A Single Life Review: Finding Other, Finding Self
“Makpid al kala k’chumra. Ha b’lo ha lo sagi. Shaagas Aryeh, Reb Boruch Ber. Rashi, Tosafos, Maharsha.” These are just a few of the Talmudic names and phrases that appear in Daniel Ross Goodman’s “A Single Life,” the KTAV-published debut novel from the YU and JTS alumnus. There are quite a few of these expressions; in fact, the above terms are found on just one page of the first chapter (!) along with another half-dozen Yiddishisms and bits of yeshiva slang, italicized and meticulously footnoted in case the reader needs a little extra help.
This makes sense: “A Single Life” tells the story of Eli Newman, Talmud scholar extraordinaire and biracial Jew, who, after eight years of shidduchim, shadchanim and trying to find his bashert, just can’t seem to make it past the second date. Through close, third-person narration, we’re privy to Eli’s thoughts, generally presented in Mishnaic Hebrew and Babylonian Aramaic, as he navigates what he sees as a deeply cold and inhospitable world.
While studying at Yeshivas Chelkas Yaakov in Baltimore, Eli reluctantly agrees to go out with his roommate’s sister Rena, a seminary girl-turned-librarian who had “enrolled in public school” and “gone off the derech.” The idea of dating someone who doesn’t share his commitment to Judaism shocks him, but he agrees to try it since he hasn’t had much luck with “frum girls” anyway. They never say it, but his race puts off every single one of them. The first couple of dates go wonderfully, and Eli is beside himself — never before had he gotten this far! On their third date, though, things begin to unravel, and the two realize through a dramatic turn of events that their vastly different lifestyles and expectations are simply not compatible in the long term.
Years later, Eli leaves Chelkas Yaakov with no college degree or marketable skills other than teaching Talmud. He takes a job as a rebbi at the New England Hebrew High School, a Modern Orthodox Yeshiva high school in West Hartford, Connecticut. He marvels at clean hallways, smartboards and wheelchair accessibility, and is “perplexed ... to no end” by a sign reading “please use the restroom that is most consistent with your gender identity.” Most surprising, though, is the co-ed environment; “not since his days as a callow middle-schooler … had members of the opposite sex been a part of his everyday world.” One such member specifically catches his eye, ”the brilliant, blue-eyed English teacher” Emma Yates. She makes him nervous and he tries to avoid her, but he notices something — she’s looking at him, too.
Thus begins the central saga of “A Single Life.” Eli and Emma connect on Facebook and begin to speak. Talking leads to dating, but it remains virtual and hidden. Emma, after all, is a gentile, and Eli is an Orthodox Jew. He knows what he’s doing is forbidden, but no one has ever appreciated him like this. He can’t stop. Through dozens of strikingly lucid and charmingly personal internal monologues, Eli tries to understand what he’s feeling and what to do about it. His religious conscience howls at him (mostly through Talmudic formulations) to cut off this strawberry blonde-lapsed Catholic, but he loves the feeling of being with her too much to listen. He’s had a taste of being “the man of a woman’s dreams” and isn’t about to throw something like that away.
It’s only at the very end of the book that he makes a decision about the life he wants to live. “A Single Life,” though, is less about the decision than about the journey towards it. Through Eli’s story, Goodman explores love, life and growing up, race, intolerance and discrimination. He asks often uncomfortable questions about prejudice in the Yeshiva world, and about resentment and suspicion in America as a whole. He paints a portrait of a young man, and lets us live or relive moments beautiful and tragic with our hardy yet deeply fallible protagonist.
Goodman’s writing is simple and matter-of-fact. He pens sharp, snappy dialogue but is occasionally held back by generic characterizations and setting descriptions and overly stilted narration. Where the book truly shines, though, is the myriad windows it offers us into Eli’s whirlwind mind. As the novel goes on, I feel like Goodman actually becomes more comfortable with his main character. Eli’s monologues get better and better, turning into richly introspective reveries that dart between gravity and humor to convey the complexity of his contemplations. My favorite one sees him lose hope in his relationship after Emma takes too long to respond to his Facebook message. He thinks about trying online dating, and tries to come up with a screen name. “Hmm… Yak Nehaz… no… too Persian… Kim Lei Bidrabaminei… no, too Korean… Boutros Boutros Ghali… no… it’s hopeless.”
This hysterical salvo, by the way, is not footnoted. HaMevin Yavin. For many readers, it will remain elusive, save for the Boutros Boutros bit. In a way, though, I think that consistent inconsistency, that uncertainty about audience and place, speaks to the meaning of the book as a whole. The footnotes are a metaphor for Eli himself, straddling two worlds, not quite sure what they’re meant to be. Rather than direct translations, many are sanitized and generalized — to appeal to a mass market, they have to sacrifice a bit of their character. Similarly, Eli is a man who inhabits many groups, who lives many lives. His struggle is to balance them all without letting any of them die, to embrace his past and his faith while still making room for himself. Maybe, Daniel Ross Goodman hints to us with a wink and an Aramaic aphorism, it’s a struggle shared by all of us as well.
Photo Caption: “A Single Life”
Photo Credit: KTAV Publishing House