Hopen, David. “The Orchard: A Novel”, Ecco, 2020.
A Jewish Coming-of-Age Story
Ari Eden’s is an Orthodox devout Jewish High school student whose life has always been governed by strict rules. When he lived in ultra-Orthodox Brooklyn, his days were devoted to intense study and religious rituals, and his adolescence is lonely. When his family to move to a Miami suburb, Ari grabs the chance to change himself.
He is enrolled in a very classy Jewish academy and is shocked by the wealth, ambition, and the lust for life’s pleasures of the other students. When Noah, the prize student, offers him friendship, Ari finds himself part of the school’s most exclusive group with students who are defiant, especially Evan, the genius of the bunch.
A charismatic rabbi begins testing the group’s religion in unconventional ways and it does not take long before Ari and his friends push the boundaries of morality and begin to head toward a dangerous future in which their faith is changed.
Ari tells the story in the first person and relates how he taken in by who bring him both comfort and fear. As they study and lookfor meaning from ancient, they become dangerously obsessed.Ari yearns to belong and spendingmore time with them, he pushes asidethe principles of his faithanddistanceshim from his family. His friendship with Noah, the most troubled boy at the schoolpushes him intocompetition for the attention of the Rabbi who runs the schooland into a romantic situation withSophia Winterwhose beauty greatly surpasses her small mind.
We are taken into Jewish culture, belief, and philosophy and read of centuries of Jewish scholarship in this coming-of-age of an Orthodox Jewish teen who deals with a spiritual crisis. The plot is challenging and at times difficult to read but its rewards are great. Combining an academic setting and religious contemplation, writer Hopen gives us a great deal to think about especially the concept of God as both what we need and adversarial at the same time.
We read of the struggle between upbringing and peer pressure, and between curiosity and personal integrity. The plot focuses on the identity of God and how we should experience the Divine. As the group of friends pursues knowledge of God, they do so in ways that are unorthodox. At their school, everything conforms to religious belief yet the group ignores this as the students go on a quest to better understand who they are. They are high school students, after all, dealing with inherited traditions while hiding their true feelings and desires.
Through beautiful prose, we aretransported into a different world in which we deal with new questions (or those we never dared to ask). These are not easy questions and their answers, when they exist, are difficult. “The Orchard” is filled with literary allusions and Talmudic connections, about belonging. It is a universal exploration of a culture that is intense and totally captivating.