Book Discussion: A Seat at the Table
"A Seat at the Table" is a metaphor for the Chassidic adage that no matter what one has done to stray from the teachings of Torah he or she will not be abandoned by their family. This is similar to the sentiment expressed in Robert Frost's poem, "Death of the Hired Man": "Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in." Mr. Zeitchik, a minor character, sets the tone when he says "... a story is never just a story". The author, Joshua Halberstam, used that statement as a lead-in to employ the literary device, "a story within a story". That is where the inner story often has symbolic and psychological significance for the characters in the outer story.
The outer story is about Elisha, a twenty year old Chassid, and his foray into the secular world and how his decisions affect his father, the revered rabbi of the community. These are the tensions all Jews face, but more so the Orthodox, between love, lust and self on one hand and faith, tradition and family on the other. The outer story is a window into Chassidic society; the inner stories, told in true Chassidic fashion, are a window into their souls, hearts and minds.
It is easy for the reader to identify with the characters and empathize with their conflicts and share in their joys. One side of the outer story can be expressed by the old adage, "parents need to give their children roots and wings". It is consistent with the Talmudic injunction that a father has four primary obligations when raising a son: (1) Teach him Torah; (2) Bring him to the chuppa; (3) provide him with an ability to support a family; and (4) teach him to swim.
It always seemed strange to me that a father is obligated to teach swimming to those who live in the dessert. Perhaps the ability to swim is a metaphor for being able to navigate the ebb and flow of the swift tides of modern culture that draw us away from our sacred traditions.
The author raises a unique and significant issue, as we shall see. The protagonist, Elisha, is schooled in Torah, enjoys the study of Talmud, is deeply devoted to his family, and loves and reveres his father. He is inquisitive and has a thirst for secular music, art and literature. Elisha is comfortable living in the two worlds. Elisha's father and mother are descended from a long line of prominent Chassidic Rebbes. Elisha's father recently succeeded his father as the leader of the community, a position which some day will be Elisha's.
This is not a story about a young man who abandons his Judaism or spurns his family, nor is it about the difficulty of living in both the religious and secular worlds. Elisha has done none of the above and has no substantial problems living in two worlds. Halberstam wants the reader to confront the issue of what a father does when his son, who has been educated to make informed choices, makes a choice which is diametrically opposed to one the father would have wanted him to make. In this story Elisha's father taught him to swim (i.e. navigate between the secular and religious worlds), but Elisha swam against the tide, much to his father's consternation. This problem is one that confronts many parents at one time or another.
I was impressed by Elisha's father's model of behavior, as he established specific principles that he refused to compromise. He would not sacrifice his Jewish values; he would not denigrate Elisha or his decisions; he maintained at all cost sholem bayis, peace in the house; and made it possible for Elisha, without losing face, to be active in the life the family.
It took courage when Katrina, Elisha's girlfriend appeared unannounced at the Seder to invite her to attend, and at a later date at Katrina's request to speak with her. He made her feel comfortable and did not blame her for Elisha's decisions. He clearly explained to her and at a later date to Elisha that he could never compromise his Jewish values and accept their relationship. I was deeply moved by several passages that revealed Elisha's father's compassion and anguish.
One of those passage can be found on pages 278-284. He relates an old Chassidic tale about Reb Mordkhe of Chernobyl who traded the family's only valuable asset, not for food which they desperately needed, but for an esrog, so that he could properly celebrate Succos. His wife, in a fit of anger rendered the esrog unfit for use. Rather than retaliate he hugged his wife and said, "the mitzvah of peace in the home is important...but your pain matters even more to me. I'm sorry to have hurt you."
In another passage appearing on page 275, where the Baal Shem Tov is asked what to do about a son who has strayed from the path of Torah. His response was, "Love him more". The reader can hear the pain in Elisha's father's voice when he says, "The problem is I don't know how to love Elisha more than I do. And do you know why? It's because I don't think it's possible for a father to love a son more than I love him."
In a passage appearing at pages 292-293 we can feel the weight of the conflict drop from both Elisha and his father's shoulders, when his father says, "We missed you at the Seder ... there was a seat waiting for you at the table". When Elisha responds, "I will be visiting often", his father replies, "We'll take what we can get". Finally, just before they hug he says in a typical fatherly fashion, "But would it kill you to get a haircut?"
The "Reading Group Guide" at the end of the book provides us with the opportunity to engage in meaningful discussions about the characters and the issues. The issue of Katrina converting to Judaism was never raised. I would be interested in any comments if the subject of conversion had been raised by any of the main characters, Elisha, his father, Katrina or Uncle Shaya.
In a rare moment of anger, Elisha's fathers commented on Moshe Mendelson, that I thought was extremely provocative and disturbing. Elisha's fathers comment was, "...although observant he studied secular philosophy, helped bring about the Reform movement, thereby destroying Judaism..."
I welcome your comments on the above or any other aspects of the book so that we can continue the conversation.