Fic­tion

Ariel Sam­son: Free­lance Rabbi

By – July 29, 2019

Ariel Sam­son: Free­lance Rab­bi is a hilar­i­ous and thought-pro­vok­ing nov­el that draws us into the world of a late 20s Black ortho­dox rab­bi liv­ing in Brook­lyn. Ariel Sam­son acci­den­tal­ly becomes an inter­net TV per­son­al­i­ty, revi­tal­izes a local shul, which is then burned down in an attempt on his life, pub­licly chas­tis­es a local politi­cian for wear­ing black­face for Purim, and – in his spare time – tries to find his basherte.

Described as a semi-auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal sto­ry by the apt­ly-named author, MaN­ish­tana, the wild­ly orig­i­nal nar­ra­tive and autho­r­i­al voice illu­mi­nates the world of Amer­i­can Jews of Col­or, a group that recent­ly emerged as a pop­u­lar sub­ject, but oth­er­wise had long been invis­i­ble. Imag­ine A Con­fed­er­a­cy of Dunces set in mod­ern Brook­lyn writ­ten by a young Black ortho­dox rab­bi, com­plete with New York hip­sters, white Jews who can­not under­stand Black Jews, and a hos­tile rab­binic estab­lish­ment, and you’ve almost got it. But not quite.

The author’s self-reflec­tive voice makes this nov­el work. Some­times sim­ply fun­ny and, more often than not, wise-crack­ing to the read­er, MaN­ish­tana paints intense pic­tures of what it is like to be a Black Jew, like for this Jew­ish woman of col­or who can nev­er for­get her race:

Because when she [did], some­one at a kid­dish hand­ed their dirty plates to her because she was the help, obvi­ous­ly. Because she and her hus­band got stared down when they walked into Judaica shops. Because when enter­ing a new syn­a­gogue peo­ple asked her what coun­try she was from just because she wasn’t white, and assumed she was Ethiopi­an sole­ly because she was sim­ply black. Because some­one lit­er­al­ly called her exot­ic” as a compliment.

White Jews could for­get that they’re white, but she wasn’t ever allowed to for­get that she wasn’t.”

Or this graph­ic din­ner table conversation:

So, Ariel, where are you from?

Brook­lyn.

No, I mean, like your background.

Oh, that! Well my back­ground is most­ly in Eng­lish and Sec­ondary education.

But you’re like a con­vert, right?

No. No, I’m not.

Wow. Born Jew­ish? Amaz­ing! From Ethiopia, yeah??

No —

I love Ethiopi­an Jews. Every time I see one it’s just so cool.


But Ariel Sam­son is not a polemic. At one point, Ariel imag­ines his father’s reac­tion to his bris: That unbreak­able cord pierc­ing through time, brown­er than any­one thought it has the right to be, all obey­ing that pri­mor­dial Jew­ish com­mand­ment.” Pro­found moments like these empha­size our shared Jew­ish val­ues. Amid all the wise­cracks and humor, they show a wealth of Jew­ish knowl­edge and under­stand­ing. You’ll find your­self think­ing about them long after you’ve stopped laugh­ing and put the book down.

Discussion Questions

Ariel Sam­son: Free­lance Rab­bi, at once hilar­i­ous­ly fun­ny and intense­ly thought-pro­vok­ing, describes how a black Ortho­dox rab­bi becomes a TV per­son­al­i­ty and revi­tal­izes a Brook­lyn shul, break­ing rules and con­found­ing expec­ta­tions by the score. This is a loose­ly auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal sto­ry of the apt­ly named author MaN­ish­tana (née Shais Ris­hon), whose wild­ly orig­i­nal plot and autho­r­i­al voice draw us into the world of Amer­i­can Jews of col­or (JOC’s per the author), a group so lit­tle under­stood that even esti­mates of its size range some­where between 20,000 and 200,000. Imag­ine A Con­fed­er­a­cy of Dunces set in mod­ern Brook­lyn writ­ten by a black Ortho­dox rab­bi, com­plete with New York hip­sters as well as a hos­tile rab­binic estab­lish­ment, and you’ve almost got it. But you don’t have it, and you won’t have it, unless you read this high­ly orig­i­nal and rev­e­la­to­ry book. You will find your­self think­ing about what it means to be an out­sider in the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty long after the laugh­ter dies.