Another rabbinical portrait, heavy on the whimsy, from the author of Till the End of Time (1990), etc. Rabbi Jonah Grief--the name, with its jokey combination of biblical prophet and heartfelt emotion, gives away the game--is giving a sermon for the Day of Atonement, the holiest day of the Jewish ritual year. It will be, he warns, ``the confession to end all confessions.'' In the course of it, he tells his elderly congregation the story of his life, from his unhappy childhood associations with religion through his eventful college years at Columbia in the turbulent '60s, his aimless years in rabbinical school, and his failed first marriage. The tone is a sort of relentlessly wiseacre stand-up routine, a tediously unfunny mÇlange of Lenny Bruce, Philip Roth, and MAD magazine. Whether he's examining his own lack of calling or the impotence that dooms his otherwise seemingly ideal first marriage, Grief exudes an unpleasant air of whining self-pity and self-loathing. But in the final third of the story, a startling change comes over him, Appel, and the book itself. With Grief's second marriage, to a tough-minded but loving Jew-turned-Buddhist, the story takes a refreshingly serious turn. Grief becomes rabbi in a small synagogue in the Hudson Valley and, for the first time in his life, finds true meaning and peace, as well as a fulfilling love. But it can't last: His wife contracts cancer and slips away, leaving him alone to face a splintered congregation that's not entirely happy with the innovations he's introduced, Buddhist meditation among them. The last 75 pages are genuinely moving, examining with great sympathy the experience of unexpected death. If only Appel had jettisoned the first two-thirds here and written a study of Grief's real grief and relations with his divided congregants in the wake of his loss.