The One Orthodox Novel You Have to Read

Maybe there will never be a Great Orthodox Novel, and if there is, I hope I’m not the one who writes it. But if anything has ever come close, it’s probably this book: The Canvas, a fairly recent novel (2012, I think?) by Benjamin Stein — here it is on Amazon, although you can also order it from the distributor’s page. It’s way too heady and intellectually complex to ever be an ArtScroll novel, it’s not about someone wrestling with his/her faith and dropping out or becoming totally weird or evil or something, and the ending resembles something out of a Coen Brothers film way more than most of the Jewishly-observant reading public will ever be comfortable with. But, O You on the Orthodox Fringe, you know who you are, and this book will get under your skin and make itself at home in your brain and it will absolutely rule you.

But before it gets odd and postmodern, let me hit you with its first pages.

Normally we don’t open the door on Shabbos if someone buzzes our apartment. Family and friends wouldn’t ring the doorbell. We’d be expecting them, and around the appointed time, they would wait on the other side of the street, so we could see them from the window and go let them into the building.

Hashem arranged it ingeniously: during every meal and on Shabbos, we’re reminded that we live among strangers, in exile. Our Catholic neighbors don’t hang out the wash on their holy Sunday, but that would hardly stop them from writing a letter or driving their car out to the country after mass. The students who share an apartment one flight down have only a vague idea of God, I’m afraid. In German cities, he’s not really fashionable. Nowadays, people around here don’t want to hear too much about someone who makes such elaborate and restrictive demands, like keeping Shabbos.

Oh yeah. I forgot to mention: the author of this book, Mr. Stein, is freaking GERMAN. He’s just this dude who writes quirky literary novels about kabbalistic ideas, and doing it AS HE LIVES HIS EVERYDAY LIFE IN CONTEMPORARY GERMANY.

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Anyway. At the time I got this book in the mail, I’d been writing tons of reviews, mostly for a site called Jewniverse. The Holocaust fiction blends together with the Zionist autobiographical essay collections which blend together with the Yiddishist anti-religious polemics. Opening this book (to one of its beginnings — more on that in a second), starting to read the above paragraphs, getting a conversational, non-explainy, good-natured discourse on the idea of keeping Shabbos in today’s world, and on being among a ridiculously small minority (I know I’ve already marveled at Orthodox! Jews! in Germany!, but it is a marvel)…well, it blew me away. And even though the book moves from the oddities of everyday frum life into much stranger territory, it never stops being about Judaism, about its fundamental strangeness, about our relationship with Hashem, and about how the author deals with it. A few pages in, by the way, he explains how they deal with packages delivered on Saturdays — their gay next-door neighbors sign for them, of course. It’s not transgressive or unheard of or otherworldly; it’s just two minorities in a conservative city hanging out and helping out.

The book’s quirks become evident before that, though, starting with the actual reading experience. The Canvas is actually two books. You can start reading one side, a 150-page novel, eleven chapters — or you can flip it over and read another story, also 11 chapters, also 150 pages. The two tales meet, and mesh, and the ending, while more than slightly disturbing, worms its way under your skin and makes itself comfortable in your brain and demands you to love the hell out of it, and you do, you do.

But let me tell you about the story. One half is about Jan Wechsler, the publisher of a small press, who brings the wrong suitcase home from a business trip. It belongs to someone else with his name, also Jewish, also ostensibly observant, and inside it contains a book that this other Jan Wechsler wrote. Our Jan discovers some disturbing things about his own past, which might be the other Jan’s past or he might have blocked out, until he goes to Israel and investigates his own past at an ancient mikveh and a settlement yeshiva.

The other half of the book, unrelated at first, is about Amnon Zichroni, an Israeli yeshiva student whose interest in secular books causes him to get, not expelled, but sent to live with an uncle in Switzerland who’s a diamond merchant. That uncle encourages Amnon’s secular-literary interest but also teaches him about the mystical properties of diamonds, and sends him on a strange odyssey that also involves a book by Jan Wechsler, old mikvehs, and a violinmaker (also present in Jan’s section, who I forgot to mention) who may or may not have a crazily true Holocaust survival story.

I have no idea who Benjamin Stein is. I don’t know if he’s religious or not or doesn’t care about labels. [Edit: actually, according to this interview, he seems to distance himself from religious Jews. But he got the experience really, really well.) On GoodReads, he’s listed as having written a few other books, all in German — one about the Maharal, one possibly published in 1978. I kind of want to track him down, skip paying my mortgage for a month, print up a couple hundred copies of all of his other books, and then force everyone I know to buy a copy. I’m really not sure why I was so determined to write about him for my second Hevria post ever, except that earlier today I thought of an old friend who I hoped-but-doubted was still writing, emailed to see what’s up, and got a totally brand new short story in reply. It’s these kind of treasures that I don’t ever want to stop getting. And the kind of things that convince me that I’m not alone.