Sobel's 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 of understatement.

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 2003 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.

 
       
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Winner of the Knoxville Writer’s Guild 2003 Peter Taylor Prize for the Novel
 
     
 
       
 

“…equal elements of wild comedy and despairing self-doubt… Seinfeld with meaning, humor with tragic bite, sorrow with one-liners.