The Rabbi's Husband
by Brenda Barrie
Gray Matter Consultants LLC, 2011
$ 15.95, 318 pages
To describe The Rabbi’s Husband as “chick lit” would be both accurate and misleading. Chick lit typically features a female protagonist whose womanhood is central to the plot and addresses issues pertaining to women in contemporary settings — gender equality, balancing motherhood and career, etc. Moreover, the protagonist’s relationships with her family and friends constitute another important theme in the chick lit genre. They are not “romance novels,” even when the relationship with the significant other is the central issue at stake. These staples of chick lit are present in Barrie’s novel, but the plot also involves deeper questions of self-discovery, identity and authenticity within but not confined to Jewish practice and belief.
The novel begins in December, 1994, in Minneapolis, and concludes right before Passover a few months later, in Orange County, California. Tovah Feldner, the rabbi, is the principal character, but her husband, Dan Goldin, the title character, is just as important. The continuation of their marriage is in the balance, after all. The novel is related in alternating chapters focusing on the husband and wife, though a bit more emphasis is paid to Tovah.
The novel starts with a prologue in which it is clear that the husband and wife are not really communicating; both are preoccupied with their own private misgivings. They’ve been living in Minnesota for only a short while, having met in Indiana, and have begun a family. Dan is the househusband, caring for their two children, Ari and Leah, and Tovah is adjusting to her first rabbinical position at Temple Isaiah, a Reform congregation. Raised in the Conservative tradition, Tovah is clearly unhappy with the more loosey-goosey observances of Reform Judaism and immerses herself in her work, seeking to bury her own internal conflicts. She likes having Dan to rely on for the day-to-day chores while she devotes herself to her sermons.
Dan is likewise preoccupied. He is consumed by the condition of their daughter, Leah, who was born prematurely and exhibited symptoms of Cerebral Palsy. He has been working with her to get her motor skills up to speed, when one of the doctors brings up the possibility that Leah suffers from a genetic disease, Dystonia, a neurological movement disorder. Born Catholic, Dan was raised by adoptive Jewish parents after his birth mother gave him up for adoption. He freaks out, needing to know more about the parents who brought him into the world. Not only is the genetic background crucial, but his racial identity is also questionable (his birth parents are of mixed French and Vietnamese heritage, we later learn). As much for himself as for his family, whom he loves and to whom he is devoted, Dan needs to resolve these riddles, and he bolts, leaving a note behind that Tovah does not find where he left it in his workshop for several days. To Tovah, whose parents come to her rescue from Madison, where her father, Eliezer Feldner, is a prominent Conservative rabbi, this feels like nothing but desertion, betrayal. Moreover, Dan has a history of bailing when the situation becomes too tight, having previously dropped out of both law school and business school. Can the guy make a commitment to anything?
Over the course of the next few months, both Tovah and Dan embark on different paths of discovery. Tovah applies for a rabbinical opening at a start-up Conservative shul in Orange County, CA, and Dan immerses himself in New York, searching for clues to his mother’s identity, armed only with a sketch of her that his adoptive father’s law partner drew long ago. In the meantime, each in his/her own way seeks the path toward reconciliation, both knowing what a good thing they have as marriage partners.
Sometimes the characters’ soul-searching is so intense, you can practically see the cartoon thought-bubbles over their heads, as in a Roy Lichtenstein painting. “If only Dan could hear her, too. She should have said all this to him long ago,” Tovah laments with self-reproach. Or, “Tovah knew she should have brought up the subject of changing from Reform to the more traditional Conservative wing of Judaism months earlier. But what if she’d felt commanded by that tradition, but Dan had not?” And Dan: “He’d wanted to phone. He even knew where the pay phone was located. He’d thought about talking to Tovah every moment since he’d left. Despite his fixation over finding his mother, despite the fact he believed his quest was crucial....” And, “He’d never shared his need to search for his mother with Tovah because it seemed so preposterous.” Man, talk about self-examination and flagellation! Bring on the hair-shirts.
...enlightening in its spiritual thrust, thought-provoking and insightful in its focus on characters...
It’s finally the death of a dear friend and an earthquake that bring the two back together. Tovah is thriving in her new role as a Conservative rabbi at a do-it-yourself congregation in Southern California. Dan, who was pushed by his Episcopal priest friend Jo to call Tovah in the first place, has realized what a mistake he has made in abandoning his family, while still intensely pursuing his personal research. He returns to Madison for the funeral of his friend Michael, whose sudden heart attack has devastated the Feldners. This first reunion is more than a little awkward at first, but gradually the two become closer, and after the earthquake, which occurs on the heels of the shiva observance, Dan in frantic to reunite with his family. But Tovah knows he must discover the secrets of his mother and of his own identity before they can truly live together again. Which he does.
The Rabbi’s Husband is a deeply Jewish book, with lots of detail about Jewish ritual and observance, from Shabbat and Shiva to tikkun olam and prayer and the kavannah it requires. Yiddish, Hebrew and Ladino words abound and their impact on tradition is thoroughly explicated. A true education in Jewish culture and tradition.
Like a lot of chick lit, The Rabbi’s Husband is heartwarming and engrossing as melodrama — as readers we really get caught up in the lives of the characters — but also enlightening in its spiritual thrust, thought-provoking and insightful in its focus on characters coming to terms with who they really are, what they value most, how they see themselves fitting into the world. Again, in the chick lit style, to paraphrase Garrison Keillor, all the women are strong and good-looking, and all the men are indecisive.
My only quibble with the plot is why Dan doesn’t make use of his adoptive parents as a resource for finding out about his birth parents. The Goldins do not really figure into the plot at all, and there is no hint that they are estranged from their son in any way that would prevent him from consulting them. But other than that the story is pleasingly put together as a heroic quest, and fittingly it ends on a Shabbat family observance. Also, while the book’s title might seem an obvious one from the plot description, when it’s mentioned in the text, it’s really quite funny!