Though written before COVID-19, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the agitated lead-up to the 2020 election, Daniel Goodman’s novel, “A Single Life,” resonates with the pain of increased isolation, racial tension, and alienation as Eli Newman treads the arduous road to romance and struggles with his observant Jewish life.
A Single Life, by Daniel Ross Goodman (KTAV Publishing House, 2020)
A biracial neurotic yeshiva bocher searches for love. Daniel Goodman’s new novel, A Single Life, chronicles the adventures of Eli Newman as he reveals his vulnerabilities and foibles treading the arduous road to romance. For me, Eli’s story touched memories of a story I read long ago, Bernard Malamud’s The Magic Barrel, published in 1958. There too, a soon-to-be rabbi, desperate for a bride, falls down a rabbit hole of longing. Instead of settling down with a woman more conventionally suited to the role of rebbetzin, Malamud’s Leo Finkle pursues the wild, untamed daughter of his matchmaker. Whether the thunderbolt of love that hits him leads to doom or glory is left to the imagination of the reader.
Sixty years later loneliness and yearning feel more urgent than ever. Though it was written well before COVID-19, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the agitated lead-up to the 2020 election, reading A Single Life in the current climate resonates with the pain of increased isolation, racial tension, and alienation. The book opens with Eli receiving yet another rejection from an appropriate Jewish woman for a second date. Page one describes his dejection and hopelessness. Page two continues the story and is festooned, as are subsequent pages, with a long list of footnotes. These translate and explain Hebrew, Aramaic, and Yiddish phrases from the lexicon of orthodox Jewish life that structures our hero’s inner life and daily conduct. On page two alone, readers will encounter the names of well-known and esoteric Jewish texts and their authors, become familiar with the legend of the four Talmudic sages who engaged in mystical speculation, and learn about the biblical commandment to procreate.
Mr. Goodman sketches a brief background for his main character. Yeshiva life is the only life that Eli Newman he has ever known. He is the only child of a rigid, domineering orthodox white father and a black mother who died shortly after Eli’s birth. The singular detail of his abbreviated early history is that his father clipped his son’s intellectual wings by educating him exclusively in a right-wing yeshiva world that eschewed secular studies. Eli becomes a clandestine reader. Under cover of night in the yeshiva dorms, a flashlight illuminates his exploration of world literature. Eli’s imagination sprouts wildly as he pages through books, philosophy, sports, and, most of all, fiction.
The plot line of A Single Life removes Eli from his sequestered yeshiva in Baltimore and situates him in his first real job. At age thirty-one, he moves to New England to teach Talmud in a failing Jewish high school. There, in Connecticut, Eli meets a woman: the beautiful, beguiling, and one-hundred-percent-not-Jewish Emma Yates. This brilliant shiksa goddess teaches English in the same school. We learn little about Eli’s relationship with other faculty members or the students in his charge. The novel focuses on Eli’s picaresque cyber courtship of his colleague and details a scathingly vulnerable, funny, and touching tour of his fantasies.
The decades since Malamud are palpable in Mr. Goodman’s vivid descriptions of Eli’s erotic imaginings and circuitous psyche. As Eli stumbles to reconcile Emma’s Catholic origins with his own complex adherence to observant Jewish life, the reader is treated to laugh-out-loud lines. An example is the imaginary dialogue that follows Eli’s daydream of fumbled efforts to consummate his marriage to Emma on his fantasy of their wedding night.
“Un-huh….I see….” She threw a cautious glance at the window curtains, leaned back and asked him, “Do you know about the erogenous zones?”
“Like the tropics?”
“I guess not….”
She sighed, and tilted her head. “Okay…do you know what the G-spot is?”
“You mean like on the violin?”
“Hmm…it’s gonna be a long night.”
Mixed in with his romantic and erotic longings are passages of Eli’s internal ruminations. Snatches of email correspondence with a yeshiva buddy enliven the serious world of immersive Talmud study. Yes, Eli is obsessional and avoidant, but he is also capable of deep spirituality and desire. He reckons with doubt as well, recalling the story of Yaakov of Scranton, an apocryphal tale that was recounted annually in Eli’s Baltimore yeshiva by a revered teacher. Yaakov, a magnificently gifted young scholar, became an apostate because he failed to grasp the inherent joy of observant religious life. Rote adherence to ritual, Eli understands, is not enough to sustain a traditional Jewish life in the face of modern enticements.
Mr. Goodman writes with warmth and humor about his reclusive hero. The book begs for a sequel. I want to know more about Eli Newman’s backstory and his reckoning with his Black heritage. Of course, I want to find out if he manages to achieve a coupled life. Daniel, please write on.
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