Caught in a rainstorm at the 59th Street subway station in Manhattan on his way to a perfunctory fundraising event, ambitious and unattached corporate lawyer Jonah Daniel Jacobstein regrettably strikes up conversation with a gratingly oracular Hasidic man. Recounting, for the benefit of our hero, the story of Jonah’s Biblical namesake, the Hasid compares the sins of modernity to those of the eighth century BCE: “Ninveh, the flood, Sodom and Gomorrah. Don’t you know history is full of 9/11s?” he rants, to Jonah’s disgust. “Your bar mitzvah won’t save you, my friend!”
It certainly won’t: Jonah is not, by any means, a good man. He practically strives to fit the stereotype of the corporate lawyer, caring for nothing but his own comfort and advancement. So when his visions begin — inexplicable, horrifying perspective and images that torment and utterly disorient him — Jonah’s only motivation to seek redemption lies in his desperation to restore his self-indulgent, egocentric life. No message attends Jonah’s visions; no voice of God, no angel, no prophet. Inaction brings him no respite, action seems to make things worse, and escape only brings him nearer to his troubles without ever providing answers. What is demanded of this baffled, selfish being? Where (or what) is his Ninveh, and whom, exactly, is he supposed to save? Jonah’s every attempt to “do the right thing,” blindly casting about for the solution to this sudden rupture, retaliates against him, and it quickly becomes clear that Jonah is tragically incapable of becoming any better of a person — if that’s even what it will take.
As Jonah stumbles through his own travails, the novel shifts its focus to years earlier in the suburbs, where Judith, the privileged Prodigal Daughter of revered Jewish intellectuals, rounds off her elite Catholic girls’ school education with the achievement of everything she ever intended to accomplish: a love affair with the young, highly-desired male English teacher, academic supremacy, and her expected admission to Yale. As Judith’s freshman year starts out to predictable success, her story seems utterly incongruous to that of Jonah and his rapidly crumbling existence. And yet…
Joshua Max Feldman’s debut novel is an impressive experimentation with allegory and the antihero, leaning ever so lightly on the traditional Yom Kippur reading and exposing facets of the story heretofore unconsidered. Reimagining a modern-day Jonah as the Harry Potter of city street preachers — the unlikely savior of mixed parentage, straddled between the real world and suddenly-encountered mysticism — in a society of devotees of the iPhone and capital assets, Feldman transforms the archaic dichotomy of good-versus-evil into a profoundly contemporary rumination on the binary of evil and truth.
Nat Bernstein is the former Manager of Digital Content & Media, JBC Network Coordinator, and Contributing Editor at the Jewish Book Council and a graduate of Hampshire College.