The Book of Faith by Elaine Kalman Naves
395 pages, Linda Leith Publishing $19.95
Elaine Kalman Naves’ novel is an exposition of a certain Jewish community, the Reconstructionists, a branch of Judaism that takes a less traveled path to Judaism.
Readers who know little about its history will learn a lot about why it is an option for Jews uncomfortable with other branches of Judaism.
These West End, liberal and all-too-human characters seek to pass on their values to future generations by replacing their outmoded structure with an improved synagogue.
The building fund is the central point of the novel. The setting is 2000, just before the Reconstructionist congregation of Montreal, Dorshei Emet, began fundraising to construct a larger, more multi-faceted structure on their existing site on Cleve Rd. in Hampstead.
The novel is also about sisterhood, not the typical synagogue sisterhood, but a progressive model of three women wanting to enrich their lives through friendship, creativity, and leadership. Faith, Erica and Rhoda — all over 50 — introduce us to the inner workings of the shul.
Erica mirrors the author’s childhood in Hungary and her literary and journalistic career. Erica’s parents converted their children to Catholicism in an effort to hide them from the Nazis.
Recently divorced, she is reticent to move on, although two prospects are hot on her trail.
Add to the mix a Holocaust survivor, Melly Darwin, who is a quirky guy you love to hate. He will contribute to the building fund only if Erica writes the story of his life, provoking Erica to question her background. Melly is a comic figure who speaks in a Yiddish singsong, which works well when he describes “Mine daughter … And mine business,” but less well when he tells Erica about “Mine mother who was murdered in the Holocaust.” Melly participates in the Reconstructionist synagogue and the more Orthodox one next door, changing his allegiance for less-than-ethical reasons.
Readers may connect to the middle-aged angst of divorce and finding oneself, and a partner, again. Each of the main characters, including Marty, the shul treasurer, is on a quest to “reconstruct” their lives, to find fulfillment within the Hampstead/Côte St. Luc community.
Jewish Montrealers will recognize the quirky qualities of their rabbis and fellow congregants.
Kalman Naves pokes fun at Jews in her community: the women who gossip during the service or the outspoken regulars at the Shabbat service, such as the vegan who finds Adam’s domination over the animals in Genesis to be a blot on Judaism.
There is an overabundance of Westmount shopping and dining references — Sox Box, Second Cup, La Cache, Tony’s Shoes — and Monkland boutiques. Les Trois Grâces are bent on sharing their deepest, darkest secrets during their Saturday (Shabbat) shopping expeditions.
Now for the flaws: It’s hard to share in the grief of those who are left behind in the narrative when we have not sufficiently bonded with the character they are grieving for.
The characters are too close to identifiable Montrealers and the plot is clearly based on real events. In one case a real-life tragic event is exploited. There are references to organizations with their names changed (Dans La Rue becomes Dans La Ruelle) without it deepening the plot.
There are too many Hebrew and Yiddish references. How many readers will know the meanings of Siddur, bimah, Tanach, D’var Torah, and Gut guzukt? A glossary certainly would have helped those not familiar with the inner workings of a synagogue or Yiddish and Hebrew.
Who then is the intended reader? She’s got to be a Montrealer. How else will she recognize the many references to shopping in Westmount? And she’s got to be Jewish. How will she recognize the many Hebrew and Yiddish phrases? And she has to be far enough removed from the Reconstructionists so as not to confuse real life with fiction and not to take offence at the ways in which her friends and associates are depicted in this “fictional” novel.
Is this Mordechai Richler redefined from the perspective of today’s West End Jew as Joel Yanofsky suggests on the cover? I say no. Richler’s characters are more complex and developed, more universal, and appeal to readers far beyond St. Urbain St., Montreal, or even Canada.
Having said that, The Book of Faith will resonate with Montreal Jews of a certain age and a certain outlook.