Prayers for the Living
Prayers for the Living: A Novel by Alan Cheuse. (Fig Tree Books, 384 pp. $15.95 paper)
The dissolution of the modern Jewish family is, with rare exceptions, the subject of the modern Jewish novel. Whether it is the noisy press of radical politics or the quieter pressures of cultural assimilation, today’s Jews find themselves out of touch and out of favor.
To make matters worse, the Jewish family itself is being torn apart by a variety of jealousies and homegrown disloyalty. Alan Cheuse is a particularly articulate voice, good at casting a cold eye on the hot-button problems of Jewish life. As a result, Prayers for the Living is epic in scale and scope.
Take the novel’s title, for instance. Minnie Bloch, the protagonist’s mother and a force of nature, puts it this way: “Who needs ‘prayers for the dead’? It’s the living who matter, believe me. And it would not hurt if some of those prayers were directed toward my poor son Manny.”
Manny Bloch is Exhibit A in the author’s case against Jewish modernity. First a congregational rabbi, Manny becomes a highly successful businessman-entrepreneur, and then (Manny being Manny) he dreams of becoming an ambassador to a banana-producing country in Central America.
Manny wants more, much more, than usually comes with the territory of a rags-to-riches story. And it is this giddy sense of flight and fall, of boom and bust, that makes Manny so appealing. And this goes, almost without saying, as he dreams himself from one life to another. For more than a generation, Philip Roth’s Sophie Portnoy stood as the most castrating mother any young Jewish boy could imagine. No doubt, Mrs. Portnoy would disagree. Her biggest crime (she says) is that she is “too good.” Mrs. Bloch might well claim that she is “too loyal.” When she finds herself at a meeting of the grandmothers club, she defends Manny ferociously. Mrs. Pinsker (no relation of mine) may want desperately to turn the discussion toward her own grandchild, but Mrs. Bloch will have none of it; Mrs. Pinsker can’t get a word in edgewise.
Mrs. Bloch gives Prayers for the Living its humor and cockeyed optimism. But that does not mean that Cheuse hides the darker sides of modern Jewish history under a rug. Manny has a mistress, Florette, who is a Holocaust survivor. The numbers on her arm say everything about what cannot be explained. Most Jews are familiar with the chilling question, “Where was God during the Holocaust?” and it’s even chillier response: “Where was man?” Cheuse provides his own answer by placing Manny’s mistress beyond the pale of wagging tongues.
Cheuse is probably best known as a contributor to National Public Radio’s popular segment “All Things Considered.” He is also the author of novels, short stories and memoirs. Prayers for the Living is his most ambitious and most emotionally engaged novel.
In her foreword, author Tova Mirvis offers extravagant praise—Cheuse can do no wrong. My feeling is that Cheuse does a lot of things right. When added together, they make the case that he deserves a wide readership of those who want to see the immigrant Jewish experience from a fresh perspective.
It is a pleasure to recommend a novel this good and this wise.