Rachel Can­tor is the author of the nov­el A High­ly Unlike­ly Sce­nario, or a Neet­sa Piz­za Employee’s Guide to Sav­ing the World. With the pub­li­ca­tion of her sec­ond nov­el, Good on Paper, she is blog­ging here all week as a Vis­it­ing Scribe on The ProsenPeo­ple.

I didn’t set out to write a rab­bi char­ac­ter when I start­ed writ­ing my nov­el Good on Paper. What do I know about rab­bis? I have rab­bi friends, but Ben­ny isn’t mod­eled after any­one. He is a no-longer-large man who, when younger and strapped for cash, got sea­son­al jobs play­ing San­ta (he was fired when he wouldn’t remove his tzittz­it); now he runs through Cen­tral Park every day in his cher­ry-red bodysuit.

No, Ben­ny isn’t any­one I know. He runs a book­store on the Upper West Side known as Peo­ple of the Book; it’s known for its a Great Wall of Poet­ry, also its pyra­mid of lit­er­ary mag­a­zines. He can name the last title in the Nan­cy Drew series, both alpha­bet­i­cal­ly and chrono­log­i­cal­ly. His store fea­tures shelves with labels like Games Peo­ple Play and All Things Green (books on the envi­ron­ment, mon­ey, and envy man­age­ment”). He is him­self (of course) a failed poet, and edi­tor of a fail­ing lit­er­ary mag­a­zine called Gilgul, named after the soul reborn in anoth­er body.

Though of var­ied inter­ests, Ben­ny is def­i­nite­ly a rab­bi. He is ordained; he has parish­ioners, pre­sum­ably through a havu­rah or alter­na­tive minyan; he leads High Hol­i­day ser­vices; he pre­sides over wed­dings (pock­et­ing knish­es to share with my nar­ra­tor) and acts as a vir­tu­al mohel (for those who want the cel­e­bra­tion with­out the slice”). He knows his Tanakh; he wants to learn” — i.e., study Torah — with my nar­ra­tor; he auto­mat­i­cal­ly thinks about words in terms of their Gematria.

So why a rab­bi? I wasn’t try­ing to make any kind of the­o­log­i­cal point. My nar­ra­tor Shi­ra is, to say the least, a sec­u­lar Jew. She imag­ines that her moth­er, who aban­doned her when Shi­ra was a child, was Catholic because, when they lived in Rome she vis­it­ed lots of church­es. She doesn’t know for sure — frankly, she doesn’t care. Shi­ra expe­ri­ences no reli­gious con­ver­sion or Jew­ish awak­en­ing as a result of [spoil­er alert!] falling for Ben­ny. I had no such agenda. 

The ori­gin of a novel’s ele­ments are often mys­te­ri­ous, per­haps espe­cial­ly to an author. Look­ing back now, at the fin­ished book, I think I was attract­ed by the idea of a man who is sup­posed to be” cer­tain about mat­ters of faith, but is in fact extreme­ly human, with all a human person’s foibles, flaws, and, yes, doubts. Ben­ny preach­es for­give­ness dur­ing the Days of Awe, but he is unable him­self to for­give; he yearns to set an exam­ple, but again and again he errs. At the same time, his very Jew­ish quest­ing, his yearn­ing and open­ness, open some­thing in Shi­ra. It proves to make all the difference. 

Rachel Can­tors sto­ries have appeared in mag­a­zines such as the Paris Review, One Sto­ry, Ninth Let­ter, Keny­on Review, and the New Eng­land Review. Rachel lives in New York, in the writer­ly bor­ough of Brook­lyn. She is, always, at work on anoth­er book.

Relat­ed Content:

Rachel Can­tor was born in Hart­ford, Con­necti­cut, and raised in Rome. She worked for jazz fes­ti­vals in France and food fes­ti­vals in Aus­tralia before get­ting degrees in inter­na­tion­al devel­op­ment and fic­tion writ­ing. Her short sto­ries have appeared in The Paris Review, One Sto­ry, Keny­on Review, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. She lives in Brook­lyn, New York.