Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, author of 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction, is guest-blogging all week for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council.
At the heart of my new novel, there’s a child. His name is Azarya Sheiner, and he’s the son of the rebbe of a small Hasidic sect living in an enclave a few miles up the Hudson from Manhattan. Azarya is six years old, and he is a mathematical prodigy of a rare and wonderful sort. I knew that once the story about him began to unfold, he’d be in danger of a tragic fate, and so I resisted bringing him into existence.
Azarya was born for me a long time ago, spawned out of a story by Aldous Huxley called “The Young Archimedes.” I’d read the story when I was an adolescent, and I never forgot it. An Englishman, who has rented a villa in the Italian countryside, discovers that a sweet peasant boy, Guido, is an untutored mathematical genius. The Englishman gives the boy some instruction from Euclid but then leaves, and the woman who owns the land that the boy’s family works takes Guido away. She’s seen the Englishman’s interest in the boy, and she thinks there’s money to be made. The boy has some musical talent, not unusual for the mathematically gifted, and her plan is to make a performing musician out of him, believing that this must have been the Englishman’s design The boy, dreadfully alone, missing his Euclid and his family, ends up leaping from a hotel window to his death.
An unbearably sad story, and for me it proved haunting. The thought of children in danger is an obsession, and mathematical genius is an abiding fascination. My imagination couldn’t let go of Huxley’s story, and at some point it began to transpose it into a Jewish story. I began to imagine another child of prodigious genius, born into circumstances inhospitable to its flowering. Azarya Sheiner, heir to the Valdener Hasidic dynasty, with his cherubic face and his uncertain fate, became painfully real to me.
Azarya sees numbers, which he thinks of as angels, an infinity of angels who whisper their secrets to him. One night at his father’s Shabbat table, where all the Hasidim are gathered, he delivers a d’var Torah about the angels which is actually a spectacular proof about prime numbers. Entranced, he points so that all the Hassidim can see the wondrous thing he’s showing them, unaware that none of them has understood a word he has spoken.
The book that contains Azarya, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction, is big and sprawling, and — though you’d never guess it from what I’ve written here — often funny. Its overarching theme is the many ways in which the religious sensibility finds expression, often in contexts that are entirely secular, such as romantic love.
But at the heart of the book is a small mathematical genius, standing on a giant table and pointing to something that only he can see. For me the sight of that sweet boy, exuberantly happy, is so lonely that I wonder how I wrote it.
Rebecca Newberger Goldstein is the author of 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction. Her most recent work on MyJewishLearning is Is Secularism Possible?. Visit the official website for the book at http://www.randomhouse.com/pantheon/authors/goldstein/. She’ll be blogging here all week.