A Town of Empty Rooms
I picked this book up because the summary that I read somewhere said it was the story of a Jewish family that relocates to a small town in the Bibe Belt and their experiences with the small congregation and esoteric rabbi there. Since I spent three years as a student rabbi in precisely such environments – meaning small congregations in very non-Jewish places – I was definitely intrigued.
I wasn’t disappointed. I don’t know how Bender got the material for this, though the back flap does say that she lives in Wilmington, North Carolina. But her descriptions are pretty similar to my own experiences, and it was both cathartic – even a few years out of rabbinic school – and fascinating to read someone else’s (especially someone who isn’t a rabbi or a Jewish professional) take on these types of Jewish communities.
The novel follows Serena and Dan Shine, who move tothe small town of Waring, North Carolina after Serena has a minor break-down and is fired from her PR job in New York. Waring apparently had a job ready for Dan. Neither Serena nor her husband nor their two small children were involved in the Jewish community previously, but upon moving to Waring somehow, for Serena, it becomes important. Also, she has to find a new job, and the small Reform temple needs a receptionist.
Bender’s description of the people who make up this fictional congregation really does match up with the characters of my own experiences. It seems that none of the players here are under the age of 40, and no small children or teens or “youth.” The rabbi, in his first stateside pulpit after serving as a military chaplain for a number of years, has big plans to establish the “Southeast North Carolina Jewish Community Center” though he lacks a building, funds to build it or create it, and any real enthusiasm from his congregation. The book jacket summary says that the rabbi, a Rabbi Golden, is “esoteric” but I think a more appropriate word would be “erratic.” Or crazy. He initially 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 would be for a new member).
Rabbi Golden, in contrast to her husband Dan, listens to Serena’s newfound uncertainties about being Jewish in small North Carolina town. Serena and Dan take opposing strategies in how to get along with their goyische neighbors: Dan wants to take the appeasement route and make nice with everyone while Serena finds herself wanting to confront what she sees as real hostility. Dan leaps at the opportunity to enroll his son in Boy Scouts (probably not something that happens in New York City? I don’t know for sure) and envisions the two of them as leaders covered in badges. Serena, meanwhile, wants to talk to Rabbi Golden about her son’s puzzlement after being told on the playground that Jesus created the world. Serena and Dan have a weird neighbor, some variety of southern hick, 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 they are Jewish.
It doesn’t take long, though, for Serena to change her view of the rabbi. His empathy becomes erratic, and congregants longing for a prayer or some solace have to hope they have come at the right time, when he won’t be annoyed and slam the office door on them or become enraged because they sat in his chair. Serena’s internal alarms go off as he waxes enthusiastically about a decrepit former elementary school that he thinks he can somehow turn into his Jewish community center project. And soon a showdown comes between Rabbi Golden and the Temple board, which is fed up with his “moods” and his antics. Quite possibly the best scene in the book for me was the epic fit that Rabbi Golden throws on the bimah when the board votes to fire him:
“ ‘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 now 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.”
The extent of this rabbi’s eccentricity is, of course, in the fact that he says the things no one should say in public, especially not to the nice little old ladies on the small Temple board. I don’t know if this scene is that much more funny to anyone who’s dealt with a Temple board, a small congregation, or any committee in general. But, as Serena realizes that this rabbi is not her personal messiah, Dan simultaneously realizes that his neighbor – and more of the town that he wanted to think – really is anti-Semitic. The neighbor, 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…’”
I think Bender brings a good perspective to the world of contemporary Jewish fiction. Jewish life in small southern towns doesn’t get a ton of press, which makes sense, because proportionally it is much less significant than Jewish life on either coast. But it’s still important, and it’s still interesting. If this book had been written by a rabbi or some other Jewish professional – and I’m glad it wasn’t, as I think Bender’s take as a ‘secular’ person is far more interesting – probably the Institute for Southern Jewish Life (ISJL) would have made an appearance. The ISJL, known to most rabbis in the southeastern United States, assists small congregations in majorly non-Jewish towns precisely such as the one in this book. So resources are available for those that want them; no one should seem as isolated or struggle as much as the congregation does in this particular book. But the problems of this fictional congregation aren’t unique to their southern locale: plenty of small congregations across the country are finding themselves without anyone under forty, squabbling over petty details (well, this is sort of a time-honored tradition in some places), and dealing with strange rabbis.
I worried for a bit that Bender was going to 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 you like, whether it’s in the major elite liberal institutions or the Bible Belt. 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, either: that of finding that in a town where everyone else is decidedly not Jewish (unlike, say, New York) it becomes that much more important to find a Jewish community and establish your own 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 both healing and regain their connection through their experience as Jews in Waring, North Carolina.