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Taking Aim

In his immensely ambitious debut novel, Adam Levin sets his sights on a new Goliath: the American Jewish canon

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Are we approaching the end of days? In May, the young fiction writer (and Tablet Magazine contributor) Joshua Cohen came out with Witz, a preposterously long, immensely ambitious novel about a child-man who may be the messiah and who heralds the end of the Jews as we know them. “Witz is a novel about the Last Jew that’s also trying, trying, to be the Last Jewish Novel,” Cohen said in an interview at the time. “To found the genre of genre-annihilation, that was the intent.”

Now, uncannily, first-time novelist Adam Levin is set to publish The Instructions, a preposterously long, immensely ambitious novel on the very same subject. And as if in response to Cohen’s challenge, The Instructions proclaims itself something like the first post-Jewish novel, one that leaves behind the modern-day Jewish literary tradition and starts over. That is to say, The Instructions purports to be a new work of scripture.

The Instructions is in fact a vital work of—no getting around it—American Jewish literature because it imagines that the genre is indeed through and asks what can be written in its place. A Nabokovian book-within-a-book, The Instructions, purports to be a divinely-inspired work by its antihero, teenage would-be messiah Gurion Maccabee. It is Gurion’s astonishing conceit that, out of boredom with the current state of Jewish fiction, he will write, and enact, the word of God instead. “I am not even remotely interested in writing a two-page short story about made-up Jewish people eating dinner,” he explains, “so instead I’ve written scripture.” This is, like most things Gurion says, at least a partial lie: An extraordinary scene in which Jewish people eat dinner begins three pages later. But we also know what he means. Most of the tropes we associate with American Jewish literature have either vanished here or been somehow reversed. The Holocaust and how we remember it get barely a mention. There is no sex, no messy family dynamics. No one is trying to assimilate, join a club that won’t have him as a member, or escape Judaism. Rather, Gurion and his followers want to intensify their Judaism. They are “Israelites”: stronger, prouder, better-armed, more God-fearing versions of the Jews, their predecessors. So what’s left to talk about when we trade the American Jewish novel for ersatz religious-Zionist scripture? Plenty, it turns out: chosenness, nationhood, violence, power, the end of the world—the most important Jewish questions, perhaps, of our day.

Over more than a thousand pages, Gurion turns four days of his childhood in Chicago’s northern suburbs into an epic journey from bondage (in a junior-high lockdown program for behavior problems) to freedom, with unmistakable echoes of the Exodus. Or at least that’s what he wants us to read: This is his Pentateuch, and he has constructed himself as a latter-day Moses. The reader may come to suspect, however, that he is merely a pint-size cult leader. Only God (and perhaps Levin) knows for sure. Gurion’s endless, and endlessly captivating, shaggy-dog story—narrated in a pidgin of invented youth lingo, untranslated bits of Yiddish and Hebrew, extended biblical commentaries, and God-speak (“and I saw that it was good”)—is set in a world just supernatural enough to keep us wondering whether our narrator might be the messiah after all.

A few years after his arrival is prophesied by Rabbi Menachem Schneerson (himself considered the messiah by some Lubavitcher Hasidim), Gurion is born with birthmarks that spell “Adonai,” a mouth full of teeth, and a genius for both leadership (assisted by his ex-IDF-sniper mother) and scholarship (refined by his attorney father, Judah Maccabee). His talent for demagoguery appears early, too. Gurion’s Jewish day school classmates revere him; they are the first to float the messiah theory. Gurion finds a textual loophole that keeps them—and himself—in a state of suspended disbelief. A popular interpretation of Maimonides holds that a potential messiah arises in every generation, though none will be actualized until the time is right. He’s probably not the messiah, but one never knows for sure.

Things begin to go downhill when Gurion, age 9, assaults a teacher who makes fun of his messianic aspirations. He is expelled and sent to another day school. After a local anti-Semitic incident, he arms his new classmates with homemade weapons (slingshots—there’s no cap on the number of biblical heroes he hopes to be identified with), and delivers the first of many sermons that seem to borrow rhetoric from extremist settler groups. “Never again will we cower amidst the masses of the Roman and Canaanite children,” he proclaims. “Blessed is Elohim, Who blesses our weapons.” He gets kicked out of that school, too.

The main action of The Instructions takes place as Gurion, now 10, organizes his fellow inmates in “the Cage” at Aptakisic Junior High, a public school, Cuckoo’s Nest-style. Meanwhile, day-school boys around the city await his instructions. As his two armies line up behind him, Gurion becomes increasingly convinced that he is the savior of the Jews. Things get very dark from there.

Gurion continually diverts us with a Torah’s-worth of memorable subplots. A day-school playground on the morning of the World Trade Center attacks is suffused with terrifying euphoria as the grade-schoolers realize they have finally “become the underdog.” A schism erupts between Jewish and non-Jewish members of the Shovers, a fratty crew at Aptakisic, when a Christian student wants to include an ichthys among the symbols on the group’s identifying scarves. And Gurion’s family is increasingly harassed by Jewish community members when (in a nod to the Skokie affair) Judah Maccabee takes on a neo-Nazi client.

These stories pile up, slowly building evidence for Gurion’s central thesis: Everyone wants, above all else, a pretext or opportunity for doing violence. This bleak view is a hallmark of the teen boy literary canon, to which The Instructions owes much. Behind the unassuming visage of the meekest band geek is a bully whose bloodthirst will be unleashed if he is simply given the chance. And beneath the responsible patter of authority figures is an unalloyed desire to monopolize the legitimate use of violence. “Fear is contempt,” as Gurion’s best friend puts it, “whether the fearful know it or not.”

Gurion believes this cycle of violence is ennobling, and that with God and himself on their side, the Jews will win. This is an easy enough belief system to pin on a Jack Tytell figure crouching with a rifle on a Hebron hilltop. But Gurion struggles to make you, the reader—or at least the Jewish reader—complicit. This is how the scriptural form produces its most unsettling effect: Scriptures directly address followers, or would-be followers, so if you are a Jew reading The Instructions, you are harangued to grab a slingshot and join up. I can only hazard a guess that as a non-Jewish reader, you would not feel so welcome. If, as Gurion likes to remind us, some nags have always considered American Jewish literature a shande far di goyim because it airs vast regions of unsightly Jewish shame, Levin has written a daunting “Israelite” novel with a big “Jews Only” sign on it, exposing vast regions of unsightly Jewish pride.

One way to read The Instructions might be as a giant postmodern gag about the impossibility of ceasing to write American Jewish novels, because wedged between the apocalyptic stuff is a gorgeous portrait of an ordinary Jewish community. Not just Levin but Gurion knows this perfectly well, and to remind us, he constantly looks over his shoulder to his idol Philip Roth. Though he insists his own project is a post-Rothian (because post-Jewish) one, he protests too much.

Ultimately, though, it’s not just the fate of the American Jewish novel, but the fate of the Jewish people—and their relationship to chosenness, nationhood, violence, power, messianism—that is at stake here. I don’t want to give away too much, but let’s just say a hostage situation arises, during which Gurion tells a hostage negotiator to get Roth on the phone. This is a pretty good joke—a young Jewish writer is so desperate for a pat on the head from his literary hero that he sets up a life-or-death situation that will force the author to talk to him.

But Levin won’t let it rest there. Roth finally does get on the phone. “So what do you want from me?” he asks.

Nothing, says Gurion. “You’re hard to get a hold of. You bought me fifty-something minutes.”

In the meantime, he has beaten a boy senseless.

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Reminds me of that one Seinfeld episode where Jerry and George pitched a show “about nothing.”

Linda Schiffer says:

We don’t seem to have enough violence in the world, so let’s add to it with Neo-Jewish philosophy … If this is how Jews of the future will think, I prefer the past. At least we held violence to its place: when needed to survive!

The summary of this book is like reading the philosophy of the Tea Party, that violence-based, gun-carrying, beat-them-senseless and ask questions later, new “political” party that resembles nothing more than Hitler’s Brown Shirts and New-Nazi Youth.

We don’t need forward thinking religion …. What we need is a course in Back-To-Basics. We need to get rid of the ancient rituals and tenets and keep what is truly the intellectual and vital for the world today … That is Torah in its original form. Rabbis sitting in Safad hundreds of years ago and “interpreting” the original laws of Torah, is ridiculous. What was pertinent 600 years ago, or more, is most definitely not pertinent today. The only exception is how we treat each other — Human to Human.

I would NOT buy this book that teaches people to take and live through violent actions. That is NOT the Jewish way; never was. I was raised with Tikkun Olam and this is not the way to do it. NO, I am not Orthodox but my grandparents were. Tikkun Olam is spread through every part and sect within Judaism. Too bad our youth is losing sight of it.

Dan Katz says:

Like TV we love to look into someone else’s life to make ours more bearable. Don’t get me wrong, I do believe that it is not “a tea party only” book even though too many Jews like to vote for a guy and an administration that does rival Hitlers! I am a Jew, and a conservitive, I have tried to identify with my peoples history and find myself very ignorant of it, at times bewildered, yet none-the-less I am what I am. This book has inspiration to it, yet like the “Left Behind” books of the Christians, which I am also, it is false, but hopeful and full insight to a generation which is still very much in exile.

see Arthur A. Cohen’s In the Days of Simon Stern for a small story within a story the Last Jew on Earth

Eliezer says:

you guys take fiction way too seriously

sharon rosen teig says:

this sounds like a must read…just as philip roth was.. the salient points of zionism, egoism, chosenism, jewish pride, them/us, not to mention waiting for the messiah, are issues of the 21st century..fiction can be a vehicle to cohesively look at a myriad of issues.

Richard says:

Is this a serious review? This book sounds a lot of pretentious tripe. Aren’t there any decent American Jewish writers in the tradition of Bellow or Roth or even younger writers of the quality of Safran Foer or Chabon.

M. Brukhes says:

This doesn’t sound like a book I would want to even open, let alone read for, what?, 1000 pages?!

Gurion Maccabee is REALLY the name of the protagonist? Is that the best he could come up with? It sounds like something Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace came up with as a bad Jewish joke while passing a bottle of Mogen David back and forth.

By the way, if anyone is REALLY interested in imaging a “post-Jewish” literature, he or she would be well-advised to read the (alas, mostly untranslated, to date) Yiddish literature produced during the first decade of the Soviet Union. Astonishingly, radically experimental in its self-expression–before Stalin began to mandate “Socialist realism” in the mid-30s–works by Dovid Bergelson, Der Nister, Itsik Kipnis, Moyshe Kulbak, among others, confronted precisely the reality of a vast Jewish civilization confronting both its internal collapse and its external obsolescence. It’s literature for grownups, not greasy kid stuff of the type described here, and there’s nothing like it anywhere. Except maybe the contemporaneous Hebrew literature of Haim Hazzaz, Sh. Y. Agnon, and (a little earlier) Yosef Chaim Brenner.

Long story short: when Jewish literature loses its connection, however tenuous, with Jewish languages, it ceases to be Jewish. (Yes, yes, yes: Kafka, Heine, Philip Roth, and Grace Paley are ALL Jewish writers!!!) With books like the one reviewed here, the question remains of whether they’re even literature….

I have not come across any excerpts of this book. But from some of the reviews, this one included, it seems to be a critique of violence, religious zeal, and teenage angst. It is not clear if this novel is using this critique to expose the actions of Jewish nationalism, especially those of Israel and some this country’s fundamentalist beliefs. This would be a great literary, historical and humane victory for democratic and ecumenical Jewish praxis. But this is unclear-as I previously mentioned.
I will check this book out in the stores and try to fathom more about it.
It could be an interesting read.
Also: Let’s get the author or the reviewer to post some excerpts.
Keep me in touch.

Im impressed, I ought to say. Very rarely do I come across a blog thats both informative and entertaining, and let me tell you, youve hit the nail on the head. Your weblog is crucial; the issue is some thing that not sufficient people are talking intelligently about. Im actually pleased that I stumbled across this in my search for some thing relating to this issue.

I’ve said that least 1322906 times. The problem this like that is they are just too compilcated for the average bird, if you know what I mean

That was clever. I’ll be stopping back.

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Taking Aim

In his immensely ambitious debut novel, Adam Levin sets his sights on a new Goliath: the American Jewish canon

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