Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate

The Feminist Press at CUNY  2015

 

Questions, questions, and more questions spring from Letty Cottin Pogrebin’s newest novel. What kind of Jew are you? What determines your identity? What promises must be kept? Can love always prevail? Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate is beautifully written and rife with artful and memorable phrasing, engaging humor, wit, pathos, and truthful characters. It passionately explores the themes of Jewish survival, black-Jewish relations, feminism, parenthood, guilt, and love.

Zach Levy grows up in the Bronx of the 1950s. His childhood is marred by a silent, preoccupied, and distant mother. She is a shell of a survivor who lost her first young son in the Holocaust. His outgoing father, who fought with the partisans, is Zach’s role model as he tries to make amends and excuses for his inattentive mother. He schools Zach in standing up for himself and the downtrodden, and surrounds him with his close circle of survivor friends from the schvitz who have found new and industrious lives in America. Although they were esteemed doctors in Poland, Rivka Levy now gives piano lessons and Nathan Levy works as a hatter. Zach excels in school and is the rabbi’s star pupil at Hebrew school. His parents have eschewed Judaism as a religion, but insist on living as cultural Jews and fighting for Jewish survival.

After Zach's bar mitzvah, he becomes obsessed with his Jewish identity. He refuses to sing Christmas songs in school and constantly begs his parents for any details of his dead brother and the unmentionable war years. Is it any wonder that he becomes a successful attorney for the ACLU and takes on controversial Jewish, black, and feminist clients in the 1970s?

Zach also makes solemn promises and concessions to Rivka on her deathbed. Chief among them is that he must marry a Jewish girl, his beshert, and ensure Jewish continuity. Zach marries the Jewish girl and has a child, but his conventional life will soon fall apart. He maneuvers his way through many relationships until he meets Cleo Scott, a black radio host with a strong Christian background. As their relationship develops, Zach must figure out who he is and what choices he must make while he struggles to keep his reverence for Jewish tradition alive. Zach’s constant questioning and dilemmas lead him to friends, coworkers, and his boyhood rabbi for advice, insight, and comfort as he makes weighty decisions.

The background information and arguments presented by different characters may sometimes seem didactic or heavy- handed, but the reader is being educated in the social, historical, and political commentary of the times.

Related Content:

Read Letty Cottin Pogrebin's Visiting Scribe Posts

A Glimpse Into the Editing Process: What Didn't Make it Into the Book

The Tropical Fish That Didn't Make the Cut

On Writing about Black-Jewish Relations in a Novel

Tightening the Narrative

Discussion Questions

Courtesy of Letty Cottin Pogrebin

  1. What do we mean when we say we care about Jewish continuity? What do we want to continue and how do we propose doing it if we can't even agree amongst ourselves about "Who Is A Jew"?  

    Comment: A continuity with one’s history and legacy is a function of one’s personal experience regarding beliefs, traditions, politics etc, etc. For example, Zach ultimately found value in passing down his experience as a cultural Jew but not as a religious Jew since, despite his Hebrew School education, religious practices had little to do with his Jewish identity.

  2. Is is possible for Jews to view intermarriage as an opportunity for Jewish engagement rather than a "problem?” Is it better for more synagogues to accept intermarried couples with the proviso that their children be raised Jewish, rather than reject them or have their rabbis refuse to marry them.

    Comment: There are ways to communicate unconditional love, support and activism toward Jewish people's non Jewish spouses. Be it talking Torah with the Rabbi or making sandwiches for the hungry, or volunteering in the synagogue's homeless shelter, all members can be made to feel integral to the creation of community and the work of Tikkun Olam. As stated in the mission statement of one NYC synagogue, "If you choose us, we choose you."

  3. What is the lingering impact of inherited trauma? (i.e. the Holocaust for Jews; slavery for African-Americans.)

    Comment: It depends on one's ability to overcome a negative past -- either familial or communal -- and empower themselves to contribute to a more positive future. That said, possibly due to the number of Holocaust survivors in Zach's neighborhood in the Bronx in the '50s and '60ss, and the lack of perspective, guidance, role models and support systems in his childhood and young adult years, the lingering impact of his childhood trauma (.e. the death of a brother, an absent mother etc.) was that he was basically on his own, and lost, when it came to clarifying his relationship to Jewish life.

  4. Discuss the differences between Black-Jewish relations during the time of the novel's action and those relations today. What happened to erode the legendary Black-Jewish alliances of the Civil Rights era?

    Comment: Relations between Blacks and Jews are as much dependent on the historical moment and size of Jewish population as on geography and socioeconomics as evidenced by the B-J relations today in NYC as compared to, let’s say, Mississippi. With regard to Zach and Cleo, however, his struggle was not about accepting her as a black woman but as a Christian who was as wedded to her heritage, or more so, than Zach seemed to be to his.

  5. Compare and contrast the impact of racism in America as opposed to anti-Semitism.

  6. Discuss the female characters in the novel. How did you respond to each of them? Name the positive and negative traits of each? What do you think was the author's intent in making each of them problematic in one way or another?

  7. It's hard enough to find someone to love. Do you think it realistic to expect our kids to abandon their chosen mate if that person is not Jewish? Or if their chosen mate refuses to raise the children as Jews? Should the power of love, physical attraction, and romantic commitment trump the obligations of Jewish continuity, survival, and peoplehood?

  8. When Zach was trying to decide what to do about his son, he sought out the advice of three serious Jews: the Army Chaplain who had moved from Conservative Judaism to ultra-Orthodoxy; the Hebrew Union College Professor who identified as a Reform Jew and a historian of Judaism; and Zach's childhood rabbi, who falls somewhere in between. Whose point of view did you find most compelling?


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