From the Publisher
"When Joshua Halberstam was growing up in the 1960s, he'd walk to school crossing the streets of Borough Park and would hear his father's voice everywhere, from grocery stores, bakeries, tailor shops, open apartment windows and cars stopped at red lights. His father hosted a popular Yiddish radio show on WEVD, "Chasidic Dertzayin," on which he narrated chasidic tales.
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
Read an Excerpt
Excerpt from Chapter 1
Rather than possess what I desire, I prefer to desire what I possess.
Rebbe Pinchas of Koretz
Every worthwhile sin begins with thrill and trepidation, arm in arm, wary fraternal twins.
They'd arrived at Elisha's favorite part of the holiday service, when the kohanim, the priestly descendants of Aaron, bless the flock. He had always savored the drama of this ancient ritual, imagining himself among the throng in the Temple yard dressed in a white tunic like the Israelites he'd seen in illustrated Bibles. The other daydreamers in the small Chassidic synagogue snapped to attention as well. The private conversations scattered across the room ceased in midsentence, each talker promising to reconvene his remarks the moment the rite was over. The congregation rose in unison.
Because it is forbidden to gaze upon the priests during the benediction, the married men drew their prayer shawls over their faces, while the unshawled, not-yet-married lowered their black hats over their bent foreheads. Out on the street, the children paused their holiday game of flinging filberts against the shul wall and rushed inside to nestle under their fathers' outstretched talisim, the fringed prayer shawls now converted into private tents preventing those underneath Joshua Halberstam from looking out and everyone else from looking in. Elisha watched as his younger brother and his youngest sister crouched under his father's makeshift canopy, giggling and jockeying for position, his sister especially eager, knowing that in a year or two she'd be banished from the men's section during services. Even at a distance of a few feet, Elisha could smell the manly, musky scent of his father's talis, its coarse wool yellowed with age, the silver trim shimmering in the fluorescent light. His father gestured playfully for Elisha to join his siblings. He wished he could. For there, sheltered underneath that wool awning, his cheek flush against his father's flowing beard, Elisha felt safer than anywhere in the universe.
But he was a young man now, nearly seventeen. And so he stood apart and bowed his head like the others.
"Kohanim," the cantor bellowed, summoning the priests to attention.
"Yevorekhakha," they blessed in unison.
Elisha decided to peek. He'd had the urge before, a flare of mischievous curiosity that to his later relief evaporated at the last moment. But this time was different. This time he'd go through with it. It would take no more than a stretch of the neck, a glimpse so quick, so furtive, even God might miss it. Elisha scanned the room. Every shoulder was arched downward, all eyes shut or staring at the ground. Only his grandfather, the rebbe, the spiritual leader of the congregation, stood erect, one hand stiffly at his side, the other flush against the Eastern Wall.
Elisha looked up toward the ark. A row of six priests stood shoeless, their arms extended in front of their chests, the middle and ring fingers of each hand spread apart forming a V. Elisha recognized the pair of red socks. They belonged to Solly Roitman, a fractious eighteen-year-old twice arrested for shoplifting but who nevertheless qualified to bless the others by dint of his priestly lineage. Elisha noted with relief that the priests could not see him looking at them, for their vision, too, was blocked by prayer shawls draped across their faces. In this ceremony only voices connect the blessers with the blessed.
A fleeting glimpse, a fleeting eternal moment. What he'd observed didn't matter; that he'd observed mattered momentously. A shudder sprinted down his spine. True, this was a minor infraction, a trifle really, but he was a Chassid, was he not? A Jew who embraced the yoke of the Torah and every iota of its laws? Why then this itch to transgress? How deep did it run? Elisha brought his hand up to his payis, the sidecurls adorning his cheeks, reassuring himself his face hadn't mutated into the face of a sinner. In his periphery, Elisha detected a head move. He turned to see his uncle Shaya staring straight at him. Catching Elisha's eyes, his uncle smiled and nodded, a slow, telling nod, then, calm and unhurried, turned to observe the priests.
Elisha answered the final amen, extended holiday greetings to his father and grandfather, and made his way to join the afterprayers chatter on the street. Knots of women were displaying their holiday finery and, with equally feigned nonchalance, Joshua Halberstam their soon-marriageable daughters. Men huddled in threes and fours, some trading news of the latest business ventures in Boro Park, their blossoming Brooklyn Jewish enclave, others offering President Nixon advice on how to outsmart Ho Chi Minh. The adult conversations were regularly interrupted by the whoops of pre-bar mitzvah boys pitching Spaldeen balls against the stoop of the building next door. Elisha stopped to eavesdrop on a debate between two rabbis on the current blazing issue in Jewish law: the permissibility of artificial insemination. A few shy yeshiva students clustered close by, confused and fascinated by the subject's unspoken premises.
But for Elisha's friends gathered across the street, the reigning topic was neither global affairs nor Jewish law but the previous night's opening World Series game. Their somber appearance meant Zanvel's report could not be good. Zanveleven the children called him by his first namewas the synagogue's inexplicable source for baseball scores on holidays when turning on a radio was forbidden; how he came by his impeccable information was an enduring mystery, another conundrum of those select European Chassidim who arrived to America's shores with prepackaged maps of its ways and means.
Zanvel welcomed Elisha with a hard slap on the back. "Nu, boychik, so what do you have to say? Your Mets, these new bums of ours, lost four to one." Zanvel reported the dismal details between rolling wheezes and a timpanist thumping on his chest. "I guess you'll have to pray harder," he said, wagging his finger at each of the boys.
They chortled in response, dismissing the profanity of petitioning the Lord of the Universe to assist their beloved baseball team, but knowing they'd indeed sneak in hurried appeals for the great cause. After all, this was a year for miraclestwo months earlier men had walked on the moon. Elisha and his friends lifted the brims of their hats and set about devising the ideal lineup for the next day's game. No one noticed Uncle Shaya walking toward them.
"Elisha," Uncle Shaya roared, though addressing them all. "I have a riddle for you about stealing looks at the priests during the blessing."
"Please, don't," Elisha implored silently. "Don't humiliate me…turn my feeble mischief into a piece of comedy." He bit on his lower lip, not knowing what to expect. His uncle was never predictable.
"Now think carefully," Uncle Shaya said, his voice, like his body, capacious and demanding. "Suppose the first time you peek at the priests, your right eye goes blind. And the second time you glance at them, you lose sight in your left eye. What happens the third time you peek?"
"Oh, c'mon, that's too easy," Elisha answered immediately, astonished no one else noticed the obvious trick.
"You can't look a third time 'cause you're already blind."