Endearing Book is One in a Minyan
By Barbara Rich
from The Daily Progress, January 2, 2005
Reading page after page, chapter after chapter,
of Eliezer Sobel's novel, Minyan:
Ten Jewish Men in a World That is Heartbroken, inspired
this reviewer to contemplate two disparate impulses.
One was the desire to —under adequate anesthesia
— slice off a bit of the top of Sobel's cranium and peer
into the recesses of his brain. The other had to do with
the challenge of creating a unique compoud — one containing
equal elements of wild comedy and despairing self-doubt comparable
to that of his characters.
What we have in Minyan is a group
of neurotioc, middle-aged Jewish men who have not reached
the mixed joys of full maturity. The word "minyan" means "the
quorum of ten men needed to conduct a religious service," and
we meet nine of them gathered to mourn the death of one Freddy
Lipschitz, a man who met his end via a needle dangling from
his arm. In truth, the deceased was counted as part of the
minyan, which is not according to custom, but with this assemblage,
being proper is the last item on their to-do list.
Many years ago, the maker of a certain brand of bread (the
name escapes me) launched an advertising campaign that proclaimed: "You
don't have to be Jewish to enjoy rye bread." One doesn't
need to be Jewish to revel in Minyan, especially
when Sobel has thoughtfully provided a comprehensive Yiddish/hebrew
glossary for reference.
Back to the book: We learn the history of the
men's childhood friendships from the lips of Norbert Wilner,
who, at the age of 37, has neither job nor wife. Only two
of these buddies are married and gainfully employed.
What we discover about Wilner and his friends
is, by turn, hilarious and heartbreaking. For example, there's
a born-again lapsed lawyer, a Hindu, a drug pusher in business
with his tough-talking mother, a man whose entire possessions
could fit into two boxes, a sports fiend and an atheist composer.
They — and the rest — form a kind of outcast
society, bound together by their common past and their current
angst. Also, they share a passion for deli. Lliving in New
York, where deli is a virtual art form, this is a given.
Some of the funniest parts of the book take place in Manhattan's
famous Carnegie Deli.
So what can one make of this book? Everything.
it is Seinfeld with meaning, humor with tragic bite, sorrow
with one-liners. And it has, as an added attraction, a suprememly
unconventional rabbi who comes up with convoluted answers
to on-the-mark questions.
Here's how Reb Miltie answers a question about
what a Jewish heart is: "When it's broken by the world.
When the entire world breaks your heart, tears you apart,
and yet fills you with joy... that's a Jewish heart."
Wilner becomes a convert of this dancing man
— this man of inner joy and outer contradictions. And he
spreads Miltie's gospel, with various results. But, then,
nothing is simple in this stunning book — neither metaphors,
intentions nor obsessions. Everyone yearns for non-jewish
women — uncomplicated blondes with slim bodies. Finkelstein
managed to marry one, but she's getting heavy, and has a
habit of buying stuff.
There are chapters bearing the names of each
of the principals, along with those in italic print recalling
pivotal events in their younger lives. "Minyan" seemingly
has no grand plan — to say it's not linear is a masterpiece
Yet it somehow manages to come together and
makes, as the trendy are wont to put it, a statement. A statement
about argumentative friendship, of tearing the other down
and then helping with the restoration. It makes a statement
of conflicted life and inevitable death, and of Jewish mothers
and one non-Jewish young woman who is both sexually desirable
(a vote is taken) and enigmatic, the beguiling Rachel.
Sobel lives in Batesville, and it took him
about 20 years to write Minyan, winner of the
Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel. There is little doubt
that he has a slew of words still dancing in his head, which
will, eventually, emerge to dance on the printed page.
Minyan: Ten Jewish Men in a World
That is Heartbroken made
me laugh and become misty-eyed. It is, in an unorthodox way,
a celebratory book, with the inner heft of a thick slab of
brisket, accompanied by the mustard, slaw, and Kosher pickles
so dear to the hearts — and stomachs — of this group of
maddeningly endearing life-long friends.