In this novel, a middle-aged Jewish cantor’s life changes after an unexpected inheritance gives him new freedom.
Many people daydream about what they’d do with a sudden windfall. For Hal Perlmutter, 53, the most exciting part is that he can quit his job as cantor in a New Jersey synagogue. (Chazzonos is Jewish liturgical music that is sung or chanted by a cantor, or chazzan.) He loves the powerful old music and preparing young people for their bar mitzvahs, but—as he sums up in a tour-de-force speech—it comes down to one thing: “I’m tired of bosses….I want to answer only to myself….No bosses. No judges.” But money can’t solve other problems, like a difficult relationship with his daughter or his son’s new boyfriend (fine) being 20 years older than him (not so fine). Then Mimi, Hal’s girlfriend, challenges him: If she’s going to drop her own career and follow his dream of owning a bed-and-breakfast in the Berkshires, she wants to be married. But Hal considers marriage to be a prison. As the cantor muses on the elegance, peace and transcendence of his favorite chazzonos, he must answer to himself and rebuild connections with those he loves. In his debut novel, Rockler—a cantor himself—beautifully evokes Hal’s deep response to music: the haunting melodies, the powerful voices, the joy of song. Anchoring all this is Hal’s continuing sense of connection to the Jewish past. As an elderly Seder participant remarks, “We Jews will always remember Egypt. But who will remember Warsaw?” Rockler is adept at sketching a variety of characters—Mimi, for example, is admirably her own woman. He also nicely shows the progress of Hal’s thoughts and feelings as he slowly acknowledges his role in creating family tensions. After Hal deals with his daughter’s health crisis and rapprochement begins, the book loses some energy in chasing down the red-tape details of Hal’s inheritance and the B&B purchase. The novel could also use a cleanup for some incorrect punctuation.
A thoughtful, entertaining look at the ties—music, community, family—that bind.