Hate mail challenges a complacent Jewish community

Strength to Stand, by Sheyna Galyan. Yotzeret Publishing. 306 pages. Trade paperback $14.95.

This is the second of Galyan’s Rabbi David Cohen suspense novels. Set in Minneapolis, it provides a Rabbi’s-eye view of life in a diverse North American Jewish community. Though Rabbi Cohen is central, the other major characters have truly major roles. Several of them are rabbis and spouses of rabbis.  StrengthtoStandfrontcoverHR

These characters face significant crises, at least one of which affects the entire community.

As much as Rabbi Cohen is fulfilled by his Beth Israel pulpit and community activities, he is paying a tremendous price in the accumulated stress of the demands made upon him and what he expects of himself. It is hard to put family first, though he tries. His wife, Sara, has a diminished sense of her own identity and importance as the rabbi’s attention is always compromised by his calling.

Their eight year old son, Ben, is plagued by being defined as “the rabbi’s son,” while the young twins are not yet ready to feel so burdened.

Sara’s solution, for herself and for the relationship, is to move beyond being the rabbi’s almost invisible wife. She is drawn to the idea of the quasi-official role of rebbetzin, an active “first lady” of her husband’s congregation – a spiritual counselor to and leader of the women. But she is not fully prepared for important aspects of the role, and husband David is far from enthusiastic. Her well-meant initiative is bringing more strife rather than bringing them more closely together.

While this issue creates an important plot line in the novel, the overriding one is the series of threats that have come to Rabbi Cohen’s good friend, Batya Zahav, the female Reform Rabbi of Temple Shalom. The verbal assaults, which come by letter, by phone message, and by email, are extremely frightening. As they become more and more intense, local law enforcement has a reason to investigate and protect Rabbi Zahav.

She is, as one might expect, a woman who needs to feel in control. It is not like her to request or accept protection. Yet more and more she is forced into that position. The danger is real, and she has the mixed blessing – in this situation – of being married to Israel-born police sergeant Arik Zahav.

Galyan

Galyan

Author Galyan skillfully balances attention to her different plot lines, along the way providing a detailed portrait of Rabbi Cohen’s daily work. A continuing issue threaded through this tapestry is an unmarried congregant’s request for some fairly significant changes to make single members more welcome and more engaged in congregational life. Like most congregations, the one led by Rabbi Cohen is family oriented, and singles almost always feel out of place.

Batya calls David about her hate mail even before she tells her husband. She is reluctant to tell Arik, or to make a “big deal” out of it, because she fears he will go overboard in attacking this problem. Soon, Batya’s problem is David’s, and he is drawn away from his routine to assist her in thinking matters through. More and more, the frightening messages paint her as someone evil who needs to be destroyed. Is it because she is a Jew? A Jewish woman? A Jewish woman rabbi? Is it simple anti-Semitism or something else?

Interfaith relations goals bring David to speak at a Lutheran church. He presents himself as a “religious Jew” surrounded, at this time of the year (Chanukah) with the gift-giving rituals of Christmas and the smiling “Merry Christmas” that he finds so upsetting. He explains, using the Chanukah story, why this is such an uneasy time for most Jews – a challenge to their identity and values. He describes the enormous pressure to distort Chanukah into a Christmas wannabe.

He makes a plea for continued dialogue so that the various neighboring religious communities can learn the “intentions, motivations, and aspirations” of the others. David’s talk goes fairly well, though he does receive some rude responses. The issue of majority insensitivity is reinforced when, as they do every year, Sara’s Christian paternal grandparents send Christmas cards.

Galyan leaves it for the reader to link (or not) David’s experience in the church and the hate mail that Batya has been receiving. Soon, she is “gifted” a dead mouse and then a doll that looks like Batya with a bullet hole in its head. Such harassment and intimidation brings more aggressive police action.

The author introduces a third rabbi. The Cohens’ friends, Rabbi Eli and his wife Bev, visit during Chanukah. Eli was David’s rabbinical school classmate and they have remained close ever since – though David’s pulpit is in Washington state. Eli joins the team effort to comfort and aid Rabbi Zahav and her husband. He also serves most usefully as confidant and exemplary counselor for David. Eli temporary fills the bill of the local “rabbi’s rabbi” that he insists David – and every rabbi – should seek.

Sara’s friend and confidant is Talia Friedman, the wife of a rabbi who teaches at several local universities. She tells Sara about the network of rebbetzins and how they help each other to develop the attitudes and skills to succeed.

Halfway through the novel, Chanukah begins. The following chapters intensify Galyan’s portrait of Jewish family and community life. We appreciate the Cohens’ hosting efforts, learn from their visitors how to be good guests and not pests, and savor the special character of a Shabbat meal. We see David interact with a potential convert, hear him give a sermon, and respect his adroit way of working with synagogue staff and occasionally troublesome lay leaders.

The police investigation of Batya’s fearful dilemma takes a surprising turn (involving yet another rabbi), and as it moves toward a resolution, so do the novel’s other concerns: Sara’s need to define herself, David’s need to find balance in his life, and the Jewish community’s needs to enhance its relationships with other religious groups.

Sheyna Galyan offers a sophisticated blend of insight and entertainment; suitably complex, flawed, and yet commendable characters; well-developed action and suspense; and an authoritative rendering of synagogue-centered Jewish life. This is a very fine book group selection and teaching text.

This review appears in the September 2015 issues of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier County), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota / Manatee). 

 

 

 

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