Taub, Yermiyahu Ahron. “Beloved Comrades: A Novel in Stories”, Anaphora Literary Press, 2020.
Several years ago I discovered the poetry of Yermiyahu Taub and it was such a rewarding experience that I immediately became a fan. I eagerly await each book he publishes and find myself reading as quickly as possible but feeling down afterwards because the experience is over and I have to wait for him to write another book. I often immediately reread his work to better savor the beauty of his words and plot just as I did here. I am sure that his relevance for me is because we share the same communities— Jewish and queer.
In “Beloved Comrades”, Taub brings us the story of three generations and the Orthodox Jewish community. A new synagogue provides a place for the three generations that we meet here. Told in chapters that come together to form a novel, we meet unforgettable characters that many of us are all too familiar with but that are also brought to us in new ways.
Arnold is co-owner of a car service with a reserved seat at his Yeshivah. However, he often finds that his seat is taken by others and so he does the logical thing—-he decides to create his own synagogue where everyone is welcome. There is to be no rabbi and Arnold is clearly running the show. He wants the synagogue to be a community of friends (comrades) and he names it with a name that reminds one of socialism. He sets the goal of helping his members forget their memories of exclusion and heartbreak and he wants his house of worship to be a haven for those who feel different and marginalized where everyone enjoys being treated kindly or as Taub says with “kindness just short of pity.”
We do not meet complete characters at first. Rather, Taub has the plot develop through the course of their stories and we see that they share pasts filled with secrets and shame. He builds his characters through his beautiful prose thus pulling us in and making us feel that we are gaining new friends. Along with the character development, we also get physical descriptions that emerge with the development of the interior descriptions.
The issues introduced are intense and complex yet Taub writes with a compassion that we do not often find in books that deal with such Orthodox Jewish ideas. I could actually envision my father grimacing at the idea of a young Jewish boy’s realizing his feelings for his black, Muslim friend. Yet when another member of the community learns of this, she keeps it to herself. I was reminded of when I was working at my synagogue in New Orleans when we had an application for a new membership and I was asked to interview the person who was a transsexual and wanted to chant Torah at a Shabbat service.
Each of the stories here is a tour-de-force and the reader is left with the question of “What would I do?” in difficult cases. At first, it all sounds quite depressing but let me assure you that there is great happiness to be found here. It might seem easy to put minor events in our lives behind us, but we see here that this is not always the case and as small as these incidents might seem to be, they are indeed part of our identities and reemerge when least expected and they hurt.
The novel focuses on Jewish Americans and themes of love, friendship, community, faith, sexuality and social justice. While the book is about Jews, the themes are universal and is relevant to all people regardless of religion, ethnicity, background and nationality. By presenting his characters’ private lives, Taub shows us the differences in public and personal and the effects they have on who we are. The Jewish experience we have here is a reflection of the human experience we all share.
Taub conveniently provides a glossary of the Aramaic, Hebrew, and Yiddish words in his “sensitive novel about a religious community’s relationships and its wide spectrum of dreams, hopes, and desires.” (“Foreword Clarion Reviews”)