Flash forward 50 years. While rummaging in a closet in his childhood home, several years after his father's death, Halberstam came across a large box filled with typewritten stories in Yiddish. These were the texts his father wrote and read on the air. Halberstam, a philosopher, professor and author who traded Borough Park for the Upper West Side of Manhattan, began translating the stories into
English, taking certain liberties, with the hope of bringing them to a wider audience. Ultimately, the stories inspired Halberstam to write fiction.
"A Seat at the Table" (Sourcebooks) is Halberstam's first novel, a deeply felt portrayal of the chasidic community of Borough Park in the early 1970s, reflected through the relationship of a young man coming of age and his father, a leading rebbe. Elisha tucks his payes behind his ears and heads to college in Manhattan, with his father's blessing, while continuing his Talmudic studies in Brooklyn. He soaks up information about jazz, Kafka, anthropology and city streets, all the while making new friends including Katrina who comes from Wisconsin, wears pink sneakers with iridescent green laces, loves literature and gets him to dance. Questioning his faith and identity, he struggles, torn between his love and respect for his father and their conversations over a page of Talmud, and the allure of ideas, people and places beyond Brooklyn. In the background, the war in Vietnam looms.
Reading Kafka's stories at the suggestion of Katrina leads Elisha to the writer's letters, essays and more stories, and he learns that Kafka met with his great-grandfather, the Rebbe of Belz, in Prague, and that his grandmother, who lives around the corner in Borough Park, was present. Life, for Elisha, is complicated, full of surprises, and torment too.
Tucked into the novel are chasidic stories retold by Elisha and also by his father, who "carried a trove of chasidic legends in his pocket the way others carried sticks of gum, always ready to dispense a story or anecdote as the occasion demanded." These are tales of great rebbes and their followers, often stories within stories, "teasing and pinching your cheek, the unexpected ending waiting in the wings," imparting a sense of wonder and a moral. He quotes Reb Dov Ber of Lubavitch, "You need to be wise to tell a story well, but you need to be even wiser to hear a story well."
And, as the proprietor, sole waiter and court jester of the local luncheonette tells Elisha while serving him breakfast, "A story is never just a story."
In an interview at Lincoln Center, Halberstam explains that a story is also a way of binding a community. In chasidism, a story is equivalent to prayer; it's not uncommon for a rebbe to tell a story. He compares the stories in style to magical realism, quoting his character, Elisha's father: "Anyone who believes these tales are true is a fool, but anyone who believes they couldn't be true is an even bigger fool."
When Halberstam first found the stash of his father's stories, he began translating and then writing modern counter-stories but soon realized that he needed his own narrative to create a novel.
"I see this as a love story between a father and son," he says. As far as Elisha strays, his father assures him "a seat at the table."
In his own storytelling, Halberstam draws relationships particularly well, between father and son, between Elisha and a favorite chasidic uncle who's learned to shuttle between worlds, and between Elisha and Katrina, who's as inquisitive about chasidic life and stories as she is about Russian writers. Halberstam writes with a large heart, wonderful detail and humor. People from many backgrounds will identify with the complexities of keeping tradition alive in modern times.
Readers may think back to "The Chosen," Chaim Potok's 1967 novel set in the chasidic world of Brooklyn in the 1940s. Halberstam refers to that as a pioneering work, but points out that the chasidic world has changed considerably since then, as has the outside world that continues to beckon. Unlike Potok, Halberstam grew up chasidic and writes as an insider.
Halberstam, 62, is modest, but in Borough Park his lineage is royal on both sides. He's the grandson of the first chasidic rebbe to move there after World War II, and is a scion of the leading chasidic dynasties. He can trace his family back, through an unbroken chain of distinguished rabbis, to the 16th century. When his mother, whose family is Belz, and his father, whose family is Sanz, married in 1942, their outdoor Williamsburg wedding was so huge that his mother was escorted down the aisle by two police officers.
Growing up, Halberstam attended traditional Orthodox schools and studied Talmud at Yeshiva Chaim Berlin while attending Brooklyn College and then New York University, where he earned his doctorate in philosophy. He has taught at NYU, Teachers College and Columbia, and now teaches at Bronx Community College/CUNY.
While this is his first novel, Halberstam has published extensively. In academia, he has written about ethics, social and political philosophy and the philosophy of religion. He is also the author of several popular books, including "Everyday Ethics: Inspired Solutions to Real-Life Dilemmas," "Work: Making a Living and Making a Life" and "Schmoozing: The Private Conversations of American Jews." He's been a repeat guest on Oprah Winfrey's television show talking about ethics.
For someone with a background in analytical philosophy, writing fiction presented challenges. He had to pay attention to characters and feelings in an entirely new way, and learn a new vocabulary to do so. And while the story is based on a community he knows intimately, he did not want to turn the novel into autobiography.
"It has been complicated my whole life," he says. "Complication is not a bad thing. I still read the world from right to left, but as I moved on, I learned there's a world left of right as well. It's a little dizzying."
Halberstam says he never really broke with the world of his childhood although he lives away from it, with a lifestyle different from his siblings. He and his wife, who's also from a traditional background, have raised their children open to the richness of Jewish and American culture. In English rather than Yiddish, he tells them chasidic stories.
The author is pleased to "show a gentleness and tenderness of the chasidic world that's often obscured to those not part of that world." He admits that his father was doing the same thing, in a sense, telling stories on the radio for 20 years.
"A son's translation of a father's work is very fulfilling, and also worrisome," Halberstam says. "I worried whether my father would approve. I have to believe that he would have."
" - Jewish Week