Book Discussion: A Seat at the Table

by Peter Shapiro
Read the review of this book in RJ magazine
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A Seat at the Table
by Joshua Halberstam

“A Seat at the Table” is a metaphor for the Chassidic adage that no matter what one has done to stray from the teachings of Torah he or she will not be abandoned by their family. This is similar to the sentiment expressed in Robert Frost’s poem, “Death of the Hired Man“: “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.” Mr. Zeitchik, a minor character, sets the tone when he says “… a story is never just a story”. The author, Joshua Halberstam, used that statement as a lead-in to employ the literary device, “a story within a story”. That is where the inner story often has symbolic and psychological significance for the characters in the outer story.

The outer story is about Elisha, a twenty year old Chassid, and his foray into the secular world and how his decisions affect his father, the revered rabbi of the community. These are the tensions all Jews face, but more so the Orthodox, between love, lust and self on one hand and faith, tradition and family on the other. The outer story is a window into Chassidic society; the inner stories, told in true Chassidic fashion, are a window into their souls, hearts and minds.

It is easy for the reader to identify with the characters and empathize with their conflicts and share in their joys. One side of the outer story can be expressed by the old adage, “parents need to give their children roots and wings”.  It is consistent with the Talmudic injunction that a father has four primary obligations when raising a son: (1) Teach him Torah; (2) Bring him to the chuppa; (3) provide him with an ability to support a family; and (4) teach him to swim.

It always seemed strange to me that a father is obligated to teach swimming to those who live in the dessert. Perhaps the ability to swim is a metaphor for being able to navigate the ebb and flow of the swift tides of modern culture that draw us away from our sacred traditions.

The author raises a unique and significant issue, as we shall see. The protagonist, Elisha, is schooled in Torah, enjoys the study of Talmud, is deeply devoted to his family, and loves and reveres his father. He is inquisitive and has a thirst for secular music, art and literature. Elisha is comfortable living in the two worlds. Elisha’s father and mother are descended from a long line of prominent Chassidic Rebbes. Elisha’s father recently succeeded his father as the leader of the community, a position which some day will be Elisha’s.

This is not a story about a young man who abandons his Judaism or spurns his family, nor is it about the difficulty of living in both the religious and secular worlds. Elisha has done none of the above and has no substantial problems living in two worlds. Halberstam wants the reader to confront the issue of what a father does when his son, who has been educated to make informed choices, makes a choice which is diametrically opposed to one the father would have wanted him to make. In this story Elisha’s father taught him to swim (i.e. navigate between the secular and religious worlds), but Elisha swam against the tide, much to his father’s consternation. This problem is one that confronts many parents at one time or another. 

I was impressed by Elisha’s father’s model of behavior, as he established specific principles that he refused to compromise. He would not sacrifice his Jewish values; he would not denigrate Elisha or his decisions; he maintained at all cost sholem bayis, peace in the house; and made it possible for Elisha, without losing face, to be active in the life the family.

It took courage when Katrina, Elisha’s girlfriend appeared unannounced at the Seder to invite her to attend, and at a later date at Katrina’s request to speak with her. He made her feel comfortable and did not blame her for Elisha’s decisions. He  clearly explained to her and at a later date to Elisha that he could never compromise his Jewish values and accept their relationship. I was deeply moved by several passages that revealed Elisha’s father’s compassion and anguish.

One of those passage can be found on pages 278-284. He relates an old Chassidic tale about Reb Mordkhe of Chernobyl who traded the family’s only valuable asset, not for food which they desperately needed, but for an esrog, so that he could properly celebrate Succos. His wife, in a fit of anger rendered the esrog unfit for use. Rather than retaliate he hugged his wife and said, “the mitzvah of peace in the home is important…but your pain matters even more to me. I’m sorry to have hurt you.” 

In another passage appearing on page 275, where the Baal Shem Tov is asked what to do about a son who has strayed from the path of Torah. His response was, “Love him more”. The reader can hear the pain in Elisha’s father’s voice when he says, “The problem is I don’t know how to love Elisha more than I do. And do you know why? It’s because I don’t think it’s possible for a father to love a son more than I love him.”

In a passage appearing at pages 292-293 we can feel the weight of the conflict drop from both Elisha and his father’s shoulders, when his father says, “We missed you at the Seder … there was a seat waiting for you at the table”. When Elisha responds, “I will be visiting often”, his father replies, “We’ll take what we can get”.  Finally, just before they hug he says in a typical fatherly fashion, “But would it kill you to get a haircut?”

The “Reading Group Guide” at the end of the book provides us with the opportunity to engage in meaningful discussions about the characters and the issues.  The issue of Katrina converting to Judaism was never raised. I would be interested in any comments if the subject of conversion had been raised by any of the main characters, Elisha, his father, Katrina or Uncle Shaya.

In a rare moment of anger, Elisha’s fathers commented on Moshe Mendelson, that I thought was extremely provocative and disturbing. Elisha’s fathers comment was, “…although observant he studied secular philosophy, helped bring about the Reform movement, thereby destroying Judaism…”

I welcome your comments on the above or any other aspects of the book so that we can continue the conversation. 

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5 Responses to “Book Discussion: A Seat at the Table”

  1. avatar

    I find it somewhat problematic to enter the discussion of a book I haven’t read, so I hope this comment will be accepted as relating more to the review than to the book.
    Like the reviewer, I am disturbed by the comment about Moshe Mendelson “destroying Judaism.” Aside from the obvious rebuttal, that the Reform movement was instrumental in preserving Judaism, and in creating a climate in which it and other streams could flourish, I am disturbed that we — the Reform movement — should give “air time” to a book with that kind of defamatory attitude.
    On the surface, the outer story of father-son conflict/closed vs. open society appears to be The Chosen retold; the new dimension, the inner story, is the refraction of the Chassidic masters. Which story is the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down? And is the device of introducing the non-Jewish girlfriend and not raising the issue of conversion a cop-out or irrelevant to the father-son tension? (Papa ain’t going to accept her, even if she converts?)
    Ought we to give a seat at our table to those who don’t want to sit with us at any table? I think not.

  2. avatar

    To paraphrase an unfortunate cliche, one of my best Jewish friends is quite observantly Orthodox. As a guest at the bar mitzvah of one of his sons, which took place near Chanukah, I heard his rabbi give a sermon on the Hellenizers and the Hasmoneans, which included the not-unexpected disparagement of Reform Judaism. My friend, who always insisted that my wife and I sit with his family at the receptions following these events, apologized profusely for his rabbi’s remark. I assured him, with sincerity, that I was not offended, and that I considered his rabbi to be nearly obligated to hold such a sentiment.
    While there need be (and should be) no personal rancor between Reform and Orthodox Jews, there is no reason to deny the basic incompatibility of Reform and Orthodox Judaisms, if each remains true to its principles. No amount of Reform regression to faux-rthodox practices will change this.

  3. avatar

    There is a perfectly good reason to deny the basic incompatibility between Reform and Orthodox Judaism — it doesn’t exist. They are two different approaches to the same Judaism, differing ideologically on the core issue of Torah as divinely revealed rather than divinely inspired but the work of humans, which practically speaking turns into a difference in the speed with which each makes changes.
    Using the metaphor of the author of the book under discussion, (some) Orthodoxy does deny Reform a seat at the table — seeing that as an impermissible validation. But to claim that Reform has destroyed Judaism, as a character in the book apparently does, is a palpable untruth, since Judaism is alive and well and living in Monsey and Boro Park, even if it does not concede that what we other Jews are living is Judaism.
    Moreover, based on the review, the book does not seem to be examining a conflict between Orthodox and Reform, but rather the conflict between living in an insular religious community and living in an open secular society. If that is in fact the case, the quoted comment is gratuitous as well as fallacious.
    Meanwhile, I would ask why such borrowing from our Christian neighbors as the use of the pipe organ was permissible, but using liturgical choreography similar to that of other Jewish streams is regressive. The implication seems to be that the recent Reform reclamation of formerly discarded practices is a futile effort to bridge an incompatibility gap — when in fact it is a successful effort to add richness and meaning to an always evolving contemporary Judaism.

  4. avatar

    Well – it seems to me that some of what the author AND the reviewers have missed is neatly encapsulated can be found in Chaim Potok’s novels “The Chosen” and “The Promise”. Potok examines the underlying tensions between Ultra Orthodoxy and Modern Orthodoxy. Potok’s conclusions are not dissimilar to Kaufman’s views and I would be interested in seeing if this is his conclusion/s as well.
    Richard Woolf (MMS Waikato University), Auckland, New Zealand.

  5. avatar

    In regard to Mr. Woolf.s question, I can only speak to The Chosen, since I don’t remember The Promise at all. And as I remember The Chosen, the differences between the MO and the UO are shown, but the tensions are between the ghetto and the outside world. The MO kid (Reuven?) breaks out by going to JTS where Torah can be studied critically, whereas Danny’s breakout is to the secular world. Danny’s father accepts Reuven as a fit friend for his son, but probably wouldn’t let him eat in Reuven’s house.
    I did a class once where we looked at four contemporary Jewish coming of age stories in four different milieus — The Chosen, What Makes Sammy Run, Duddy Kravitz — but we couldn’t find a novel with a Reform background, and went with Paul Cowan’s An Orphan in History. You could look at any of them as studies in parenting — although the least convincing parenting is that of the Rav with his son Danny. But note that all four of those books sold in the general market — I don’t see the Halberstam as emerging from its Jewish niche.

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