In an essay for the New York Times, author Karen Bender writes about how both writing and reading helped her develop her sense of compassion:
It seemed a spectacular achievement to be able to step out of yourself to listen to someone else. Why was this? How did we end up trapped in these peculiar boxes? And how could we get out? (January 2013)
Her latest novel, A Town of Empty Rooms, brings a fresh perspective to the world of Jewish fiction, and with that, a chance for readers to step out of their usual "boxes."
The novel follows Serena and Dan Shine, who move to the small town of Waring, North Carolina after Serena is fired from her PR job in New York. Though none of the Shines were involved in the Jewish community in New York, Serena takes a job as a receptionist at Waring's small (and only) Reform synagogue.
Waring's Rabbi Golden is in his first stateside pulpit after serving as a military chaplain. Initially, he draws Serena in with his "ability" to perceive her sadness, and his willingness to take her on as a member of the congregation (little does Serena know, it seems, how desperate a small congregation like that might be for a new member). But as the novel progresses, Rabbi Golden's neuroses become clear and problematic.
In contrast to Serena's husband Dan, Rabbi Golden listens to Serena's newfound uncertainties about being Jewish in a small North Carolina town. Serena finds herself wanting to confront what she perceives as real hostility, while her husband Dan shrugs it off. Dan leaps at the opportunity to enroll his son in Boy Scouts, envisioning the two of them as leaders, covered in merit badges. Serena, meanwhile, wants to talk to Rabbi Golden about her son's puzzled reaction to being told on the playground that Jesus created the world. Serena and Dan are both baffled by their neighbor, Forrest, who seems friendly at first but becomes increasingly aggressive, at one point campaigning in the public school to bring "Christ" back into Christmas and repeatedly asking Serena why she won't support it-though he knows that she is Jewish. Dan comes to realize that Forrest really is anti-Semitic. Forrest accuses Dan and his son of cheating during the Scouts' boxcar derby: "'We don't know you,' Forrest said. 'We don't know what, uh, the rules are in that Jewish church. . .'"
Rabbi Golden's ability to help, however, is limited. His empathy is erratic, and congregants longing for prayers or solace have to hope they have come at the right time, when the rabbi won't be annoyed and slam the office door or become enraged because they sat in his chair. He becomes obsessed with turning a decrepit former elementary school into a Jewish community center, though he lacks both the funds to build it, and the necessary community support. A showdown comes between Rabbi Golden and the Temple board, which is fed up with his "moods" and antics:
"You have a list of your grievances?" He said the word slowly, in a sneer. "So do I. Carmella, oh, Carmella. Come on. How dare you think you know how to run a service. . . Rosalie Goldenhauer. You're an idiot. It's true. . ."
The congregation sat, frightened, rapt. No one moved. It was strangely mesmerizing, this vision of him storming back and forth, demeaning the congregants. It was, truthfully, sad but compelling hearing him call the congregants idiots. More than one…It seemed an impossible fact, that he could hate them! But it was true…His face grew pink, and he picked up the microphone. "Shalom and good night," he said.
Readers may simultaneously laugh and grimace at the absurdity. But true to her New York Times essay, Bender seems to challenge her readers to consider the various perspectives of her characters, all of whom are striving to find a sense of belonging. There are fewer novels written about Jewish life set in small southern towns than those set in New York or New Jersey-but they're important and interesting. But the problems of this fictional congregation aren't particular to their southern locale-many small synagogues across the country find themselves without any congregants under forty, squabbling over petty details (well, this is sort of a time-honored tradition in some places), and dealing with strange rabbis.
Initially, I worried that Bender was going down the route of caricature, portraying all the residents as anti-Semitic, and therefore equating that with small town/southern America. The truth is that there's plenty of anti-Semitism to go around anywhere, whether it's in major elite liberal institutions or the Bible Belt. My experiences have taught me that for every neighbor like Forrest, there are neighbors who are devout Christians who have a special place in their hearts for Jewish people, and who make endearing overtures and gestures to include everyone.
Serena's situation is probably not unique: upon finding oneself as the minority in town, it becomes that much more important to find a Jewish community and establish one's Jewish identity. While Dan tries to fight it at first, he finds he cannot. After the shock of the job loss and a major move, Serena and Dan seem to find healing and to regain their connection through their experience as Jews in Waring. Bender's novel beautifully highlights the way we can all find our own connection to Judaism, even in the most unexpected times and places. Perhaps reading about those who are living "outside the box" will inspire us to challenge ourselves in real life, too.
Rabbi Anne Perry lives with her husband Kevin in Orlando, Florida. She blogs regularly at Readingrabbi.com.