts to push Sharon back to Judaism to make amends with her true Jewish self, the first phase of her t’shuvah revolves around Sharon’s continuous adopting and discarding of different identities, which supports Grauer’s claim that “[m]uch of contemporary Jewish American fiction written is explicitly about the multiplicity of identity” (273).  I will illustrate this by providing several examples in which Sharon, as a result of her outsider position, is able to freely switch from one identity to another.


The first instance in which Sharon believes to have found a new sense of belonging and identity surfaces when she volunteers as an unpaid intern on a scientific migratory bird research expedition to the French Frigate Shoals, a group of un-habited islands. During their observation of the birds, Sharon increasingly feels more at ease around the members of the expeditionary partly because “[i]t stopped mattering who was a professor, and who the student. . . ”(31). However, once they get back to Hawaii she becomes extremely disillusioned after not receiving the expected co-author credit on the article the professors will publish about the birds. The real reason for her disappointment is not because she will not be mentioned as a contributing author on the final article, but because she is not acknowledged as a group member. Sharon actually believed that she had found a  community, within the world of academia, of which she could be a part, a player of the team. Because you need to be “affiliated”, Sharon condemns academia, packs her bags and runs off to search for her truth somewhere else.         

A second example of how Sharon’s t’shuvah is affected due to her outsider status is Goodman’s description of events when she hooks up with her second boyfriend in the novel, Kekui, a native Hawaiian. Moreover, in this part of the novel Goodman actually demonstrates that although multiculturalism succeeded to “mainstream” ethnic cultures, it has simultaneously victimised those who seem to be lacking ethnicity.

When Sharon starts to work at a restaurant she meets Kekui, and a close friendship develops between them. The more time Sharon spends with Kekui and his acquaintances, the more she starts to relate to the way Kekui and his “native” friends perceive Hawaii and Waikiki. She begins to acknowledge that there is a large difference in how they, as Hawaiians, and the tourist masses perceive Hawaii. This becomes especially clear when Sharon starts to speak in a pidgin tone, condemning and criticising  all those tourists who are treating and viewing Hawaii as if it is “[s]ome kind of amusement park”, or “[j]ust another Disneyland”(48).

            At this point in the narrative, Goodman, creates an atmosphere in which Sharon starts to develop a sense of belonging, of sharing the same particulars as Kekui and his friends, who are “true” Hawaiian’s. For a brief moment it seems like Sharon’s odyssey has ended already. However, Sharon is soon forced to accept that she will never be fully taken in by Kekui and his family because she is distinctly different than Kekui, religiously as well as racially. When Kekui gets severely injured after trying to beat off three thugs who were harassing Sharon, his family responds furiously. The family blames Sharon for the incident because if she had not shown her haole (white) face and “[p]rovoked those people” none of it would have happened. Furthermore, being religious and devoted to his family are core values to Kekui while Sharon considers those values to be something from “the old days”(50). Due to her secular upbringing and ignorance when religion is concerned, Sharon is not particularly welcomed by Kekui’s family. They actually try to make Kekui believe that being together with a haole girl was going to get him beat up over and over again, and “[h]aving a girlfriend who wasn’t Christian was going against his faith, not to mention she was wild and setting him a bad example”(56). Eventually, Mrs. Eldridge (Kekui’s mother)  excommunicates Sharon telling her that she must “[g]o back to where [she] started- California, England, Holland, whatever nationality [she] was”, because she (Sharon) “[d]on’t need to come invading my family” (66).

            Sharon is expelled from Kekui’s family because she does not possess any of the particulars, such as religious conviction, needed to meld into Kekui’s family successfully. However, Sharon is sent away because she is Jewish but because she has no religious affiliations at all. In addition, Sharon is also white, which is also used as an argument to illustrate why she is unfit for Kekui. She is simply not “ethnic” enough to belong to Kekui’s family. By highlighting this apparent reverse racialisation and discrimination experienced by Sharon, Goodman clearly demonstrates the dark side of multiculturalism.

Although severely disillusioned because she is unable to penetrate the scientific world, while also having been tried and found unfit to adopt the particularities in order to pass as a native Hawaiian, Sharon has at least had the opportunity to experience those cultures. Interestingly, due to Sharon’s social position she always penetrated these particular cultures as an ignorant outsider. It is this sense of alienation and marginalisation which Goodman exploited to diversify Sharon’s initial steps in her t’shuvah. A third example which highlights the diversity present within Sharon’s initial phases of t’shuvah actually revolves around religion. Although Sharon is destined to re-discover her Jewish roots, Goodman, first allows her to explore and eventually discard other world religions such as Evangelism and Buddhism. The importance behind her exploration of these new religions lies hidden in the fact that Sharon enters these new cultures as a religiously ignorant outsider, which is due to her secular upbringing. Goodman actually uses Sharon’s secular upbringing to let her character experience different religions and cultures while searching for faith and divinity. This becomes especially clear when one is reminded of the fact that during the entire process of their t’shuvah  Lev and Bryan were already part of Jewish tradition and religion. They do not have the opportunity to expand their horizon by experiencing other religions because they are, and have always been, steeped in Judaism. They only need to get reconnected with their Jewishness and faith. Sharon, on the other hand, has never been actively part of the Jewish tradition nor Judaism, or any other religion for that matter. She comes from a background of  “staunch secularism” and her family is only “nominally Jewish” (48). As a result, Goodman is able to let Sharon experience multiple religions before Judaism takes its hold over her.

            When Sharon is on a trip on a whale-watching boat she sees a whale “sliding open” the ocean in which she sees “something”, which she interprets as being “[a] vision of God”. After this divine experience she vigorously decides to go and look for divinity or some God in “[e]very single place there is” (82). This is actually the first time Sharon actively decides to go and find divinity and enlightenment. However, Goodman still leaves all (religious) options open for Sharon, meaning that she still is able to try out other religions besides Judaism. Following her own conviction she encounters the Lius, adherents of an Evangelist church, due to a job she gets working at their jeweler shop. One of the main reasons for Sharon to take that job was because the Lius are very religious. “When I was looking for divinity,” Sharon says, “this highly spiritual couple was looking for a salesperson” (84). Sharon starts to explore to Lius’ evangelical religion and even starts to attend their church meetings on a regular basis. Admitting upfront that she is skeptical about the concept of faith, the Lius’ still welcome Sharon with open arms, displaying no prejudice against her. Sharon, on the other hand, is also open for any kind of religious experience because she is determined “[t]o look for God everywhere,” and her perception of religion has not been influenced by  concepts or beliefs resulting from her upbringing, or personal experience. Because Sharon is ignorant when religion is concerned she is “[t]rying hard- not so much to understand, but to believe”(85). When she is listening to the ''Scotch-Irish-Hawaiian-Japanese-Portuguese'' Pastor McLaren at the Greater Love Salvation Church (the Lius’ church) during a special service “[f]or people who were not yet saved,” Sharon has another moving spiritual experience (94). During the service Sharon feels like she actually understands and believes the message Pastor McClaren tries to bring across to her. Consequently, she leaves the church that night feeling that she “[h]ad been reborn” (98).

            Unfortunately, when Sharon wakes up the following morning she realises that her spiritual rebirth from the previous night is already starting to wear off. Desperately trying to recapture this ecstatic feeling of rebirth and divinity, Sharon turns to drugs for refuge and hope, as she decides to start “dropping acid”(105).  Soon she finds out that she has not been saved at by the Lius’ Church, because “[a] saved person would never feel . . . closer to her God on acid”(108). Concluding that Christianity has not been able to save her spiritually, nor provide her with that sense of community and belonging she is looking for, Sharon decides to find God in some other place. “Plenty of other options were still out there,” Sharon says, “If one didn’t work, I’d switch. Visions, Bible study, hallucinatory trips” (108).

            Evidently, Sharon’s outsider status enables her to move to the next best religion or culture she encounters in her search for truth, belonging and meaning. She can freely move between several identities, discarding one if it does not work for her, while picking up another while passionately hoping to find salvation. Goodman further illustrates this when Sharon tries out and rejects Buddhism, followed by a course on world religions at the University of Hawaii. None of these courses or religions provide Sharon with answers to her questions or her search for a sense of community. This is actually Sharon’s major problem. Although her outsider status provides her with the unique ability to explore different cultures and religions none of them ever fully take hold of her. Goodman hints at this when she states in an interview with Alden Mudge that "[y]ou can have a transformative experience, but you still have the same problems. You wake up the next morning and you're still the same person"(Mudge 2). 

            Clearly, because Goodman has taken the outsider position as her starting point for both Paradise Park and Sharon’s t‘shuvah, she has been able to add diverse elements to Sharon’s experience of return, including a voyage of discovery  through several religions and cultures. However, religious and cultural diversity are not the only concepts Goodman used in order to diversify Sharon’s t’shuvah. Some very American ideals also play a role in her return.  I will illustrate this by analysing the process Sharon’s goes through when Goodman finally sends her back to discover her Jewish self, during which she has to determine which kind of Judaism best suits her.



2: Personalism and Freedom of Choice


            Naomi Wolf argues in her biographical account  that due to some difficult choices she had to make concerning her spiritual life, she eventually realised that “[t]here was no right way to spiritual truth, that there was no one true religion, that many paths could lead to the Divine”(99). Clearly, Sharon’s search for truth and spiritual bliss perfectly fits this description as well because she has already tried several religions, but still is searching for her sense of divinity. Interestingly, I will argue that her decisions to drop and adopt several identities and (sub)cultures are inspired by a continuous unconscious process to merge, and lock into place typical American concepts and values within her rapidly changing identity. Sylvia Fishman calls this “coalescence”, explaining that this is a “[p]ervasive process through which American Jews merge American and Jewish ideas, incorporating American liberal values such as free choice, universalism, individualism, and pluralism into their understanding of Jewish identity”(1). Goodman comments that “[I] think of Sharon as a very American character as well. She is one of these people in pursuit of happiness, in mad pursuit” (Weich 3). Indeed, Sharon expects that the answers to her questions come easily without her having to make too much of an effort to retrieve them. Sharon’s desire for instant gratification, or as she puts it “to get rich quick, spiritually speaking,” is very American. It resonates the American image of “a quick fix”. Today, millions of Americans, as well as thousands of new immigrants, are still heavily drawn to this American ideal, and many among them crave  “to strike it rich” in an instant, only to run off and try something else when they do not find the richness they have been looking for, just like Sharon does.  For example, the continuing American fascination with gambling and Las Vegas fits the notion of getting rich easily and swiftly. Sharon, however, is trying to get spiritually rich instead of financially.

So in this sense, Sharon merges this typically American concept into her understanding and longing for spirituality. Moreover, when Goodman finally starts to push her character back to re-explore her Jewishness and Jewish identity, other American ideals, namely personalism and free choice also strongly influence Sharon’s eventual chosen form of practising Judaism, illustrating that thorough assimilation and a return to religion is actually possible.

            According to Charles Liebman personalism “[i]s the tendency to transform and evaluate the tradition in terms of its utility or significance to the individual”(129). Naturally, this is not a linear process. Discarding or embracing one particular kind or stream of religion always flows forth from an interplay and interconnection between what an individual finds useful and what meaningful. I will argue that Sharon’s eventual adopted form of Judaism has been made possible after personalism and free choice, two crucial American ideals, have exerted their influence on Sharon’s t’shuvah.

            When Sharon starts to correspond with her former boyfriend Gary who, after discovering he was Jewish, moved to Jerusalem to learn and discover more about his true Jewish self, her impetuousness drives her to quit her job, pack her bags, and rush off to Israel to find her answers. Seeing Gary she wants to give him a hug but Gary jumps back to avoid her imminent embrace. Sharon does not yet realise that Gary has become Orthodox because she is still ecstatic about the fact that “[t]his is the ancient city of Jerusalem; I’m going to get some answers”(176). Despite her high hopes Sharon soon finds herself attending minicourses on Judaic law and history, arranged by Gary, and staying in the woman’s wing of the institute because the men and woman have to be separated. To find her answers, Sharon has to become Orthodox and this proves extremely difficult for a woman who cannot maintain her discipline much longer than she can hold her tongue. After a week of strict observance, praying and studying, she soon starts complaining about the classes, its purposes, and their meanings. She is slowly growing impatient again because she has not found the answers to her questions yet. She still is longing for the all-American “quick fix”. Gary keeps telling her that she should be more patient learning the details of Jewish religion, because, essentially, “[G]od, or rather, Hashem, was in the details”(181).

            So Sharon decides to give it one more try, but when her teacher, a big, fat, and strongly German accented speaking woman whom she calls a Nazi, introduces the laws of separation by dividing “[t]he air with one karate chop” while calling out the words Milch and Fleisch, Sharon really feels bereft of the possibility of finding the truth within Orthodoxy. Consequently, she gives up Orthodoxy exclaiming that she “[c]ame here for the truth. I came here for the truth about the Creator, not home ec!”(185). Personalism is what causes Sharon to yet again abandon a newly chosen path. In spite of being and living in an environment steeped in tradition, Sharon is unable to identify and reconcile herself with Orthodoxy. In terms of utility, to use Liebman’s definition, she feels it is impossible for her to practise and observe those “home ec!” rules, partly because she does not know enough about the Hebrew language to pray in a normal fashion, or to attend and understand the religious classes. Furthermore, she believes that there is no meaning behind observing those rules (significance). She’s convinced that searching for truth, something she wants instantly, is not about obeying and living up to rules. She feels that Orthodoxy together with its accompanying sets of rules and topics for religious study are confining, narrowing, and restraining her from her envisioned boundless spiritual search.

            The feeling of captivity Goodman creates here resembles the same feeling the reader, through Sharon, experienced when she and Wayne, who happened to be her boyfriend at that time, visited Paradise Park, a bird zoo with walk-in aviaries. Although the birds in the aviaries are seemingly living “[i]n total harmony,” Sharon cannot stop wondering that “[i]f structure is imposed from the outside, how can be a place be a true utopia?” (75). This sense of restraint is exactly what she is experiencing while she is in Jerusalem, trying out Orthodoxy. She cannot achieve her utopia, finding God, when she is restricted by those Orthodox rules, imposed on her from the outside by some sort of rabbi teacher, and through difficult texts. What she is missing in Orthodoxy is mysticism, and spirituality. Consequently, she gives up, goes back to Hawaii, and tries the next stream of Judaism.

            Back in Hawaii, Sharon immerses herself into a different kind of Judaism, Hasidic Judaism, when she encounters Dovidl and Ruchel, two Hasids who have come to Hawaii to bring Yiddeishkeit there. Soon Sharon feels like she has found the sort of Judaism she was looking for, partly because the teachings which she encounters in the Hasidic book called Tashma were not “about cooking utensils,” but “all about spirituality and magic”(214). However, Sharon’s belief that achieving real paradise “[w]ould mean undergoing a paradigm shift in your very soul” actually starts to exert more influence on her personal life because she starts to face up to the fact that Hasidus Judaism is teaching her to become a religious Jew, and that before you can enter your Paradise you had to “[f]ollow every jot and title of the 613 commandments”(217). However, personalism and freedom of choice still have a strong hold over her because she still feels that she is too Orthodox than she comfortable with and, as a result, chooses to abandon and reject those issues which go against her nature. Thus acknowledging the need for rules to achieve her paradise, while simultaneously looking for a kind of Judaism which does not emphasise the “[h]ierarchies of  the religion with the priesthood and all that, and the separation of the people of  Israel form other nation, like we’re better, and the separation of the men from the woman, like they’re better,” she leaves to join the Bialystoker community in Crown Heights, Brooklyn (218).

For a short while it seems like Sharon has found everything she wanted and needs from Judaism in the Bialystoker community. She even seems to transform because when she is listening to her rabbi explaining why the “old days were better”  she realizes that “[s]he wanted to be a Jew. Not just a Jew in name but a Jew in deed”(241). After meeting Mikhail, whom she decides to marry, despite her fears that “[m]arrying would be the ultimate commitment to Bialystok Hasidism!”(273) her odyssey seems to have ended. However, when their rabbi finds out that Mikhail’s mother converted from Christianity to Judaism he wants to find out if she had a proper conversion because if she had not, she was not Jewish, and therefore Mikhail could not be Jewish as well. In order for them to stay full members of the Bialystoker community Mikhail would have to convert, which meant that they had to postpone their wedding for more then 6 months. So Sharon and Mikhail contemplate their options, and choose to leave the community and find something else for themselves. Once again, rules and technicalities have victimised and restrained Sharon from achieving her personal paradise.

            Through her employer Sharon and Mikhail come into contact with the Havurah movement, a kind of Judaism which emphasises modernity, focuses on spiritual experiences, and is open to new materials and modern texts. Furthermore, when Sharon and Mikhail are attending one of the Shabbat services, Telemachus (Sharon’s boss), actually pulls out guitar and starts playing while he is singing religious songs. This surprises them because having been former Hasids, any kind of musical instrument to be used in service was absolutely “verboten” (318). When they are all singing songs and humming nigguns (religious hymn) Sharon is finally at ease, feeling “[s]omething [she] hadn’t felt in a long time . . . [She] could feel the presence of the devine. God was in that niggun, pulsing through the room”(319).

            Although confessing to Gary, whom she meets at an “oldies dance night” that she is still not crazy about the “discussions at our Havurah” because “[a]nybody can talk as long as she wants about whatever issues happen to occur to her,” she finally managed to settle down and stopped looking for God. However, her spiritual hunger has not yet abated. Instead of rushing out into the world, desperately searching for truth, she has vowed to be “[o]pen to God in al the ways he might come- visions, dreams, prophesies, music- in all his myriad forms”(358). Actually, what she has discovered is that the Song of Songs (the ancient song about the soul’s search for God and love) in the long run ended with her because God and love were hiding inside herself all along, waiting to come out until Sharon was ready and able to discover, retrieve and embrace the person she had born to be; a Jew in mind and soul.





            Clearly, Paradise Park is an excellent example of a text portraying the diversity within the Jewish American experience. During her religious odyssey back to Judaism, Sharon has experienced the world of science, Christian fundamentalism, Buddhism, Orthodox Judaism, Bialystoker Judaism, and finally the mysticism and spiritualism of the Havurah movement. Goodman has achieved such diversity within her interpretation of the theme of  t’shuvah  by taking the outsider position as her starting point, after which she allowed Sharon to travel back and embrace the particularism her grandparents were so familiar with when they reached American shores. Through this entire process, Goodman also highlights the fact that Sharon is and has always been first and foremost American which was illustrated by how crucial American ideals such as personalism and free choice influenced Sharon’s choice of the kind of Judaism she eventually feels most comfortable with. Clearly, Allegra Goodman’s interpretation of the theme of t’shuvah translates itself into a diverse and creative piece of fiction, including many multiculturalist facets, and therefore deserves to be read and treated for what it is: an ethnic text highlighting the diversity present within the Jewish American experience of t‘shuvah.





Works of fiction are always products of the time in which they are written. As a result  topics concerning social, political, economic, and cultural transformations are usually, although perhaps opinionated, accurately represented in the literature written about the period in which these changes took place. As I have pointed out, many Jewish writers who were active during the first three decades of the twentieth century, represented and reflected upon the particular social and cultural changes to which their contemporaries were subject to. Consequently, the themes of assimilation, achieving the American Dream, and the outsider experience combined with the struggle to move from the periphery to the centre were explored and dealt with by the great Jewish immigrant writers such as Abraham Cahan and Anzia Yezierska.

            As I have shown, multiculturalism has meant somewhat of a crisis for American Jews because identification and integration with the majority stood at odds with the Jews’ equal desire to preserve their identity as a minority. What followed was that the American Jew started searching for a redefinition of the self, and therefore began to explore his roots, which among other forms, took the shape of t’shuvah, a revived interest in, and return to religion and tradition. This phenomenon is represented in the recent fiction written by the authors I have discussed.

            Interestingly however, Tova Mirvis, Jonathan Rosen, and Allegra Goodman have represented and dramatised this t’shuvah differently in their works. In The Outside World, Tova Mirvis portrays a virulent re-definiton of identity in Baruch’s return to ultra-Orthodoxy and  particularism. Although Baruch was raised as a Modern Orthodox Jew, he still finds fault with his parents’ middle-of-the-road way of living. I have illustrated the different phases Baruch went through to achieve his desired change in identity. When he voluntarily embraces ultra-Orthodoxy, with its strict adherence to the laws and rules stated in the Torah, and its emphasis on authenticity and tradition, Baruch’s t’shuvah mirrors a return to particularism and ethnicity. What also became clear is that by obeying each and every rule stated in the Torah, Baruch believes he is experiencing to be an Orthodox Jew. Clearly Baruch needs rules and directives to provide him with a connectedness to God and his Jewishness. Furthermore, I have revealed that Baruch actually was looking for uniformity and coherence, two elements which he thought he had found during his two-and-a-half year stay in Israel. Although he initially believes that he can keep his absolutist views alive when he returns home from Israel, in the end Baruch is forced to water down his beliefs in order to live up to one of the most well-known cultural markers of American society, namely self-reliance. Finally, it also became clear that in The Outside World, Baruch’s t’shuvah actually created a generational gap between himself and his father, Joel. Because this dimension is lacking in the other two novels, Mirvis’s interpretation and dramatisation of t’shuvah actually has bigger and more far-reaching consequences for her characters.

In stark contrast,  Lev Friedman, the protagonist in Jonathan Rosen’s Joy Comes in the Morning, returns to Judaism not so much by upholding and carrying out the rules and commandments stated in the Torah, but by slowly realising that without Hashem (God), without Judaism, he is naked, alone, and unaffiliated. Because he was born as a Jew he needs to find a way to reconnect to the only faith he has ever known, namely Judaism. Drawn by an irresistible combination of the ordinary and the divine, embodied by Deborah, Lev experiences his t’shuvah first and foremost through a renewed spiritual and emotional connectedness to God. Because his t’shuvah occurs from within the framework created and allowed by Reform Judaism, less value is ascribed in this novel to the notion of authenticity, rules and tradition. Unlike Baruch, Lev needs some of the rules and traditions to evoke a state of consciousness in which he opens up to spirituality and the notion of divinity. Lev uses the rules and tradition to re-connect himself to Judaism and to his Jewishness. For instance, by uttering a small prayer Lev feels “[a] sort of redefinition going on inside himself, an incorporation of God into his actual daily life”(170).  Baruch, however, needs rules and traditions because they prescribe what he has to do in order to be and live like a good Jew. Although raised Jewish, Lev somehow forgot what it was like to work and live actively within the Jewish tradition. He slowly is able to reconnect himself to the person he used to be, and as a result Joy Comes in the Morning ends with Lev being able to free more space in his life to practise Judaism, while he simultaneously manages to centre his life more around his understanding of spirituality and the presence of God.

            Clearly, Tova Mirvis and Jonathan Rosen have represented the t’shuvah phenomenon in strikingly different ways. While Mirvis writes from the perspective of Orthodoxy, Rosen beholds Judaism, Jewish culture, and therefore Lev’s t’shuvah from the less stringent perspective of Reform Judaism. Furthermore, Rosen focuses more on the spiritual element present in Lev’s experience of t’shuvah, which is actually of less importance in The Outside World. Because of this the t’shuvah of both characters differs a great deal as well. However, in both novels, the characters who experience t’shuvah are already, or have once been, members or part of Jewish life and culture. In stark contrast to both of these approaches Allegra Goodman allows her character, Sharon Spiegelman, to depart on her religious quest from a totally secular upbringing. In addition, she ascribes to Sharon the social construct of being the “outsider”. By taking this outsider position as her starting point for the narrative Goodman manages let her character explore several other cultures and religions besides Judaism. Moreover, she even allows Sharon to choose her kind of Judaism by skilfully describing and merging the liberal American ideals of personalism and free choice within her character’s understanding of t’shuvah to show that thorough assimilation and a return to particularism are able to go hand in hand. Sharon experiences a return to Judaism after having been, or having explored what it feels like to be an environmental scientist, a fundamentalist Christian, and a Buddhist. Especially during the final stages of her return Goodman is able to diversify Sharon’s t’shuvah by letting her experience  ultra-Orthodox Judaism, Jewish mysticism, and the Jewish Havurah movement of which Sharon finally decides to become a member of. Although Paradise Park is permeated with religious and cultural diversity, Goodman also manages to incorporate and intertwine several American cultural icons, such as personalism and free choice, into her understanding and dramatisation of the return to religion.

            Undoubtedly, by deploying the t’shuvah phenomenon in their works of fiction, these three Jewish American authors have demonstrated that within a small subset of the ongoing contemporary process of the Jewish American rediscovery and redefinition of roots and identity (t‘shuvah), diversity is firmly intertwined within this experience. Each author has managed to approach the theme of t’shuvah from a different angle. Tova Mirvis has approached the return to religion from the perspective of Orthodoxy, which causes Baruch to experience a return to ultra-Orthodoxy. Jonathan Rosen has chosen to address the theme of t’shuvah from the perspective of Reform Judaism, while Allegra Goodman even manages to use and include secularism, the theme of alienation, various religions and cultures, as well as typical American ideals as building blocks for her representation and dramatisation of the t’shuvah phenomenon. If multiculturalism really celebrates diversity and embraces ethnicity, contemporary multiculturalists have no other choice but to acknowledge that the Jewish American experience, even if it is only confined or restricted to the theme of t’shuvah, emphasises diversity within its own religion while celebrating a return to particularism. Consequently, by analysing the different ways in which three contemporary Jewish American authors have responded and interpreted the theme of t’shuvah in their work, this thesis provides a hopeful for acknowledging that the Jewish American experience, and Jewish American literature, must be included in the present multicultural debate.



Works Cited


home list theses contence previous next