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Hidden Desires

Jonathan Rosen talks about Tolstoy, George Eliot, and why writers treat religious longing with the silence once reserved for sex.

Blake Eskin
September 24, 2004

Weeping may endure for a night, but joy comes in the morning,” goes the psalm that provides the title for Jonathan Rosen’s second novel, an exploration of love, death, and faith at the end of the 20th century. Rosen, the editorial director of the Nextbook/Schocken publishing series, discusses why rabbis are like strippers, and what’s become of the soul in the modern novel.

In fiction, rabbis are usually caricatures, played for humor if not outright hostility.

There are not a lot of sympathetic or interesting rabbis in fiction. Somebody whose public identity is religious in a modern culture is already slightly suspect, and in modern Jewish culture, they are a kind of embarrassment. A rabbi has a label that identifies him—or her—with a religious tradition. And that raises religious questions, which lots of Jews tend to avoid even as they assert a Jewish identity. The rabbi in my novel says at one point that rabbis are like strippers: They exhibit something in public that most people only exhibit in private, which is a religious self. That of course puts a sexy spin on it, which was one of the things I wanted to do.

Were there any models, literary or otherwise, for the rabbi in Joy Comes in the Morning?

Well, I’m married to a woman rabbi. Deborah in my novel is not my wife, but certainly my marriage has steeped me in the cadences of the life of a woman rabbi. As for literature, I was more affected by Adam Bede—which is this great George Eliot novel with a woman preacher at the heart of it—than by any representation of a religious figure in a Jewish novel. Dinah, a charismatic Methodist, is the spiritual heart of Adam Bede. She’s not as developed a character as Adam, but she’s a very powerful presence, and everybody is affected by her. And Eliot is clearly very affected by her. Eliot had a religious childhood, then lost her faith, but was continually trying to work out what it means to have faith and to live your life according to religious principles.

There’s also a kind of isolation and loneliness about Dinah that George Eliot is very sensitive to—that’s another aspect of the woman rabbi in my book. And although Dinah facilitates the plot and helps everybody else, she gets to enter the plot only at the end. Eliot takes pity on her and recognizes that she can’t just be a spiritual presence. She also needs to participate in this world that she would half like to hover above. Judaism—wonderfully for a novelist—doesn’t give religious leaders the prerogative of standing outside of ordinary life.

What made you look back to George Eliot?

She’s a great writer who asks all the big questions but still tells a terrific story. And I’m very drawn to the 19th-century novel—the Russians as well as Eliot. In Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, characters have souls. Their bodies are more elusive. Their sexual lives, for obvious reasons, were not really described or discussed, but they wonder about the meaning of things. Now, I feel, religious questions are like what sexuality was in the 19th century.

The modern novel replaced spirituality with sexuality. We all know what Portnoy does in the bathroom, but does he think that he’s connected to some tradition merely by an accident of birth? Does he believe that there’s a potential for redemption in the world? Does he think he’s made in God’s image, does he think he has a soul? Does he think he has a Jewish soul? Or is Judaism all just a kind of ethnic prison imposed on him from without? You don’t know—it’s simply not a concern of his. And somehow when you’re reading, you don’t necessarily miss it. At least that generation of readers didn’t miss it. But it doesn’t have to be an either-or proposition, and maybe by having a woman rabbi I was trying to reintegrate those things, the soul and the body.

Is the soul almost as foreign to the modern novel as the rabbi?

There are exceptions; Saul Bellow is an exception. In Humboldt’s Gift, there’s tremendous interest in theosophy and Rudolf Steiner. And Bellow wonders about all of these things and speaks of himself as a leaky vessel receiving intimations of immortality. Bellow seems genuinely to mean it, and what’s interesting is that his world is physically more vivid; almost because he’s interested in the invisible component, the physical springs to life.

But—and this may be where the question gets complicated—Bellow’s religious impulses don’t live inside of a Jewish traditional framework. His freewheeling speculation is built out of modern eclecticism. It’s Jewish because it’s anchored by his own Jewish life and past and memories, but it’s clear he does not see traditional Judaism as a place where he can find himself as a whole person. In the same way that he had to step out of Judaism to become a writer—and in his generation that was certainly true.

Is that no longer true?

I was conscious of how unhelpful what are seen as traditional Jewish novels were in writing Joy, because they’re all about the flight from religion, not an embrace or a dance with it. So many Jewish writers take ethnic definitions over religious definitions of the Jewish self. It’s now at least possible to understand that there isn’t such a great separation between the writer and the traditional Jewish world. You can move in and out of it.

I think a lot of earlier Jewish writers didn’t see that, partly because there wasn’t much place for writing inside of the tradition and partly because they’d absorbed a Christian prejudice that sees Judaism as a fixed, static, and frozen thing. Now I think it’s easier to recognize that the tradition still lives and unfolds and takes all sorts of directions, literary directions, halachic directions.

What made you choose a title from the Psalms?

My father wrote a short story when he was a young man called Joy Comes in the Morning”—or perhaps he only wanted to write a short story but had already chosen the title, I was never sure which. My father’s early life was not joyful, it was tragic, and the fact that he would think of his life in terms of that title summed up a great deal about his philosophy and seemed like a validation of my own life. Because my family is what came in the morning for him.

Another lesson sank in that I wasn’t wholly conscious of at the time: that a psalm was suitable for the title of a story, or even for your life. That you could live a modern life and draw on something from tradition. And my father was very much steeped in that tradition, although later I realized that joy comes in the morning” is actually the King James translation, and my father’s attachment to that line in English says something about how he’d already been filtered through literary, Christian, secular culture.

There’s also a book within the book called Joy Comes in the Morning.

In the novel the man who’s writing his memoir, Joy Comes in the Morning, is unable to finish it, for reasons that he wonders about himself. Is it because joy never came? Or is it just because he himself wasn’t able to organize his thoughts to transmit them? And that hangs as a question.

You present a romance between the rabbi and a science writer, yet their relationship is not simply a secular-religious opposition; the reporter recites a blessing each time he finds a new bird.

If it was a movie, the science reporter would be the skeptical nonbeliever who’s astonished to discover midway through that indeed he is awakening to certain religious things, as the religious person suddenly discovers that she in fact has lost her faith. Now, variants of these things may happen, but it’s more complicated than that. Clearly Lev already has in himself pockets of religious longing or even feeling, as if the tradition were working in him even though he wasn’t necessarily working actively in the tradition.

The reverse is true for the rabbi. Deborah wasn’t raised to be observant, she discovered it later on and has pockets of doubt. Everything contains its opposite in some way. It was very important, in creating a character who’s a rabbi, to allow her to be a whole human being.

How is writing fiction different from nonfiction?

When I dropped out of graduate school in 1987, I said to one of my professors that I thought it would be hard to protect my stupidity if I remained. And without that little core of dumb wonder, I think it’s very hard to write fiction. I think the impulse one has to rein in in writing fiction is the explanatory one, where things are articulated rather than simply allowed to live mysteriously.

When you watch birds, the fact that they don’t talk doesn’t diminish them. They seem to be fully doing what they were created to be doing. And I think that that’s the challenge in fiction. There’s a kind of muteness that you need even though you’re using words all the time.

I’m afraid we’ve come to the inevitable Jewish writer question.

The amazing thing for me is that I’ve talked about this so often, and yet I never have an answer. It’s like being asked if you believe in God. It’s not a question you answer; it’s a conversation you have. And it requires the asker to explain what he or she has in mind: Is it a bearded figure? Is it a simple, omniscient, omnipotent deity who makes everything right in the end? And by the time you’re done, the question doesn’t become irrelevant, but it becomes completely different.

That’s the problem with Jewish fiction too. Who asks the question is what you want to know. It conjures still for many people an idea of the parochial, the diminished, the limited, the small, the ethnic, and not this grand, miraculous, powerful tradition that has flowed into every corner of the world and has managed to survive under astonishing circumstances.

I’m completely capable of functioning inside the denial mode, where you want to be taken seriously as the writer of literature” that you see yourself to be, and the people you read who inspire you are the great dead and I don’t know if any of them were Jewish. And the Jewish tradition itself has not exactly been looking for fiction, so it’s not as if to become a Jewish writer is doing a favor to traditional people. On the other hand, I wouldn’t want to disavow being a Jewish writer, it’s so clearly what I am. All I really want is for the title to represent everything I think it means. The way I often describe it is that it’s like America. This is a country where you participate in the larger whole through your individual particularity, not at the expense of it.

You begin with the line Someone was dying.”

Well, someone really is going to die in the novel, even though you need to finish the book to learn who. But I suppose implicit in that line is the notion that someone’s always dying—including us. Illness makes manifest a secret we all keep from ourselves as long as we can, which is our own mortality. In the hospital more even than in synagogue, people admit their religious needs and longings. In the Psalms, they’re always crying out to God out of distress. When calamity rises to the surface, people are taken to a different place. But there’s always the question: Is it a truer place, or is it an aberration from ordinary life? You never know the answer.

Yet Joy Comes in the Morning ends with a marriage, like a Shakespeare comedy.

Reading a Shakespeare comedy, you’re left with the realization that it’s tragedy averted. My first novel, Eve’s Apple, was about a woman who’s sick, she has an eating disorder, and about a man who’s determined to figure out the mystery of her relationship to her own body. The Talmud and the Internet begins with the death of my grandmother. Things are born out of death or illness as much as they end in them.