Sin­gle Jew­ish Male Seek­ing Soul Mate

By – May 15, 2015

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.

Reni­ta Last is a mem­ber of the Nas­sau Region of Hadassah’s Exec­u­tive Board. She has coor­di­nat­ed the Film Forum Series for the Region and served as Pro­gram­ming and Health Coor­di­na­tors and as a mem­ber of the Advo­ca­cy Committee.

She has vol­un­teered as a docent at the Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al and Tol­er­ance Cen­ter of Nas­sau Coun­ty teach­ing the all- impor­tant lessons of the Holo­caust and tol­er­ance. A retired teacher of the Gift­ed and Tal­ent­ed, she loves par­tic­i­pat­ing in book clubs and writ­ing projects.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Let­ty Cot­tin Pogrebin

  • What do we mean when we say we care about Jew­ish con­ti­nu­ity? What do we want to con­tin­ue and how do we pro­pose doing it if we can’t even agree amongst our­selves about Who Is A Jew”? 

Com­ment: A con­ti­nu­ity with one’s his­to­ry and lega­cy is a func­tion of one’s per­son­al expe­ri­ence regard­ing beliefs, tra­di­tions, pol­i­tics etc, etc. For exam­ple, Zach ulti­mate­ly found val­ue in pass­ing down his expe­ri­ence as a cul­tur­al Jew but not as a reli­gious Jew since, despite his Hebrew School edu­ca­tion, reli­gious prac­tices had lit­tle to do with his Jew­ish identity.

  • Is is pos­si­ble for Jews to view inter­mar­riage as an oppor­tu­ni­ty for Jew­ish engage­ment rather than a prob­lem?” Is it bet­ter for more syn­a­gogues to accept inter­mar­ried cou­ples with the pro­vi­so that their chil­dren be raised Jew­ish, rather than reject them or have their rab­bis refuse to mar­ry them.

Com­ment: There are ways to com­mu­ni­cate uncon­di­tion­al love, sup­port and activism toward Jew­ish peo­ple’s non Jew­ish spous­es. Be it talk­ing Torah with the Rab­bi or mak­ing sand­wich­es for the hun­gry, or vol­un­teer­ing in the syn­a­gogue’s home­less shel­ter, all mem­bers can be made to feel inte­gral to the cre­ation of com­mu­ni­ty and the work of Tikkun Olam. As stat­ed in the mis­sion state­ment of one NYC syn­a­gogue, If you choose us, we choose you.”

  • What is the lin­ger­ing impact of inher­it­ed trau­ma? (i.e. the Holo­caust for Jews; slav­ery for African-Americans.)

Com­ment: It depends on one’s abil­i­ty to over­come a neg­a­tive past — either famil­ial or com­mu­nal — and empow­er them­selves to con­tribute to a more pos­i­tive future. That said, pos­si­bly due to the num­ber of Holo­caust sur­vivors in Zach’s neigh­bor­hood in the Bronx in the 50s and 60ss, and the lack of per­spec­tive, guid­ance, role mod­els and sup­port sys­tems in his child­hood and young adult years, the lin­ger­ing impact of his child­hood trau­ma (.e. the death of a broth­er, an absent moth­er etc.) was that he was basi­cal­ly on his own, and lost, when it came to clar­i­fy­ing his rela­tion­ship to Jew­ish life.

  • Dis­cuss the dif­fer­ences between Black-Jew­ish rela­tions dur­ing the time of the nov­el­’s action and those rela­tions today. What hap­pened to erode the leg­endary Black-Jew­ish alliances of the Civ­il Rights era?

Com­ment: Rela­tions between Blacks and Jews are as much depen­dent on the his­tor­i­cal moment and size of Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion as on geog­ra­phy and socioe­co­nom­ics as evi­denced by the B‑J rela­tions today in NYC as com­pared to, let’s say, Mis­sis­sip­pi. With regard to Zach and Cleo, how­ev­er, his strug­gle was not about accept­ing her as a black woman but as a Chris­t­ian who was as wed­ded to her her­itage, or more so, than Zach seemed to be to his.

  • Com­pare and con­trast the impact of racism in Amer­i­ca as opposed to anti-Semitism.

  • Dis­cuss the female char­ac­ters in the nov­el. How did you respond to each of them? Name the pos­i­tive and neg­a­tive traits of each? What do you think was the author’s intent in mak­ing each of them prob­lem­at­ic in one way or another?

  • It’s hard enough to find some­one to love. Do you think it real­is­tic to expect our kids to aban­don their cho­sen mate if that per­son is not Jew­ish? Or if their cho­sen mate refus­es to raise the chil­dren as Jews? Should the pow­er of love, phys­i­cal attrac­tion, and roman­tic com­mit­ment trump the oblig­a­tions of Jew­ish con­ti­nu­ity, sur­vival, and peoplehood?

  • When Zach was try­ing to decide what to do about his son, he sought out the advice of three seri­ous Jews: the Army Chap­lain who had moved from Con­ser­v­a­tive Judaism to ultra-Ortho­doxy; the Hebrew Union Col­lege Pro­fes­sor who iden­ti­fied as a Reform Jew and a his­to­ri­an of Judaism; and Zach’s child­hood rab­bi, who falls some­where in between. Whose point of view did you find most compelling?