The Book of Jonah

  • Review
By – January 22, 2014

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.

Discussion Questions