An American Jewish family’s pilgrimage to Jerusalem is the subject of this debut novel from Hamburger (The View from Stalin’s Head, stories, 2004).
When 22-year-old underachiever Jeremy Michaelson almost dies of a drug overdose, pragmatic matron Helen shepherds him and her terminally ill husband David (a retired psychoanalyst) onto a tour (“Michigan Miracle 2000”) that arrives in Haifa during a punishing heat wave. While Jeremy, happily gay and ever on the prowl, checks out a “cute Hasid” and gets harassed by “handsome, snickering Arab bullies,” Helen searches the World of her Fathers for inspiration, guidance and an understanding of why she and David have produced two gay sons (her elder, unlike reckless Jeremy, is a respected professional secure in a long-term relationship). The novel thus splits into two halves. We follow Jeremy as he attends a rowdy Shabbat dinner hosted by an Orthodox acquaintance, courts a shy, closeted yeshiva student, flashes his Western liberal’s credentials in social situations that cry out for reticence, then undertakes a whirlwind affair with a deaf Palestinian kindergarten teacher (which puts the latter in very real danger). Meanwhile, Helen attracts the initially unwelcome attentions of sexy Rabbi Sherman, stumbles through a meeting with Shimon Peres at a public reception and experiences a moment of mingled enlightenment and further confusion in an underground cave (Jerusalem tourist attraction Hezekiah’s Tunnel)—in a lame echo of the Marabar Caves incident in E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India. Hamburger strives mightily for variety, introducing chapters with excerpts from Jewish history or doctrine (“Faith for Beginners,” as it were), and focusing briefly on the moribund David, as he resigns himself to his fate and returns home early. As Helen, Jeremy and their varied instructors all learn, “No one ever said it was easy to be a Jew. . . .”
Thoughtful, but too long and attenuated. At this stage of Hamburger’s career, his short stories are better.