The 12th Commandment

  • Review
By – January 16, 2023

Daniel Torday’s third nov­el, The 12th Com­mand­ment, cen­ters on a mur­der in the fic­tion­al Jew­ish Islam­ic Dön­me com­mu­ni­ty of Mt. Izmir, Ohio. Zeke Leg­er, the edi­tor of a mag­a­zine in New York, returns to Mt. Izmir, his col­lege town in Cen­tral Ohio, for the funer­al of a friend — and he ends up stay­ing to inves­ti­gate the mur­der of Osman, the six­teen-year-old son of the Dön­me cult leader, Natan of Flat­bush. Natan is the main sus­pect in the mur­der. And Zeke’s for­mer col­lege girl­friend, Johan­na Franklin, is the lead pros­e­cu­tor for the case.

The nov­el is punc­tu­at­ed by extracts from Natan’s prison diaries. These sec­tions, in their abstract explo­ration of mys­tic tra­di­tions, may be slight­ly less com­pelling for some read­ers. To use a kab­bal­is­tic term, they may have ben­e­fit­ed from a bit of tzimtzum, or con­trac­tion. Out­side of his diary, how­ev­er, Natan is one of the most vivid char­ac­ters in the nov­el. In the hands of a less­er writer, he might have come across as a car­toon fanat­ic, or what Amos Oz called a walk­ing excla­ma­tion mark”; but Torday’s punchy dia­logue and expert­ly drawn scenes bring life to Natan’s pon­tif­i­ca­tions on Kabbalah.

Tor­day is a nim­ble prose styl­ist. He uses his descrip­tive pow­ers in fresh and imag­i­na­tive ways, from depict­ing Zeke’s wild, drug-induced mikveh bathing, to report­ing mat­ter-of-fact­ly on the cold, bar­ren Ohio land­scape. Tor­day is also an ambi­tious sto­ry­teller. In addi­tion to the mur­der inves­ti­ga­tion, he describes a strug­gle for con­trol over Ohio’s soon-to-be-legal­ized weed and a renewed love affair between Zeke and Johan­na. The rekin­dling of their romance unfolds most­ly in her dark bed­room, under a ceil­ing of glow­ing star stick­ers. Their dynam­ic is fun­ny and touch­ing, but it feels a bit familiar.

Some of the best and most mem­o­rable scenes involve Zeke find­ing him­self in the mid­dle of tense con­fronta­tions between heav­i­ly armed cult mem­bers, the star line­men of the local high school foot­ball team, and the small town’s sher­iff. Such moments feel alive and dan­ger­ous. As an out­sider in these com­mu­ni­ties, Zeke func­tions as a proxy for the read­er, who is learn­ing along­side him about the tra­di­tions and beliefs of the sect. And, lucky for us, he is always at the cen­ter of the action.

The 12th Com­mand­ment tack­les dif­fi­cult ques­tions of faith and fanati­cism with humor and nuance. The dis­parate nar­ra­tive strands that com­prise the nov­el don’t quite come togeth­er at the end, but they nonethe­less make for a strange, enjoy­able ride.

Omer Fried­lan­der was born in Jerusalem in 1994 and grew up in Tel Aviv. He is the author of the short sto­ry col­lec­tion The Man Who Sold Air in the Holy Land, win­ner of the Asso­ci­a­tion of Jew­ish Libraries Fic­tion Award and a final­ist for the Wingate Prize. The book was cho­sen as an Amer­i­can Library Asso­ci­a­tion Sophie Brody Medal Hon­or Book for out­stand­ing achieve­ment in Jew­ish Lit­er­a­ture and longlist­ed for the Sto­ry Prize. Omer has a BA in Eng­lish Lit­er­a­ture from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cam­bridge and an MFA from Boston Uni­ver­si­ty, where he was sup­port­ed by the Saul Bel­low Fel­low­ship. He was a Star­works Fel­low in Fic­tion at New York Uni­ver­si­ty. His col­lec­tion has been trans­lat­ed into sev­er­al lan­guages, includ­ing Turk­ish, Dutch, and Ital­ian. His writ­ing has been sup­port­ed by the Bread Loaf Fel­low­ship and Ver­mont Stu­dio Cen­ter Fel­low­ship. He cur­rent­ly lives in New York City and teach­es cre­ative writ­ing at Colum­bia University.

Discussion Questions