Recently, I interviewed the writer Nathan Englander about his novel Kaddish.com, whose protagonist is a lapsed Orthodox Jew who lapses back. Englander finds this religious back-and-forthing eminently understandable. “I don’t think I was born to be Orthodox,” he said, “but I don’t think I was born to be secular. I struggle on my nonfaith the way other people struggle on their faith.”
In Jewish American literature, struggling not to believe is unusual. From Chaim Potok to Philip Roth to Taffy Brodesser-Akner, Jewish novelists in this country have tended to depict secular or nonpracticing Jews, some of whom reject their religion completely. Chicago writer Goldie Goldbloom, who’s Hasidic and queer, takes a different approach in her quietly exceptional second novel, On Division (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), released last week. Her protagonist, Surie Eckstein, is a Hasidic Jew for whom there is no lapsing from faith. Surie loves God. What she “struggles on” are God’s rules.
Surie has lived her entire life in Hasidic Williamsburg, Brooklyn. She’s devoted to her religion and community despite the cruelty with which the latter treated her son, Lipa, who committed suicide after being outed as gay. Surie misses him fiercely and blames herself for not defending him, but tries to soldier on for the sake of her nine living children. Nine and counting, that is. Somehow, at 57, Surie is pregnant with twins.
For Surie, this development prompts neither an outpouring of faith nor a new challenge to it. Surie’s belief is unchangeable, even in the face of a maybe-miraculous pregnancy. Often, she takes her connection to God for granted. She’d make a perfect foil to Leo Finkle, the rabbinical student in Bernard Malamud’s classic story “The Magic Barrel,” who considers his life tragic because he is not “a talented religious person.” Surie’s religious talent is a given. What matters to her is religious practice.
To Leo, loving God is abstract, and thus impossible. To Surie, loving God is granular. The rules of Hasidism serve to remind her that God is present, as tangible as her unborn children. In Goldbloom’s hands, these rules double as constant moments of obedience, which, as the novel progresses, turn into tiny moments of choice.
Tiny-seeming, that is. Surie understands the importance of small decisions. When Lipa was little, she refused him the forbidden “yarmulke he craved, maroon velvet with an embroidered star.” Black yarmulkes only, she told him, terrified to permit her son a “girly yarmulke.” Now, Surie sees that refusal as the first time she withheld empathy from Lipa.
Surie is much too good at withholding. Throughout On Division, she keeps her pregnancy secret from her family. At first, she’s too shocked to tell. Once she accepts her pregnancy, the deception has grown to unmanageable proportions, aided by her prepregnancy weight. Goldbloom doesn’t shy from describing Surie’s fatness, or the cruelty it sometimes provokes, as when Surie’s adult daughter recoils at the idea that her parents still have sex, demanding, “‘And what was Tatie thinking . . . how could he . . . ? You’re so—’ ‘Old,’ Surie said, right as her daughter said, ‘Obese.'”
Goldbloom never judges Surie’s weight or libido. She writes with undisguised interest about Surie’s varicose veins and mastectomy scars. In one scene, as Surie’s granddaughter Miryam Chiena investigates her wrinkles, Surie thinks lovingly, “This child was fascinated with bodies.” So is Goldbloom—and so is Surie. She befriends her midwife and starts translating for other Yiddish-speaking patients, whose disconnection from their pregnancies convinces her to study midwifery herself. Her husband is horrified, but Surie remains resolute, telling him, “The wives of Williamsburg need a Jewish nurse.”
Surie’s decision to meet this need is Goldbloom’s biggest departure from the Jewish American literary tradition, which has tended to center on personal liberation. Potok’s Asher Lev escaped Hasidic Brooklyn for art; Roth’s Alexander Portnoy escaped Jewish Newark for sex. But lately, the American novel seems to be shifting toward treating personal liberation as a path toward social or historical freedom. Goldbloom puts Surie on this path. Rather than liberate Surie from her community, she asks Surie to liberate her community from its worst self.
Goldbloom can do this precisely because Surie follows Hasidic rules. Surie would be far less motivated to help the wives of Williamsburg if she were ambivalent about remaining one. But Surie loves her faith. She loves the rules that have made her life holy, but accepts—slowly and painfully—that they mean less because they made Lipa’s life hell.
That acceptance enables Surie to break rules judiciously. Rather than flout her disobedience, she weighs it carefully. Goldbloom is careful to remind readers that liberation doesn’t necessarily mean rule breaking, just as obedience doesn’t necessarily mean holiness. Personal freedom becomes important to Surie, but not in what her husband calls a “me, me, me” sense. Surie frees herself for the people she loves, and in that way spares herself the fate of poor Leo Finkle, who “did not love God so well as he might, because he had not loved man.” v