One of the most famous Talmudic stories, in Hagiga 14b, concerns four sages who penetrated into occult realms where Jews are forbidden to go. In the Gemara’s words, they “entered the orchard,” the pardes, of God’s secret wisdom. As a result, one of them died, one went mad, and one became a heretic; only Rabbi Akiva “came out safely,” his mind and faith intact. The story is meant as a warning against mystical speculation, but of course it has the opposite effect: If the punishments are so grand and dramatic, surely that means there’s some momentous discovery to be made. The only way to know if you can survive the orchard like Akiva is to take the risk.
The Orchard, David Hopen’s debut novel, is an audacious attempt to translate this ancient legend to a modern American setting. The teenage boys at the center of Hopen’s book also find themselves drawn into dangerous mystical experiments—prompted, in their case, by Evan Stark, the novel’s brooding, charismatic antihero. Any reader who recognizes the title’s allusion will know that this journey isn’t going to end well. But the pardes is only one of many Jewish tales, texts, and ideas that go into the making of the book. Indeed, with The Orchard Hopen may have taken the boldest step yet in the ongoing turn of the American Jewish novel back to the sources of Judaism.
In its mid-20th-century golden age, American Jewish fiction had basically no knowledge of or interest in Judaism. Writers like Bernard Malamud and Philip Roth devoted their work to the question of what it means to be a Jew, but never thought to look for an answer in the Torah or the Talmud. In the past 20 years, however, Jewish writers like Joshua Cohen, Nicole Krauss, and Nathan Englander have been increasingly drawn to Jewish texts and history, staging tragicomic encounters between an ancient tradition and modern American life.
Now Hopen has given this project a soap-operatic turn. The 27-year-old writer grew up modern Orthodox in Boca Raton before going to Yale and Yale Law School (where he is now a student), and The Orchard is set in the same milieu. The high school students at Kol Neshama Academy in fictional Zion Hills, Florida, are meritocrats in the making—wealthy, ambitious, Ivy-bound. The only exception is the book’s narrator, Aryeh Eden, who has transferred there as a senior from a very frum yeshiva in Brooklyn. A cultural and economic outsider, Aryeh must learn how to fit in with these very different Jews, who claim to be Orthodox but treat things like kashrut and tznius as highly optional. He soon becomes a kind of mascot for a group of the school’s richest kids, who spend most of their time drinking and getting high, and who insist on calling him “Drew”—an impeccably preppy name.
The Orchard has been compared to Donna Tartt’s novel The Secret History, which tells a similar story about a naïve young man thrust into a hypersophisticated clique at a small liberal-arts college. In both books, the perils aren’t just social but intellectual. Tartt’s characters are inspired by Greek literature to recreate a bacchanalian orgy, with disastrous consequences; in The Orchard, Evan Stark is inspired by a heady combination of Nietzsche and Kabbalah to think of himself as beyond good and evil. He comes to believe that, as in Hagiga, it requires a great sin to make contact with the divine. “Human sacrifice—death, the thrill of a holy death, tears apart the veil, unleashing into the world whatever lies behind the curtain,” Evan preaches to his bewildered friends.
This isn’t exactly the kind of Torah u’madda the school’s benevolent principal, Rabbi Bloom, has in mind. Impressed with Evan but worried about him, Bloom enlists Aryeh as a spiritual counterweight, hoping that bringing the two together will open Aryeh’s horizons while grounding Evan’s wild flights. But is Evan just a rebellious teenager, angry at God after his mother died of cancer? Or is he actually a kind of Kabbalistic sorcerer, in contact with mystical truths that the respectable Judaism of Zion Hills has forgotten?
Hopen keeps the story balanced between these alternatives, even as Evan’s transgressions grow wilder and more dangerous. When Evan takes Aryeh out for a spin on a motorboat and heads full-speed for a rock, for instance, he could just be a drunk kid playing chicken, rather than a prophet defying death. But other moments are harder to explain in rational terms. One night, the Kol Neshama gang goes to an Israeli pita shop and finds there’s a psychic doing business next door; Evan, of course, insists they go in for a session. Things get off to an unpromising start when they find the psychic watching an episode of The Office on her computer, though she claims to be studying astrology. (“I literally see Steve Carell’s face in the mirror,” one of the boys says.)
But when she offers to contact a spirit of their choice for $220, Evan asks for the prophet Samuel—just as King Saul does in the Bible, when he visits the witch of Endor—and the medium actually does seem to channel him. Unfortunately, Samuel comes with bad news for Evan, as he did for Saul: “You broke the limits! You’re become—yes, yes, I know—an adversary to the Lord!” the possessed psychic cries.
This episode is a good example of the very different ways Hopen deals with Jewish and secular allusions. The Hebrew word for “adversary” is satan, the source of the English name for the devil, and it happens to appear in the Bible in the chapter immediately following the witch of Endor, though not in a demonic context. (The Philistines warn their leader that David, who has taken refuge from Saul in their camp, shouldn’t be allowed to join them on the battlefield because he might change sides again and become a satan b’milchama, an adversary in battle.) Evan mentions the witch of Endor, but Hopen doesn’t explain the textual allusion behind the psychic’s use of the word “adversary” and what it implies about Evan’s satanic tendencies. He simply leaves the reference to be recognized or not.
Hopen follows a similar policy of restraint with the many Hebrew terms that fill the book. For instance, when Aryeh finds himself with the girl of his dreams, the beautiful and melancholy Sophia Winter, he remarks that it’s the third time they’ve been left alone together by their friends, adding, “It’s a chazakah.” No explanation is forthcoming, even though vanishingly few readers will recognize the Talmudic term for the presumption of ownership that accrues to a man who farms a piece of land three years in a row. Such moments make The Orchard something distinctively new in fiction—a real modern Orthodox novel, about and for American Jews who are equally conversant with Bava Batra and The Office.
When it comes to allusions to the Western canon, on the other hand, Hopen is wildly self-conscious. The novel’s constant stream of epigraphs, quotations, and allusions, all ostentatiously attributed—to Shakespeare, Rimbaud, Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Yeats, Fitzgerald, and on and on—looks at first like intellectual pretention. In time, however, it comes to feel more like a young writer’s guileless attempt to create a “sophisticated” fantasy world. For there is no American high school, Jewish or otherwise, where students know and say the kinds of things they know and say in The Orchard. They don’t flirt at pool parties by exchanging speeches from Shakespeare, like Aryeh and Sophia; or inscribe photographs with apt quotations from Euripides, like Evan; or get into ethical debates over the ideas of the Victorian philosopher Henry Sidgwick.
But then, The Orchard is generally detached from reality in ways that only sometimes seem deliberate. The level of open sexual and narcotic decadence at Kol Neshama is more Cruel Intentions than The Secret History, and seems hard to reconcile with a community that is even nominally Orthodox. Aryeh’s reverential mooning over Sophia, the dark beauty with a dark secret, feels like something from a Bronte romance. Indeed, much of the book, especially the dialogue, sounds like it was concocted out of other books, not based on close observation of reality, as good fiction usually is.
The most unbelievable moment in The Orchard comes when Evan commandeers a backyard bonfire at a party, makes a speech about “purify[ing] ourselves through fire,” and then throws one of his parents’ paintings onto the flames. “Jesus Christ,” someone says, “Is that a Picasso?” It is. In the real world, even a small Picasso painting, as this one is said to be, costs tens of millions of dollars. Yet after this scene, the destruction of the painting is never mentioned again and seems to have no consequences for Evan, who goes on to even more dramatic transgressions.
Such naivete can be partly explained by the fact that, as Hopen has said in interviews, he began to write The Orchard when he was in high school himself. Still, at certain moments, the book points to a possible future for American Jewish fiction that would be Jewishly sophisticated in unprecedented ways. The Orchard is a bumpy start to a literary career, but it’s possible Hopen might be one of the writers who gets us there.
Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.