The single life in Daniel Ross Goodman’s new novel belongs to Eli Newman, a rising Talmud scholar with an interest in world literature, a star student at a Baltimore Kollel (a kind of graduate seminar for Talmud students). Much of the story appears in his interior monologue, as he thinks, wishes, evaluates his encounters with other people, and tries to imagine his future. In his mind, he thrashes from anticipating the best possible outcome of a situation to dreading the worst. Kind, sensitive, and conflict-aversive, Eli tries to keep his life on an even keel, even as his imagination drenches him in drama. Eli Newman has one central problem that he cannot escape. He has long-ago reached marriageable age, and not made any progress towards finding a partner. Matchmakers have no trouble introducing him to promising young women, who meet him once, and then send him notes saying: “I enjoyed our conversations, but I’m just not sure I see it working out for us.” He has a single life in more than one sense.
Eli Newman feels certain that racism accounts for this recurrent failure. Eli’s late mother was Black. His father, a prominent rabbi, looks like an ordinary Ashkenazic Jew. The young women seeking a Talmud scholar as a mate cannot picture a bi-racial man in the role. So they gently let him down. This happens so often that he despairs of the whole process. He even contemplates living a celibate life, like the studious Ben Azzai mentioned in the Talmud, and like Sir Isaac Newton, and a list (that Newman keeps) of other prominent celibates.
Eventually, Eli Newman moves on, getting a post teaching Talmud at a co-ed Modern Orthodox High School in Connecticut. Along the way, he meets attractive, intelligent, flirtatious and non-Jewish fellow teacher, who heads the English and French departments at his new school. At school, they keep their distance. After school, they use social media to discuss literature and life. But what future can this relationship have?
As a reader, I value the time I have spent inhabiting Eli Newman’s interior monologue. I find his emotions relatable, and this thoughts witty. As he reviews his life, Newman considers significant issues. He evaluates the years he spent studying at a Yeshiva that offers no significant secular studies, unfitting him for any employment except teacher of Talmud. He critiques the system of matchmaking, producing partially-arranged marriages supervised by professionals who evaluate the candidates by their resumes (trust me, this is a real phenomenon). He considers the advantages and disadvantages of single-sex education. He reflects on how he was raised by a demanding father, now kept at a distance. Newman tries to come to terms with different forms of racism, vicious open racism, polite discreet racism, and the unthinking racism of well-meaning white allies.
Chaim Weiser, in the 1995 book “Frumspeak,” identified Yeshivish as a language spoken by observant Jews in conversation with other observant Jews, especially those who have studied classical Jewish texts. Weiser identifies the grammar of Yeshivish, colloquial English studded with Yiddishisms. The vocabulary of Yeshivish includes some Yiddish words, some Hebrew, and some expressions in the Aramaic of the Babylonian Talmud. Weiser observes that “There are no Yeshivish writers” (xxi). Now, with the appearance of this novel, Goodman qualifies as a Yeshivish writer. When conversating with people from outside the observant Jewish world, Newman speaks standard English. When thinking to himself, or talking with observant Jews, he uses Yeshivish. As we should expect from an advanced Talmud student, he uses a high-class Yeshivish, featuring extensive expressions from classical Jewish sources. On each page, as needed, Goodman provides a glossary in footnotes, giving a simple English translation of the phrases. That should suffice so that no reader gets lost. One of the delights, for readers who have actually studied Talmud, comes from the creative ways that Newman repurposes Talmudic expressions. His love interest mentions her previous boyfriend, and he considers whether to dismiss that mention as unimportant. But maybe mentioning the boyfriend is davar chasuv eino batel: “a significant item and not to be overlooked,” Newman thinks, using an expression from the laws of kashrut.
This novel is the real thing, a presentation of the texture of a vividly-imagined life. In the course of examining this life, Goodman helps us rethink aspects of American life and American Judaism, but he does not provide us with easy answers, or answers at all. This book does not contain agitprop for Jewish observance. Ktav, a venerable publisher of Judaica, deserves commendation for publishing this fascinating work.