Book Discussion: A Seat at the Table



by Rabbi Marci Bellows
Read the review of this book in RJ magazine
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A Seat at the Table
by Joshua Halberstam
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I vividly remember learning how to read. Sometime around the age of 4 years old, I could suddenly make out the letters and words around me. I read constantly, and, as you would guess, my parents proudly encouraged me to read more and more. Most memorable is the statement that my father made as I began to feel more and more confident with my reading: “Now, there will be no secrets in the world, because you can learn everything by reading.” I felt like a large, wide, important door had been opened, and that the universe of knowledge would always be there, waiting for me to discover it word by word.

It goes without saying that we Jews are a people of reading, stories, and learning. Our Passover Seder revolves around our Haggadah, our retelling of the Exodus from Egypt. We are known as the “People of the Book.” Midrashim, creative interpretations of our biblical text, add allegory, folklore, and depth to many of more elusive or confusing tales. Yet, to some Jewish communities, there are some doors to learning that should not be opened, and there are some stories that should not be shared.

A Seat at the Table: A Novel of Forbidden Choices, by Joshua Halberstam, invites us along as one young man, Elisha, slowly turns away from his Chassidic, observant community in 1960’s Boro Park. As the oldest son, there are many expectations, both within his family and his community, and these weigh heavily upon him. Elisha, as part of a multi-generational Chassidic dynasty, is expected to complete his yeshiva studies, marry a nice, Chassidic girl, and become the next in a long line of prominent rabbis. Instead, he finds himself filled with questions, doubts, and a craving for the outside world.

Elisha makes the scandalous decision to study at City College, situated in the heart of Harlem in Manhattan. New ideas, influences, and interests begin to flood his experience. He studies subjects that go far beyond Talmud, Mishnah, and Torah. He builds friendships with classmates that lead him to diners, jazz clubs, and secular bookshops. Perhaps, most importantly, he meets Katrina, a beautiful, intriguing, inquisitive, non-Jewish student.

I found it impossible to read this novel without finding the parallels to the story of Elisha ben Abuya, a man whom the Talmud refers to as “The Other.” You may have read the stirring rendering of his story in As a Driven Leaf, by Milton Steinberg. Elisha ben Abuya, initially a revered sage who then becomes our tradition’s ultimate apostate, experiences a loss of faith, followed by complete excommunication from his community. The atrocities of Roman attacks on his homeland, coupled with a growing interest in secular studies, lead him past a point of no return – he is no longer able to be a part of his rabbinic circle, nor a part of the Sanhedrin.

Our Elisha, against the backdrop of the Holocaust and the Vietnam War, is similarly unable to retain perfect faith in God, in goodness, or in the merits of communal isolation. As he notes, “…you can’t abandon one set of stories without adopting another.” (p. 77) Though the Chassidic tales that imbued his childhood with a sense of mystery, wonder, and morality will never leave him (and which Halberstam sprinkles generously throughout the book), Elisha is equally inspired by the stories of Kafka and the music of Louis Armstrong.

As a Reform Rabbi, I find myself feeling incredibly conflicted (in the most delightful way) by this book. For whom do I root? Do I want Elisha to abandon his observant, childhood home? Or do I want his father to eventually convince him to come back, to come home, and to become the rabbi he was meant to become?

Do I want him to throw away his black hat and move to the relatively decadent world of Manhattan? Do I want him to fall in love with Katrina? Or, do I want him to stay in the beautiful, safe world of his Chassidic family, surrounded by too many relatives to count? What would really constitute a “happy ending” here?

I believe that these are the questions author Joshua Halberstam wants us to ask. We have to wrestle with our own limits – both for ourselves and for our children – and we have to figure out where we would draw the line. I am reminded of Fiddler on the Roof, as each daughter challenges Tevye’s assumptions and his limits – how far can he wander from his traditions before it becomes too far? Would we force out our children for making choices of which we do not approve? Or do we remind them that, no matter what, there will always be a seat at the table for them?

We must all ask ourselves these questions: where are your limits? Where is your line? I look forward to hearing your answers!

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