Hamburger, Aaron. “Faith for Beginners”. Random House, 2006.
I eagerly awaited the publication of Aaron Hamburger’s first novel “Fait for Beginners”. I love his collection of short stores “The View from Stalin’s Head” and it sits in a cherished place on my bookshelf. The novel does not disappoint and I have wondered why it did not get the readership it deserves. I suppose books about Israel have a limited audience as do mother and son stories or anything fictional about religion. But these issues are only part of the book.
“Faith for Beginners” is not a typical gay novel. It is about a trip to find faith. It concerns the Jewish mother, Helen Nussbaum Michaelson. The book shows the way of life in Israel and compares it with what we have in America. The family s taking part in a tour organized from their home in Michigan and Helen thinks that maybe a trip to Israel will be just what her son, who has piercings and is a slacker at college, really needs to pull his life together. He has just managed t pull through a suicide attempt. What she hopes is that Jeremy will discover holiness in the Holy Land but what she and Jeremy find is a little more than faith. Helen, herself, has an affair with a young rabbi while Jeremy also has a sexual relationship—with a deaf Palestinian. Politics enters their lives as well. It is Jeremy who unlocks the mysteries. He is in his fifth year as an undergraduate at Columbia University and his life seems to be going nowhere. On a Sabbath eve at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, he fails in his attempts to pick u young student and after having dinner with a group of tourists e finds himself in Independence Park—the major cruising area of the city of peace. It is here that he meets George, the deaf Palestinian.
Helen is a trooper. Both f her sons are gay but the oldest is in a relationship with an Asian man. It is Jeremy that causes her so much worry. He is promiscuous, rebellious and not to keen on being Jewish (what a terrible thing to befall a good Jewish mother). Jeremy has green hair, a nose piercing and is as lackadaisical toward life as he is toward religion. When Helen read in a local paper that many Jews find themselves on trips to Israel, Helen signs her family up and dreams that her son will undergo a transformation. His homosexuality is not what bothers her; she is concerned that he has no place in the world.
Jeremy is the modern American. He is critical of old world values and he freely admits that he does not believe in God. He s somewhat manic depressive and is suspicious of the world and resents religion. It is George, the Palestinian (the forbidden meat of the Jews) that opens Jeremy‘s eyes to the ways of the world.
Hamburger beautifully relays the dichotomy of the Arab and Jewish worlds who live side by side in Jerusalem and his descriptions of how every conversation turns to politics is wonderful. He shows with candor the differences between the Orthodox of the old city who adhere to archaic laws and do not seem to care for people.
There is a cast of eccentric and amusing characters but the power of the narrative rests with Helen and Jeremy and the ironic ways they look for acceptance and self-acceptance. There are some rather strong sex scenes in the book and I had a bit of trouble with the way Hamburger depicted the Palestinian people. What is meant to be funny in the book turns out to be somewhat depressing. Because the characters are never fully developed there are times that you feel you do not really know then and one of the beauties of good fiction is being able to identify with the characters. Also the issues are never really resolved. Although Helen and Jeremy seem to find what they were looking for, faith, we are never really explained s to how this came about. There are times when the novel is wildly funny and very erotic but there are also serious issues raised—religion, politics, gay relationships, and the Israeli-Arab conflict. And there is humor—the potshots made at the Israeli tourist industry and American support for Israel.
Thus book is special to me because I like Jeremy found what I was looking for in Israel, although not with a deaf Palestinian. I found my faith and I found myself. I love this book. So much was familiar to me from when I lived in Israel and came out as a gay man. I was no Jeremy but I had a lot of the same issues. For that alone, I have read the book several times and each time it has hit closer to my own life. To me that is a sign of good fiction.