Questions, questions, and more questions spring from Letty Cottin Pogrebin’s newest novel. What kind of Jew are you? What determines your identity? What promises must be kept? Can love always prevail? Single Jewish Male Seeking Soul Mate is beautifully written and rife with artful and memorable phrasing, engaging humor, wit, pathos, and truthful characters. It passionately explores the themes of Jewish survival, black-Jewish relations, feminism, parenthood, guilt, and love.
Zach Levy grows up in the Bronx of the 1950s. His childhood is marred by a silent, preoccupied, and distant mother. She is a shell of a survivor who lost her first young son in the Holocaust. His outgoing father, who fought with the partisans, is Zach’s role model as he tries to make amends and excuses for his inattentive mother. He schools Zach in standing up for himself and the downtrodden, and surrounds him with his close circle of survivor friends from the schvitz who have found new and industrious lives in America. Although they were esteemed doctors in Poland, Rivka Levy now gives piano lessons and Nathan Levy works as a hatter. Zach excels in school and is the rabbi’s star pupil at Hebrew school. His parents have eschewed Judaism as a religion, but insist on living as cultural Jews and fighting for Jewish survival.
After Zach’s bar mitzvah, he becomes obsessed with his Jewish identity. He refuses to sing Christmas songs in school and constantly begs his parents for any details of his dead brother and the unmentionable war years. Is it any wonder that he becomes a successful attorney for the ACLU and takes on controversial Jewish, black, and feminist clients in the 1970s?
Zach also makes solemn promises and concessions to Rivka on her deathbed. Chief among them is that he must marry a Jewish girl, his beshert, and ensure Jewish continuity. Zach marries the Jewish girl and has a child, but his conventional life will soon fall apart. He maneuvers his way through many relationships until he meets Cleo Scott, a black radio host with a strong Christian background. As their relationship develops, Zach must figure out who he is and what choices he must make while he struggles to keep his reverence for Jewish tradition alive. Zach’s constant questioning and dilemmas lead him to friends, coworkers, and his boyhood rabbi for advice, insight, and comfort as he makes weighty decisions.
The background information and arguments presented by different characters may sometimes seem didactic or heavy- handed, but the reader is being educated in the social, historical, and political commentary of the times.