Leav­ing East­ern Parkway

  • Review
By – September 12, 2022

At the begin­ning of Matthew Daub’s mov­ing com­ing-of-age nov­el Leav­ing East­ern Park­way, the young nar­ra­tor, Zev Alt­shul, under­goes dev­as­tat­ing tragedies that com­pel him to flee his closed world of Lubav­itch Jew­ry, the ultra-Ortho­dox enclave along East­ern Park­way in Brooklyn.

It turns out, how­ev­er, that Zev has already been act­ing on his own shame­ful urge to go off the derech,” to swerve from the path direct­ed by the strict expec­ta­tions of Hasidic life. Like his old­er sis­ter Fri­da (ne Fray­da), who left the fold years before to pur­sue a reimag­ined OTD life as an artist, Zev has found his own path (an alter­nate, or per­haps high­er” school, as his name sug­gests?), anoth­er way to express his need for spir­i­tu­al mean­ing. Zev’s new derech, it turns out, is hand­ball, specif­i­cal­ly one-wall” hand­ball, made famous on the hard­scrab­ble — and now myth­ic — courts of Brighton Beach, Brook­lyn, where play­ers with mem­o­rable names like Vic Her­shkowitz and Moe Oren­stein once ruled. I am,” Zev con­fess­es, in deep­er com­mu­nion with Hashem on the hand­ball court than in prayer or Torah study.” Pack­ing to leave Brook­lyn, Zev places his hand­ball gear next to my tzitz­it and tefill­in. These con­flict­ing objects told the sto­ry of my life.”

Hand­ball suf­fus­es Zev with a reli­gious fer­vor bor­der­ing on the ecsta­t­ic. Leav­ing East­ern Park­way charts his spir­i­tu­al and moral growth as he dis­plays his superb phys­i­cal skills, his uncan­ny abil­i­ty to ana­lyze oppo­nents’ weak­ness­es, and his obses­sive need to win. In the process, this Jew­ish city game emerges as Zev’s sur­ro­gate reli­gion: hand­ball looms, in this respect, as the sym­bol of Zev’s long­ing for a more mean­ing­ful, per­son­al Zion, a place where his unground­ed Jew­ish self can call home.

The emo­tion­al land­scape sketched in the nov­el is filled with sur­ro­gate father fig­ures who help Zev allay the pain of his numer­ous hurts, above all the trau­ma of fil­ial betray­al and a pierc­ing sense of guilt for hav­ing turned away from Ortho­dox Jew­ish prac­tice. Daub keeps his hero mov­ing, geo­graph­i­cal­ly and spir­i­tu­al­ly, from Hasidic Brook­lyn to the less rig­or­ous but more empath­ic world of Reformed Judaism found in the col­lege town of Urbana, Illi­nois, where Zev flees with his sec­u­lar sis­ter to escape the life-threat­en­ing clutch­es of East­ern Parkway.

Along the way Zev meets Joe Car­cone, one of the rebbes of the street game,” who will become the key influ­ence in the young man’s life. Joe is, like Zev, in exile from his native Brook­lyn, a fel­low mis­fit dis­placed in the Mid­west. Upon his first encounter with the young Jew­ish hand­ball phe­nom, Joe exclaims, “’You’re what I’ve been pray­ing for, Junior.’” The feel­ing turns out to be mutu­al. Zev sens­es the sad­ness in Joe Carcone’s voice.… I thought he must be just like me — hap­pi­est when he is play­ing handball.”

For Zev, Joe becomes a ther­a­pist, a con­fi­dante, a pro­tec­tor, and ulti­mate­ly a rebbe, whose hand­ball phi­los­o­phy teach­es Zev how to be a men­sch. For Joe, Zev replaces the son he has lost, allow­ing him a mea­sure of rec­on­cil­i­a­tion with his unre­solved past. I was,” an awak­ened Zev now rec­og­nizes, his shot at redemp­tion, his sec­ond chance to be a bet­ter father and prove to him­self he was not the same man who had brought such pain to his fam­i­ly.” In the end, their shared pas­sion for hand­ball binds them, leav­ing a balm of rach­mones” — Jew­ish mer­cy — on their mutu­al­ly self-lac­er­at­ing, tor­tured souls.

Read­ers may locate a key com­ple­ment to Daub’s nov­el in the great Brook­lyn-born pho­tog­ra­ph­er Jerome Liebling. In his stun­ning col­lec­tion, The Peo­ple, Yes (1995), he cap­tures the world of Jew­ish hand­ball play­ers, aged but still mag­nif­i­cent. They have become glad­i­a­tors of a sort,” Liebling reflects, embody­ing all the val­or that a life of phys­i­cal move­ment, sweat and great savvy bring to age.” At the end of Leav­ing East­ern Park­way, Zev aspires to an equiv­a­lent myth­ic sta­tus: The tough as a gris­tled brisket Jew who would rule the courts of New York.” In the end, it remains an open ques­tion whether Daub’s hand­ball-obsessed hero will indeed ful­fill such a heady self-prophecy.

Don­ald Weber writes about Jew­ish Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture and pop­u­lar cul­ture. He divides his time between Brook­lyn and Mohe­gan Lake, NY.

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