Joy Comes in the Morning

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"Deborah Green is a woman of passionate contradictions - a rabbi who craves goodness and surety while wrestling with her own doubts and desires. She has vowed not to emulate those rabbis "who lie around the synagogue like neutered housecats," and has grown restless performing weddings while she remains single. Her life changes when she visits the hospital room of Henry Friedman, an older man who has attempted suicide. His parents were murdered in the Holocaust when he was a child, and all his life he's struggled with difficult questions: Can
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Joy Comes in the Morning: A Novel

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Overview

"Deborah Green is a woman of passionate contradictions - a rabbi who craves goodness and surety while wrestling with her own doubts and desires. She has vowed not to emulate those rabbis "who lie around the synagogue like neutered housecats," and has grown restless performing weddings while she remains single. Her life changes when she visits the hospital room of Henry Friedman, an older man who has attempted suicide. His parents were murdered in the Holocaust when he was a child, and all his life he's struggled with difficult questions: Can happiness really come after such loss, or does the very wish profane the dead? Can religious promises ever bring peace?" At the hospital Deborah encounters Henry's son Lev, a science reporter whose life has taken a turn for the worse since he abandoned his fiancee at the altar. Deborah is drawn to his skeptical intensity, and Lev finds Deborah's blend of piety and irreverence unexpectedly appealing. It is a love triangle with God as the third, maddeningly elusive player.
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Editorial Reviews

Susan Jacoby
The author, whose first novel, Eve's Apple, offered a memorable portrait of a woman with a history of anorexia, somehow avoids allowing the familiarity of his characters to turn them into stereotypes. Deborah, who wraps herself in her grandfather's tallis, or prayer shawl, before praying every morning, may be bossy, but she also has a good heart. One of the first things we learn about her is that she stoops to tie an old man's shoes on Broadway when she sees that he cannot bend over far enough to reach them.
— The Washington Post
Art Winslow
Not since E.L. Doctorow's City of God have we seen such a literary effort to plumb the nature of belief -- in Jewish-American culture, in Talmudic study, in prayer, in sexual relations, in the very soundness of one's own mind. Many of the religious and life motifs that Rosen braided together in The Talmud and the Internet are to be found here in a fictional frame, and perhaps he simply followed the advice of the Talmudic sage Ben Bag Bag, who said ''Turn it and turn it for everything is in it.''
— The New York Times
The New Yorker
In her work as a hospital volunteer, Deborah Green, a Manhattan rabbi, encounters an ailing Holocaust survivor—recovering from a debilitating stroke and a suicide attempt—and his skeptical son. To complicate matters, she is beautiful and single, while the skeptical son is a shy bachelor; the romance causes crises of faith for both, as they negotiate their divergent attitudes toward their religion. As the story moves from wedding to funeral and back again, and Deborah officiates at the momentous changes in other people’s lives, she increasingly finds her own life empty of the things that she has always counselled her congregation to treasure. Served with the merest teaspoon of schmaltz, Rosen’s touching novel of Jewish manners thoughtfully addresses the question of whether piety can teach us faith.
Publishers Weekly
Rarely has the life of a rabbi been examined with as much complexity-and sympathy-as in this second novel by the author of Eve's Apple. Deborah Green is by all accounts a highly capable young woman, adored by her Manhattan congregants, adept at both weddings and funerals. But she can't shake her concern that all good rabbis are, as one of her teachers describes, just "the smoothest fakers around." In her role as a hospital chaplain, she encounters Henry Friedman, a Holocaust survivor who has suffered a stroke and whose diminished abilities have driven him to attempt suicide. This leads her in turn to Henry's son Lev, a science writer-and religious skeptic-who recently fled from his wedding to a non-Jew. Lev feels overshadowed by his ultra-competent brother, Jacob, and by his friend Neal Marcus, whose energetic mind has been derailed by schizophrenia. Lev's developing relationship with Deborah jump-starts his religious practice, but he struggles with the daily life of having a rabbi girlfriend. Deborah, whose secular family has always questioned her choice of occupation, is beset by lingering questions of legitimacy and professional duty. Rosen, a frequent contributor to the New York Times and the New Yorker and author of the popular nonfiction book The Talmud and the Internet, writes with uncommon assurance about contemporary Judaism, whether the subject is Friedman family dynamics or the insecurities, comedies and small pleasures of everyday rabbinic life. Above all, this is a welcoming and intelligent look at Deborah's efforts to weld her many identities-woman, rabbi, Jew-into a cohesive whole. Agent, Sarah Chalfant. (Sept.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
Henry Friedman, the only member of his immediate family to survive the Holocaust, suffers a stroke and fears a second will take away his dignity and independence. Midway through a suicide attempt, he changes his mind but not before injuring himself. At the hospital, Rabbi Deborah Green recites psalms and prayers for Henry's recovery. Though he cannot speak, Henry immediately connects to her and begins to reevaluate his faith, religious and otherwise. Rabbi Green also has an enormous impact on Henry's wife and son Lev. Deborah and Lev, alternately wary of and intrigued with each other, fall in love. These main characters, and a number of minor ones, endure emotional upheaval and soul-searching, coming to terms with their pain, doubts, and fears and learning the value of ritual and tradition. They realize that community binds them to one another even in times of great sadness and tragedy. Filled with realistic, sympathetic characters, Rosen's second novel (after Eve's Apple) is deeply spiritual, genuine, and engaging. Highly recommended for academic and public libraries. Lisa Nussbaum, Dauphin Cty. Lib. Syst., Harrisburg, PA Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An elegantly written if slow-paced story about a young female rabbi who suffers a too easily resolved crisis of faith as she ministers to the sick and dying. Second-novelist Rosen (Eve's Apple, 1997; The Talmud and the Internet, 2000; etc.) is a serious explorer of Jewish American life today-the role of faith and the past-but though his efforts are admirable and often germane, they tend to drive his plots more than character does. His protagonist here, Deborah Green, is an attractive young Reform rabbi in New York who conscientiously observes all the Jewish laws. Estranged from her physician sister and her nonobservant mother, Deborah, having found comfort and meaning in her religion after her father died, decided to become a rabbi. Now, she meets Lev Friedman while visiting his father Henry in the hospital. Henry, depressed, haunted by memories of the past-in Europe in 1939, as a six-year-old, he was sent to England and never saw his family again-and in poor health, attempted suicide, though a massive stroke intervened. Lev is a science writer who abandoned his bride on her wedding day and now worries that he's incapable of commitment. Lev and Deborah are drawn to each other and cautiously begin meeting regularly as Deborah encourages Lev to reclaim his Jewish roots. As Henry slowly begins to recover, Lev and Deborah set up house together. But when a deeply distressed elderly and pious woman, who nearly dies, confesses to Deborah that instead of seeing her beloved dead husband she experienced a complete void, Deborah falters. She disappears, leaving a worried Lev, who pitches in for the absent Deborah to protect her job-he even conducts part of a funeral service. Deborah, though, isn'teasily vanquished by doubt. Again, the ideas take top billing, with the plot a distant also-ran. Agency: Wylie Agency
From the Publisher
"In shimmering prose and with uncommon empathy, Rosen creates a cast of characters plagued by profound spiritual crises.... Not since Saul Bellow has an American novelist created characters so unabashedly determined to unleash their souls, to burst their spirit’s sleep." —Andrew Furman, The Miami Herald

"Rosen's charming yet serious novel—the Jewish equivalent in style, smarts, and topicality to Anna Quindlen's and Kent Haruf's bestselling morality tales——grapples with nothing less than the endless conflicts between human nature and our perception of God, the intellect and the emotions, religion and science, the past and the present....Rosen’s radiant novel is a welcoming and satisfying inquiry into matters of inheritance, compassion, faith, and free will." —Donna Seaman, Newsday

"Rosen...offers a rare and vibrant portrait of a contemporary rabbi who is Reform, female, and complex....What is not predictable is how well the novel itself negotiates the balance between the spiritual and the comic." —Steven G. Kellman, San Francisco Chronicle

"What a pleasure it is to see such a serious and yet playful novel...Not since E.L. Doctorow's City of God have we seen such a literary effort to plumb the nature of belief—in Jewish-American culture, in Talmudic study, in prayer, in sex, in the very soundness of one’s own mind...He's irreverent even in the middle of the most reverent of scenes, like a Heller or a Roth complete with sardonic social commentary. Such moments abound in Joy Comes in the Morning." —Art Winslow, The New York Times Book Review

"Joy Comes in the Morning is, at its core, a love story...with suave prose, delightful narrative inventiveness and compelling ideas...[and] a wonderfully comic turn of events in the novel's s20final third." —Floyd Skloot, Chicago Tribune

"Beautiful...[Joy Comes in the Morning] fills the reader with happiness at the most unexpected moments. Mr. Rosen leads the reader through his character's emotions with old-fashioned assurance, and his dual mastery of sincere religiosity and searing embarrassment promises an explosive future for the family romance." —The New York Sun

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780786127320
  • Publisher: Blackstone Audio, Inc.
  • Publication date: 10/28/2004
  • Format: Other
  • Edition description: Unabridged, 11 cassettes, 16 hours
  • Product dimensions: 4.12 (w) x 6.22 (h) x 2.69 (d)

Meet the Author

Jonathan Rosen is the author of The Talmud and the Internet and the novel Eve’s Apple. His essays have appeared in The New York Times and The New Yorker, among other publications. He is the editorial director of Nextbook.

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Read an Excerpt

Excerpt from Joy Comes in the Morning by Jonathan Rosen. Copyright © 2004 by Jonathan Rosen. Published in September, 2004 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.

SOMEONE WAS DYING.

Deborah felt it in her chest. She felt it along her spine. She felt it, though she could not have explained how, in her womb. The feeling stirred her out of half sleep. She opened her eyes. The shades were drawn but a blue light had begun to seep in around the edges. It was 6 a.m.

Now would be a good time to hear a voice. She would like to have been called. Deborah! Deborah! But it no longer happened that way, if it ever had. Deborah smiled at herself for a childhood fantasy that had never left her. The window glowed. She heard the flop of The New York Times against her front door. The newspaper delivery boy—actually a middle-aged black woman; Deborah had spied on her once through the peephole—stood in the open elevator and flung the papers, as if dealing a giant pack of cards. After a sleepless night Deborah found the sound reassuring, a town crier's reminder that the world was still there. Lately, there had been a lot of sleepless nights.

The strange sensation darkened her again, an inner shadow. Someone was dying. She tried to think who it might be. William who had emphysema and couldn't talk but whose hand she often held. The old woman on the eighth floor nobody came to see who had given her a recipe for sponge cake. Frank the trumpet player with AIDS for whom the complex cocktail no longer worked. That poor baby in the neonatal ICU, baby Emily the nurses called her, who had been born with a hole in her heart. Deborahshuddered at the memory of the tiny blue child. Angry Caroline with ovarian cancer, scarcely older than she herself was. That might explain the strange sympathetic sensation nestled in her own belly. She rested a hand there but her body told her nothing.

Somehow, she didn't think it was any of these. Of course, someone was always dying. It didn't have to be someone you knew. Visiting a hospital regularly you learned that pretty quickly.

She should make herself a cup of coffee and start the day. The newspaper was waiting for her. Reuben, when they had been together, all but heard the Times crying on the doorstep like an abandoned child. He would bring it into bed. Deborah could never look at the paper first thing in the morning. Though she was keenly attuned to the world's sorrows, internal matters always concerned her more.

Deborah decided to pray. She had promised herself that she would pray more regularly. She rose and stretched. She was wearing a T-shirt and nothing else. She stepped into a pair of underpants. It didn't seem right to stand bare-assed before God, though of course everyone was supposed to be naked before Him. Not that she thought of God as a seeing presence. Or a Him. Still, she slipped on a pair of red running shorts over the underpants. Barefoot, she padded across the wood floor and removed a large zippered velvet envelope from her top drawer. She left a smaller velvet envelope behind.

While she was up she shut off the air conditioner. It had been in the high eighties the past few days but Deborah hated the artificial cool. There was something dishonest about it, though this was the kind of observation that drove Reuben—who had bought the air conditioner for her—crazy. She always imagined that the heat was still lurking somewhere in the room, hidden behind an invisible veil of refrigerated air. If you exerted yourself only slightly you felt hot and realized that the whole thing was a kind of physical illusion. This belief was, in Reuben's words, a pantheistic delusion. But Reuben was gone, though his machine lived on, sucking life out of the room in his absence.

Deborah's grandfather had been surprisingly tall; she was reminded of this as she unfurled his large prayer shawl, ivory white with bold zebra stripes of black. Though she was five foot six inches tall, when she raised the shawl over her head she was completely shrouded. She loved the feeling of being wrapped, hidden away inside the soft armor of her grandfather's tallis. In the meditation she now recited, God was described as robed in light. Deborah held the ends of the prayer shawl together above her head and felt, for a moment, blissfully cocooned.

When Reuben had seen her in her tallis for the first time he had called her a transvestite. Remembering it now, she burned with shame and indignation. He had pretended it was a joke and flashed her his gleaming, bearded smile, but she could see the disgust in his eyes. He had nothing against women praying, he told her, but why did they have to pray dressed like men?

Reuben was Orthodox. Of course he had slept with her anyway—not, she felt sure, the only one of the 613 commandments he had violated, but perhaps the one he most easily discounted. He had shown more anxiety about the state of her kitchen—the morning after, she'd found him sifting through the silverware to make sure that she indeed had a set for milk and a set for meat.

Deborah lowered the tallis so that the strip of gold embroidery lay behind her slender neck; she gathered up the extra material on either side and threw it over her shoulders, doubling the great square of striped cloth back on itself so that she wore it like a cape. The tassels hung down in front and behind.

It annoyed her to be thinking of Reuben now, in her moment of prayer, with his ortho-arrogant awkwardness, his air of entitlement and insecurity. Modern Orthodox men were macho sissies. He wasn't the first one she'd dated. They expected to inherit the earth but they had a nagging, inborn fear that they might be driven from it first. In this respect they weren't quite American, and Deborah supposed it was this mild foreignness, coupled with her own weakness for ritual rigor, that had drawn her to them in the first place. She had met Reuben in his synagogue, not hers. She herself must have held a certain exotic appeal for him—a Reform woman rabbi. She must not have seemed quite American either, or quite Jewish.

She resented terms like Orthodox and Reform—they seemed a substitute for the inner state. Did she have a Reform soul? She didn't feel that way, especially draped in her grandfather's tallis. Reuben can kiss my Reform rabbinical cross-dressing ass. She hurled herself into Ma TovuHow goodly are your tents, oh Jacob—her heart pounding, trying to recapture the tented pleasure of the moment before. But it wasn't until she had blazed through Adon Olam and Yigdal—containing Maimonides's thirteen principles of Judaism, beginning with the existence of God and ending with the resurrection of the dead—that she settled down.

Deborah loved the praise part of prayer. In rabbinic school there had always been students who wrestled with praise and took a what-has-he-done-for-me-lately attitude toward God, an attitude of human entitlement and anger. Deborah had never understood this.

To praise God made her feel whole and she recited Birkot Hashachar with a schoolgirl's relish: Blessed are you God who gives sight to the blind; blessed are you God who clothes the naked; blessed are you God who did not make me a slave. She was using her grandmother's little prayer book, which made no apologies for blessed are you God who did not make me a woman. Deborah skipped that blessing and recited the female alternative, Blessed are you God who made me according to his will.

She found her groove and raced along, fast but focused, gathering the four tassels of her tallis in her right hand when she came to the "Shema and her Blessings" so that she could kiss them every time she uttered the word tzitzitAnd you shall look on them and remember the commandments, and not be seduced by the desires of the heart of the eye . . .

By the time she got to the Amida she had forgotten the distress of the morning and was moving smoothly along ancient verbal tracks of praise and petition. One of her liturgy professors had spoken of prayer in the language of sports. You break through the wall, he said, and you're no longer thinking, I'm running, I'm running, you're simply running. It's a beautiful state. She felt that way now. She entered the Amida almost before she knew it, bowing and bending and feeling the words alive inside her.

But then the persistent whisper in her blood distracted her. Again she thought, Someone is dying. Was it the hospital getting to her at last? Her sister, Rachel, had been telling her that she spent too much time there, which, considering the fact that Rachel was a doctor, was laughable. Though she was spending more and more of her time among the sick. She'd begun visiting congregants but had found herself spending time with other patients, too, Jews and non-Jews, old people and babies alike. Rabbi Zwieback, the senior rabbi, was only too happy to give her hospital detail, and for the past two years half her salary was paid by a grant that supported ministering to the sick.

Deborah had found in the hospital an air of truthfulness and, strange to say, vitality, that she could not account for. She sometimes felt the way she imagined a soldier might feel who discovers to his astonishment that he likes war. That in the thick of battle—bullets whizzing around his head, comrades falling, death undeniable, life its brightest and most immediate and most perishable—his inner state has finally found its outer expression. In the hospital Deborah found not fear but, oddly, a kind of peace.

Not that she had abandoned her other responsibilities. This very Sunday she would be performing a wedding. Now that was scary. Deborah had met with the couple twice and it seemed clear they weren't ready for marriage. Janet was only twenty-four and had already broken off the engagement once, during which time she had briefly returned to an earlier, non-Jewish boyfriend. Deborah felt this woman was still torn but, a pleaser by nature, she had reconciled because she could not bear to assert herself in a lasting way. Deborah had heard only a tiny piece of this story from Janet when they had spoken on the phone and had imagined she would learn more, but with her fiancé beside her the woman said almost nothing. The man, Rick, a tax attorney (Deborah tried not to hold his profession or his goatee against him) did most of the talking, and he did it in a controlling way Deborah resented.

"We've had some times" Rick had said, "but we've worked through them. We're ready to make the leap."

He kept on talking without pause, about what kind of service they wanted and about his father who had died and about how Janet's sister would be playing the flute. He left Deborah no opening so she had cut him off abruptly.

"Have the invitations already gone out?" she'd asked, more harshly than she'd intended. Tact was never her strong suit and when she was agitated or annoyed it went out the window. Man and wife-to-be had both looked at her in surprise. But she had persisted—she blushed at the memory of it. "I understand there have been some problems with . . . fidelity."

At last Rick, waking from his stupor, had snapped at her, "We both have therapists. We're not looking for another one."

No, dickhead, Deborah thought, you want a spiritual caterer to hand you your wedding on a tray. But she retreated. Janet had given her no support, saying only, "We're very comfortable now," several times. Comfortable? Deborah had wanted to scream: Do you love him? What about that other guy? Don't use religion as an excuse. Marry for love! But she had held her tongue. They did seem comfortable. It was she herself who wasn't comfortable these days. Weddings had become difficult. As a rule she loved them, standing at the center of the white ceremony, a figure of almost magical authority, braiding two lives together. The Talmud said the world was a wedding. But was it one for her? She was thirty and single. She felt more profoundly alone than she ever had in her life.

Deborah caught sight of herself in the full-length mirror on the back of her closet, a young woman wearing an old man's prayer shawl. Her bare legs came out the bottom. She should shave them before the wedding. Still, they were nice legs, though slightly knock-kneed. She adjusted her stance and almost turned to see her behind in the mirror but caught herself. She realized to her astonishment that she was still praying, her lips on automatic. She was impressed with herself and perturbed at the same time. So she knew the Amida by heart! Or at least her lips did. This did not altogether gratify her. When she swam laps she believed that if her mind wandered too much, she wasn't really exercising. It was one thing to break through the wall—it was another thing to leave the building. She drove her mind back to the prayers. Oh Lord, guard my lips from speaking falsehood and my tongue from speaking guile . . . Let my soul be as dust before you. She finished the Amida, took three steps backward, turned her body to the left and right, bowed, and stood straight again.

The room, in the absence of air-conditioning, had begun to grow warm. Deborah yawned. "Dear God, forgive my distractions," she murmured. More and more she was given to spontaneous prayer, something she had picked up in the hospital from a Baptist minister.
There was no danger of your mind wandering when you spoke directly to God. The ice broken, she added, "Please don't let me be alone."

Was she praying for a man now? Or was it God she wanted?

fs20 She sensed the mysterious presence again in the room. A sort of tiptoeing shadow. She often her father, dead now fifteen years, with her, but that was a kind of inner glow. This felt different, stranger. God? The Angel of Death? Or only her overactive imagination?

She did not really believe in God as a physical being and yet she knew, too, that if a voice called out to her she would answer, without hesitation, "Here I am!" And she felt that mysterious things were always happening, and, what is more, on the verge of happening. She was constantly encountering, if not God, then at least the outer garment of God. A few days before, she had seen an elderly man on Broadway, copper bearded and stooped but neatly dressed in a seersucker suit, swaying over his own untied shoelaces. He was wearing running shoes, an incongruous but not uncommon fashion choice for Upper West Side elderly. The laces of both shoes were untied and he seemed incapable of bending over enough to get to them or of deciding which shoe to tie first. Without asking permission, Deborah had knelt down and tied them both. The humble gesture had flooded her with joy. It was the joy of kneeling down, erasing herself for a moment in an act of kindness. She'd felt astonishingly alive at that instant, as if she had been created for just such a purpose.

Deborah was no longer praying. Her mind was merely wandering. "Sorry," she said aloud. Her own voice startled her. Talking to yourself? she thought, and then quickly added, Or are You there?

Deborah smiled inwardly. Are you There God? It's Me, Margaret had been one of her favorite books when she was eleven. After four years of a very good college, five years of seminary, two and a half years as an assistant rabbi, after reading Maimonides and Kierkegaard and Heschel and Buber, had she come no further? But why be embarrassed—the psalmist himself asked such questions; he simply put them more gracefully. Oh Lord, how long will you turn your face from me? Oh Lord, answer me. Are you there, God? It's me, King David.

Deborah began to sing a verse of Psalm 116. It was not the prescribed psalm for that day but by this time she had given up on the prayer book. Psalm 116 was one of her favorites—she recited it often with patients in the hospital and the most stirring of its verses had been set to music.

li0Ana Adonai, Ana Adonai, kee ani avdecha. Deborah had a beautiful voice and loved to sing. She swayed as she sang, her soft, pure voice filling the room and soothing her. Her mind felt free again. Tears came to her eyes—not tears of sadness, precisely, but something deeper and at the same time less personal than ordinary sadness. They were tears of an unknown emotion, an unfathomable longing. They were tears of prayer. Deborah cried a lot, in many situations. It didn't bother her, though Rabbi Zwieback still looked at her in alarm when, midway through a service, she would stand up to announce a page number, her cheeks shining.

The prayer shawl slipped off one shoulder and hung over her like a toga, but Deborah didn't notice. She had shut her grandmother's little prayer book and held it against her breast as she sang, in Hebrew, her eyes closed swaying. Answer me, Lord, answer me, for I am your servant, the son of your handmaid.

The psalm's male point of view did not bother her. She had never cared about making prayers gender neutral. The soul knew no gender. The words were intended for her. She wished to be God's Servant. She felt a keen, delicious ache in her heart as she sang the verse over and over, lulling herself with the words and music. She stood in the warmth of the brightening room, swaying and singing.

Answer me, God. Answer me.
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First Chapter

Excerpt from Joy Comes in the Morning by Jonathan Rosen. Copyright © 2004 by Jonathan Rosen. Published in September, 2004 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.


SOMEONE WAS DYING.

Deborah felt it in her chest. She felt it along her spine. She felt it, though she could not have explained how, in her womb. The feeling stirred her out of half sleep. She opened her eyes. The shades were drawn but a blue light had begun to seep in around the edges. It was 6 a.m.

Now would be a good time to hear a voice. She would like to have been called. Deborah! Deborah! But it no longer happened that way, if it ever had. Deborah smiled at herself for a childhood fantasy that had never left her. The window glowed. She heard the flop of The New York Times against her front door. The newspaper delivery boy—actually a middle-aged black woman; Deborah had spied on her once through the peephole—stood in the open elevator and flung the papers, as if dealing a giant pack of cards. After a sleepless night Deborah found the sound reassuring, a town crier's reminder that the world was still there. Lately, there had been a lot of sleepless nights.

The strange sensation darkened her again, an inner shadow. Someone was dying. She tried to think who it might be. William who had emphysema and couldn't talk but whose hand she often held. The old woman on the eighth floor nobody came to see who had given her a recipe for sponge cake. Frank the trumpet player with AIDS for whom the complex cocktail no longer worked. That poor baby in the neonatal ICU, baby Emily the nurses called her, who had been born with a hole in her heart.Deborah shuddered at the memory of the tiny blue child. Angry Caroline with ovarian cancer, scarcely older than she herself was. That might explain the strange sympathetic sensation nestled in her own belly. She rested a hand there but her body told her nothing.

Somehow, she didn't think it was any of these. Of course, someone was always dying. It didn't have to be someone you knew. Visiting a hospital regularly you learned that pretty quickly.

She should make herself a cup of coffee and start the day. The newspaper was waiting for her. Reuben, when they had been together, all but heard the Times crying on the doorstep like an abandoned child. He would bring it into bed. Deborah could never look at the paper first thing in the morning. Though she was keenly attuned to the world's sorrows, internal matters always concerned her more.

Deborah decided to pray. She had promised herself that she would pray more regularly. She rose and stretched. She was wearing a T-shirt and nothing else. She stepped into a pair of underpants. It didn't seem right to stand bare-assed before God, though of course everyone was supposed to be naked before Him. Not that she thought of God as a seeing presence. Or a Him. Still, she slipped on a pair of red running shorts over the underpants. Barefoot, she padded across the wood floor and removed a large zippered velvet envelope from her top drawer. She left a smaller velvet envelope behind.

While she was up she shut off the air conditioner. It had been in the high eighties the past few days but Deborah hated the artificial cool. There was something dishonest about it, though this was the kind of observation that drove Reuben—who had bought the air conditioner for her—crazy. She always imagined that the heat was still lurking somewhere in the room, hidden behind an invisible veil of refrigerated air. If you exerted yourself only slightly you felt hot and realized that the whole thing was a kind of physical illusion. This belief was, in Reuben's words, a pantheistic delusion. But Reuben was gone, though his machine lived on, sucking life out of the room in his absence.

Deborah's grandfather had been surprisingly tall; she was reminded of this as she unfurled his large prayer shawl, ivory white with bold zebra stripes of black. Though she was five foot six inches tall, when she raised the shawl over her head she was completely shrouded. She loved the feeling of being wrapped, hidden away inside the soft armor of her grandfather's tallis. In the meditation she now recited, God was described as robed in light. Deborah held the ends of the prayer shawl together above her head and felt, for a moment, blissfully cocooned.

When Reuben had seen her in her tallis for the first time he had called her a transvestite. Remembering it now, she burned with shame and indignation. He had pretended it was a joke and flashed her his gleaming, bearded smile, but she could see the disgust in his eyes. He had nothing against women praying, he told her, but why did they have to pray dressed like men?

Reuben was Orthodox. Of course he had slept with her anyway—not, she felt sure, the only one of the 613 commandments he had violated, but perhaps the one he most easily discounted. He had shown more anxiety about the state of her kitchen—the morning after, she'd found him sifting through the silverware to make sure that she indeed had a set for milk and a set for meat.

Deborah lowered the tallis so that the strip of gold embroidery lay behind her slender neck; she gathered up the extra material on either side and threw it over her shoulders, doubling the great square of striped cloth back on itself so that she wore it like a cape. The tassels hung down in front and behind.

It annoyed her to be thinking of Reuben now, in her moment of prayer, with his ortho-arrogant awkwardness, his air of entitlement and insecurity. Modern Orthodox men were macho sissies. He wasn't the first one she'd dated. They expected to inherit the earth but they had a nagging, inborn fear that they might be driven from it first. In this respect they weren't quite American, and Deborah supposed it was this mild foreignness, coupled with her own weakness for ritual rigor, that had drawn her to them in the first place. She had met Reuben in his synagogue, not hers. She herself must have held a certain exotic appeal for him—a Reform woman rabbi. She must not have seemed quite American either, or quite Jewish.

She resented terms like Orthodox and Reform—they seemed a substitute for the inner state. Did she have a Reform soul? She didn't feel that way, especially draped in her grandfather's tallis. Reuben can kiss my Reform rabbinical cross-dressing ass. She hurled herself into Ma TovuHow goodly are your tents, oh Jacob—her heart pounding, trying to recapture the tented pleasure of the moment before. But it wasn't until she had blazed through Adon Olam and Yigdal—containing Maimonides's thirteen principles of Judaism, beginning with the existence of God and ending with the resurrection of the dead—that she settled down.

Deborah loved the praise part of prayer. In rabbinic school there had always been students who wrestled with praise and took a what-has-he-done-for-me-lately attitude toward God, an attitude of human entitlement and anger. Deborah had never understood this.

To praise God made her feel whole and she recited Birkot Hashachar with a schoolgirl's relish: Blessed are you God who gives sight to the blind; blessed are you God who clothes the naked; blessed are you God who did not make me a slave. She was using her grandmother's little prayer book, which made no apologies for blessed are you God who did not make me a woman. Deborah skipped that blessing and recited the female alternative, Blessed are you God who made me according to his will.

She found her groove and raced along, fast but focused, gathering the four tassels of her tallis in her right hand when she came to the "Shema and her Blessings" so that she could kiss them every time she uttered the word tzitzitAnd you shall look on them and remember the commandments, and not be seduced by the desires of the heart of the eye . . .

By the time she got to the Amida she had forgotten the distress of the morning and was moving smoothly along ancient verbal tracks of praise and petition. One of her liturgy professors had spoken of prayer in the language of sports. You break through the wall, he said, and you're no longer thinking, I'm running, I'm running, you're simply running. It's a beautiful state. She felt that way now. She entered the Amida almost before she knew it, bowing and bending and feeling the words alive inside her.

But then the persistent whisper in her blood distracted her. Again she thought, Someone is dying. Was it the hospital getting to her at last? Her sister, Rachel, had been telling her that she spent too much time there, which, considering the fact that Rachel was a doctor, was laughable. Though she was spending more and more of her time among the sick. She'd begun visiting congregants but had found herself spending time with other patients, too, Jews and non-Jews, old people and babies alike. Rabbi Zwieback, the senior rabbi, was only too happy to give her hospital detail, and for the past two years half her salary was paid by a grant that supported ministering to the sick.

Deborah had found in the hospital an air of truthfulness and, strange to say, vitality, that she could not account for. She sometimes felt the way she imagined a soldier might feel who discovers to his astonishment that he likes war. That in the thick of battle—bullets whizzing around his head, comrades falling, death undeniable, life its brightest and most immediate and most perishable—his inner state has finally found its outer expression. In the hospital Deborah found not fear but, oddly, a kind of peace.

Not that she had abandoned her other responsibilities. This very Sunday she would be performing a wedding. Now that was scary. Deborah had met with the couple twice and it seemed clear they weren't ready for marriage. Janet was only twenty-four and had already broken off the engagement once, during which time she had briefly returned to an earlier, non-Jewish boyfriend. Deborah felt this woman was still torn but, a pleaser by nature, she had reconciled because she could not bear to assert herself in a lasting way. Deborah had heard only a tiny piece of this story from Janet when they had spoken on the phone and had imagined she would learn more, but with her fiancé beside her the woman said almost nothing. The man, Rick, a tax attorney (Deborah tried not to hold his profession or his goatee against him) did most of the talking, and he did it in a controlling way Deborah resented.

"We've had some times" Rick had said, "but we've worked through them. We're ready to make the leap."

He kept on talking without pause, about what kind of service they wanted and about his father who had died and about how Janet's sister would be playing the flute. He left Deborah no opening so she had cut him off abruptly.

"Have the invitations already gone out?" she'd asked, more harshly than she'd intended. Tact was never her strong suit and when she was agitated or annoyed it went out the window. Man and wife-to-be had both looked at her in surprise. But she had persisted—she blushed at the memory of it. "I understand there have been some problems with . . . fidelity."

At last Rick, waking from his stupor, had snapped at her, "We both have therapists. We're not looking for another one."

No, dickhead, Deborah thought, you want a spiritual caterer to hand you your wedding on a tray. But she retreated. Janet had given her no support, saying only, "We're very comfortable now," several times. Comfortable? Deborah had wanted to scream: Do you love him? What about that other guy? Don't use religion as an excuse. Marry for love! But she had held her tongue. They did seem comfortable. It was she herself who wasn't comfortable these days. Weddings had become difficult. As a rule she loved them, standing at the center of the white ceremony, a figure of almost magical authority, braiding two lives together. The Talmud said the world was a wedding. But was it one for her? She was thirty and single. She felt more profoundly alone than she ever had in her life.

Deborah caught sight of herself in the full-length mirror on the back of her closet, a young woman wearing an old man's prayer shawl. Her bare legs came out the bottom. She should shave them before the wedding. Still, they were nice legs, though slightly knock-kneed. She adjusted her stance and almost turned to see her behind in the mirror but caught herself. She realized to her astonishment that she was still praying, her lips on automatic. She was impressed with herself and perturbed at the same time. So she knew the Amida by heart! Or at least her lips did. This did not altogether gratify her. When she swam laps she believed that if her mind wandered too much, she wasn't really exercising. It was one thing to break through the wall—it was another thing to leave the building. She drove her mind back to the prayers. Oh Lord, guard my lips from speaking falsehood and my tongue from speaking guile . . . Let my soul be as dust before you. She finished the Amida, took three steps backward, turned her body to the left and right, bowed, and stood straight again.

The room, in the absence of air-conditioning, had begun to grow warm. Deborah yawned. "Dear God, forgive my distractions," she murmured. More and more she was given to spontaneous prayer, something she had picked up in the hospital from a Baptist minister.
There was no danger of your mind wandering when you spoke directly to God. The ice broken, she added, "Please don't let me be alone."

Was she praying for a man now? Or was it God she wanted?

She sensed the mysterious presence again in the room. A sort of tiptoeing shadow. She often her father, dead now fifteen years, with her, but that was a kind of inner glow. This felt different, stranger. God? The Angel of Death? Or only her overactive imagination?

She did not really believe in God as a physical being and yet she knew, too, that if a voice called out to her she would answer, without hesitation, "Here I am!" And she felt that mysterious things were always happening, and, what is more, on the verge of happening. She was constantly encountering, if not God, then at least the outer garment of God. A few days before, she had seen an elderly man on Broadway, copper bearded and stooped but neatly dressed in a seersucker suit, swaying over his own untied shoelaces. He was wearing running shoes, an incongruous but not uncommon fashion choice for Upper West Side elderly. The laces of both shoes were untied and he seemed incapable of bending over enough to get to them or of deciding which shoe to tie first. Without asking permission, Deborah had knelt down and tied them both. The humble gesture had flooded her with joy. It was the joy of kneeling down, erasing herself for a moment in an act of kindness. She'd felt astonishingly alive at that instant, as if she had been created for just such a purpose.

Deborah was no longer praying. Her mind was merely wandering. "Sorry," she said aloud. Her own voice startled her. Talking to yourself? she thought, and then quickly added, Or are You there?

Deborah smiled inwardly. Are you There God? It's Me, Margaret had been one of her favorite books when she was eleven. After four years of a very good college, five years of seminary, two and a half years as an assistant rabbi, after reading Maimonides and Kierkegaard and Heschel and Buber, had she come no further? But why be embarrassed—the psalmist himself asked such questions; he simply put them more gracefully. Oh Lord, how long will you turn your face from me? Oh Lord, answer me. Are you there, God? It's me, King David.

Deborah began to sing a verse of Psalm 116. It was not the prescribed psalm for that day but by this time she had given up on the prayer book. Psalm 116 was one of her favorites—she recited it often with patients in the hospital and the most stirring of its verses had been set to music.

Ana Adonai, Ana Adonai, kee ani avdecha. Deborah had a beautiful voice and loved to sing. She swayed as she sang, her soft, pure voice filling the room and soothing her. Her mind felt free again. Tears came to her eyes—not tears of sadness, precisely, but something deeper and at the same time less personal than ordinary sadness. They were tears of an unknown emotion, an unfathomable longing. They were tears of prayer. Deborah cried a lot, in many situations. It didn't bother her, though Rabbi Zwieback still looked at her in alarm when, midway through a service, she would stand up to announce a page number, her cheeks shining.

The prayer shawl slipped off one shoulder and hung over her like a toga, but Deborah didn't notice. She had shut her grandmother's little prayer book and held it against her breast as she sang, in Hebrew, her eyes closed swaying. Answer me, Lord, answer me, for I am your servant, the son of your handmaid.

The psalm's male point of view did not bother her. She had never cared about making prayers gender neutral. The soul knew no gender. The words were intended for her. She wished to be God's Servant. She felt a keen, delicious ache in her heart as she sang the verse over and over, lulling herself with the words and music. She stood in the warmth of the brightening room, swaying and singing.

Answer me, God. Answer me.
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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 30, 2004

    Poetic Style But a Slow Read

    The opening chapter is strong. From that point on the author seems to have a need to repeat experiences. If you're a fan of Judica, it's great. If not, it's slow. Very well written. Excellent prose, but slow. All the characters are somewhat different, but somewhat the same. The writing style is good enough to put up with it, but a little more movement and more diverse characters would have been a plus. I recommend it.

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