The Choice: A Nov­el of Love, Faith, and Talmud

  • Review
By – May 16, 2022

Mag­gie Anton’s lat­est book, The Choice, mas­ter­ful­ly inter­weaves and explores love and faith through his­tor­i­cal events, Jew­ish tra­di­tions and his­to­ry, and the Talmud.

Anton has reimag­ined the main char­ac­ters from Chaim Potok’s The Cho­sen, added strong female char­ac­ters and voic­es, which were non-exis­tent pre­vi­ous­ly, and placed them years lat­er into mid-1950s Brook­lyn. The read­er is gift­ed with love sto­ries as well as a sto­ry of the love of learning.

Han­nah Eisen, pen name H.M. Cov­ey, an intel­li­gent, pro­fi­cient, and attrac­tive jour­nal­ist, is sent by the Yid­dish social­ist news­pa­per The Dai­ly Frei­heit to inter­view Rab­bi Nathan Man­del, a Tal­mud schol­ar and pro­fes­sor. They remem­ber their silent mutu­al attrac­tion as young class­mates. Han­nah attend­ed the Colum­bia School of Jour­nal­ism and spent many sum­mers work­ing with refugees in Israel. Nathan stud­ied for the Rab­binate and is now defend­ing his father’s con­tro­ver­sial book at his Ortho­dox university.

Han­nah con­vinces Nathan to teach her Tal­mud. Though this is for­bid­den to women, he is intrigued by Han­nah and the very idea. They meet clan­des­tine­ly over many months and Nathan is heart­ened and impressed by Hannah’s quick mind, astute ques­tion­ing, and their seri­ous dis­cus­sions. Their secre­tive schol­ar­ship grows into an impor­tant rela­tion­ship for both, but they keep their uncer­tain­ties and feel­ings hid­den from each other.

Encir­cling Han­nah and Nathan’s jour­ney is the ever-loom­ing pres­ence of their com­mu­ni­ty. Ben­ny Stockser, a learned Hasidic schol­ar, is the Rabbi’s son and is now a child psy­chol­o­gist. He and his Mod­ern Ortho­dox wife, Sharon, are strug­gling to incor­po­rate their oppos­ing prac­tices and views of Judaism into their mar­riage. Nathan’s father and Sharon’s par­ents rep­re­sent a more mod­ern Judaism, while Hannah’s one-time Com­mu­nist, athe­ist moth­er is remar­ried to an Ortho­dox attor­ney. Rab­bis of vary­ing degrees of prac­tice, opin­ion­at­ed fam­i­ly and friends, and Hannah’s Chris­t­ian Aunt Eliz­a­beth and her char­i­ta­ble foun­da­tion all influ­ence and are cen­tral to the plot. They reveal the many schisms of faith, love, and religion.

Mid-cen­tu­ry Brook­lyn his­tor­i­cal and cul­tur­al life is authen­ti­cal­ly detailed and described. Spe­cif­ic neigh­bor­hoods, sum­mer resorts, Dodger games and their new Jew­ish play­er Sandy Koufax, the HUAC Com­mit­tee, Salk’s mir­a­cle polio vac­cine, Sat­ur­day night dances, the movies, shows, and stores are nos­tal­gi­cal­ly recre­at­ed and enmeshed into the story.

The secret and lengthy Tal­mud ses­sions bring to light the inequal­i­ty and pow­er­less­ness of women. The actu­al Trac­tates pre­sent­ed are strate­gi­cal­ly cho­sen to match the sto­ry­telling as it occurs in the nov­el. The man­made rules regard­ing sex­u­al prac­tices, mikveh, men­stru­a­tion, syn­a­gogue par­tic­i­pa­tion, divorce, dress require­ments, hol­i­day rit­u­als, and many oth­er aspects of Jew­ish life and tra­di­tions are cri­tiqued for their treat­ment of women.

Han­nah begins to ques­tion and chal­lenge the cus­toms and laws of halacha affect­ing women’s roles and their sta­tus. As Nathan teach­es Han­nah, the read­er, too, becomes the stu­dent. The class­es become a guid­ed, learned, and under­stand­able Tal­mud edu­ca­tion. The help­ful glos­sary of Hebrew, Yid­dish, and Tal­mu­dic terms is a use­ful tool.

Han­nah and Nathan’s faith and love are test­ed as they encounter set­backs, mis­un­der­stand­ings, and strong con­flicts. They find their way through these life clash­es and deci­sions with a sense of jus­tice and respect. The Choice is a thought-pro­vok­ing, infor­ma­tive, impor­tant, and engag­ing read.

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