Book Review: Destined to Choose ****
Rabbi David Cohen is struggling to write a sermon for Tisha b'Av, a fast day commemorating the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the observance of which the leaders of his congregation feel is a waste of time. His obligations to his family and his job are in conflict, to the detriment of both. Finally, an elderly Holocaust survivor has turned to him for help in finding the man's eighteen-year-old granddaughter, who has left their home after a furious argument over a philosophy paper she wrote for college. This is the situation at the opening of Sheyna Galyan's Destined to Choose.
Rabbi Cohen's intensive counseling sessions with Avram and his granddaughter Anna, once she is located, are at the center of this promising first novel, and their discussions, as well as his interactions with other characters, range widely over several aspects of Jewish thought, practice and theology, while still remaining relatively accessible to the average reader. A helpful glossary of Jewish terms is also provided at the end of the book.
Are people basically good, or tainted from the start? If they are basically good, how do we explain Hitler and his followers? What are the reasons for the rabbi's refusal to perform a marriage between a Jew and a non-Jew, and how far should he go in attempting to portray Judaism as an attractive option to the non-Jewish partner? How does he reconcile the conflict between the needs of his family and the requirements of his job, and should he stand on principle when it puts his livelihood in jeopardy?
Not all of these questions are answered, but Ms. Galyan, who, according to her website, "identifies herself as Traditional Conservative, with occasional leanings toward both Reform and Feminist Orthodoxy - sometimes simultaneously," gives her readers plenty of food for thought in the course of the book.
Avram and Anna are rounded, sympathetic characters whose positions are occasionally diametrically opposed to what a more stereotyped viewpoint might suggest. The rabbi's loving relationship with his family, as well as his supportive friendship with his colleagues and the secretary at the temple are also well portrayed.
Since this is a first novel, it has some weaknesses. The president of the temple comes off as more of a caricature than a real person, and some might feel that the rabbi's many problems resolve themselves just a little too neatly at the end. However, the story and and the thoughtful way in which the author and her characters wrestle with some serious issues more than compensate for these minor flaws and make Destined to Choose a worthwhile and enjoyable read.