Travel can be a life-affirming experience, but not if your trip is a forced march. In Aaron Hamburger’s debut novel “Faith for Beginners,” Mrs. Michaelson has dragged her husband and son to Israel hoping her Detroit suburb’s Millennium pilgrimage will be inspiration for them both. Her husband is dying slowly of cancer, and her son Jeremy, an NYU student, recently placed either a recent suicide attempt or an accidental overdose under his belt, depending on whom you ask.
Taking your Jewish family to its ancestral home should be very uplifting, right? Not so fast, Mrs. Michaelson!
Hamburger uses humor and insight to get to the heart of Mrs. Michaelson and son Jeremy as he follows them through a variety of tribulations.
Being on a guided tour certainly suits Mrs. Michaelson, since she is a dutiful servant of manners and formality. The plans, however, are quickly thwarted. Mrs. Michaelson is blessed with two gays sons, and Jeremy, who insists on calling her Helen rather than Mom, comes complete with green hair and a nose ring. Almost immediately after their arrival in Israel, he runs off on a Friday night, and a day later, the long-suffering Mr. Michaelson suddenly decides to go home. Mrs. Michaelson, left on her own, is pursued by the group’s ultra-hirsute rabbi, and fails to fight his affections. Meanwhile, Jeremy has found himself offered a free Shabbat meal that comes with heaping spoonfuls of dogma. The host family’s teenage son, Noam, is clearly gay and gravitates to Jeremy, who winds up abandoning him for a deaf foot-fetishist Palestinian named George. He wakes up the next day in Silwan, an Arab part of Jerusalem probably not recommended by Mrs. Michaelson’s beloved Fodor’s.
While Hamburger’s story centers on the mother and son, it also gets an eyeful of Israel’s kaleidoscope of politics and propaganda, which hit them everyplace they visit. Mrs. Michaelson is emblematic of “good American Jews” who support Israel, while Jeremy’s sole purpose is to be an agent provocateur, forever spouting moralizing anti-globalization speeches. Jeremy is used to basking in the freedom of being a gay American, but his antics wind up hurting George and pushing Noam before he’s really ready.
The author skillfully balances the funny with the existential. Mrs. Michaelson realizes that she’s lonely but “there was no one she wanted to be near,” even though there’s the rabbi pursuing her madly. He is able to quickly follow up one of her painful self-realizations such as, “I don’t know how to enjoy myself with people. I’m much better at thinking of ways to tear them down and then hating myself for it later,” with a joke: “His eyes had that compassionate look in them, like she had just told him she couldn’t afford to donate to the Jewish National Fund at the five-hundred-dollar level.”
Hamburger refers to Helen as “Mrs. Michaelson” throughout the book to reflect her overriding sense of propriety, as well as giving her the same literary weight as other literary ancestors, like “Madame Bovary” and “Mr. Darcy.” He told Gay City News, “She believes that if everyone would just behave and say please and thank you, we’d have a better world. She can’t comprehend why it is that so many people choose to engage in behavior that’s harmful to himself or to others.” Meanwhile, Jeremy insists on crossing the line, which can cause trouble in Israel, where politics are “the national sport.”
Hamburger spent about three years writing this novel. In 2000, as he visited Israel to learn more about the attitudes of gays there, he found that they shared the national obsession with the political landscape, and were more interested in handicapping that than in gay life per se. He made a conscious choice of setting the novel in 2000, when Prime Minister Ehud Barak faced a recall as he offered to divide Jerusalem; everyone Hamburger met worried about war, and civil war too.
The author also noted, “It’s interesting that a country which has inspired so much print hasn’t inspired that many defining works of literary fiction in the way India, for example, has inspired books ranging from ‘A Passage to India’ to ‘Midnight’s Children.’ This is especially odd when you think of how many outstanding Jewish-American writers we have. I think when people try to write fiction about Israel, they get caught up in the politics of the place and lose their story. I wanted to write something that would be strongly story-based, though of course it would intersect with politics.”
The novel is successful on any levels, most of all because the story has universal appeal and doesn’t require specific knowledge about the region’s history or religious conflicts. In “Faith for Beginners,” Hamburger recreates an Israel that reflects its many potential experiences—from the American fast-food chains, to the free lunches served by insular ultra-Orthodox yeshivas, to the breakfast table of an Arab woman in a Palestinian slum, to the frightening Muslim cemetery that’s also a notorious cruising ground.
The novelist has differentiated the pre-conceived notions people have about Israel from the actual place.
“As a tourist, you often find yourself staring at a pile of rocks and you’re expected to feel inspired, but all you see is a pile of rocks,” Hamburger told Gay City News. “That disjunction interested me.”
It will interest you as well.