Taub, Yermiyahu Ahron. “Prodigal Children in the House of G-d”, Austin Macauley Publishing, 2018.
A Personal Book, A Personal Review
Every few years, a book comes along that represents so much of my own personal feelings that it becomes one of those special volumes that sit on my desk so that I can refer to it often. This is such a book but it is even more than that—it is a symbol of friendship that grew out of my respect for Yermiyahu Ahron Taub’s writing. First and foremost, Taub is a poet who I first met through his poetry as I slowly moved through his first four books. Then about four years ago he came to Boston for the Massachusetts Poetry Festival and I not only had the chance to meet him and hear him read but he read at my Temple and wowed the congregants. Two more books of poetry came, one in Yiddish and then there was a translation of stories from Yiddish to English and now this collection of ten short stories.
“Prodigal Children in the House of G-d” is an exploration that takes us into the themes of family, community, and exile largely from ultra-Orthodox Jewish and/or queer perspectives (with that sentence, some of you already understand why this book is so important to me). There are no specific locations in the stories thus making them truly universal as they can be set anywhere. They are set in the present, or perhaps the past or the future—it does not matter. What does matter is how the characters deal with religious tradition as they take steps to reshape their lives and, in many cases, do so at great personal risk. We meet an elderly woman who lives alone and reflects on a love from long ago; we read of a trip that changes a mother and daughter forever and of a married Torah scholar who comes upon romance in an unexpected place.
As in traditional Orthodox Judaism the stories are separated by gender; there are five stories of daughters, five of sons yet they come together in amazing ways thus showing the oneness of both the Jewish and “other” communities. We sense the love with which Taub created his characters, they are part of the gentleness and sensitivity of the author himself and it would not surprise me to learn that the characters are different aspects of his own life. Like so many of us (and I do not mean just those who grew up in traditional Jewish homes), the characters question the lives they have inherited or chosen. Some have made good choices and others not so good. All of them are on journeys.
With a background in poetry, it is no surprise that Taub’s prose is lyrical with each word carefully chosen. It is amazing to read what he is able to share in just a few words and/or sentences.
In each story we have a look at a lonely soul dealing with the demands of ultra-Orthodox or other conservative tradition. They are lesbians, heterosexuals, gay men and they struggle to live on their own terms. Taub uses a bit of psychological insight into the minds of his created characters and I was reminded of the way that Aviva Zornberg looks at Torah. There is always more than meets the eye. We are all aware of the gaps in the way parents see faith and in the way their children do but here it is sweet and tender. We see courage and we see love and respect but more than anything else we see the beauty of life and the beauty of words on a page. I debated with myself as I wrote this review whether or not to summarize each story but I realized that this would be a disservice to those who have yet to read them. Let me say that not only was I moved by what I read but I was also led to think about how others have dealt with the same issues that I dealt with and the place of religion, God and faith in my life. (A note on the spelling of the name G-d—many feel that we should only use the full name in prayer, hence the middle letter is deleted when not at prayer. I did this for many years but I no longer feel the need to do so since I have established my own relationship with the Divine).
Do not think that once you have finished reading the book that your relationship with the characters is over. They will stay with you. I read this over a month ago and I think about it every day. What I really found to be amazing is that everyone, regardless of religion and/or faith, will have something of him/herself here.
*A note on transliteration and pronunciation and a glossary of Hebrew and Yiddish terms appear at the end of the book. The book includes two pairs of interlocking stories.