Servant of the Secret Fire

Random thoughts on books and life in the reality-based community

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Location: New York, United States

The name I've chosen comes from "Lord of the Rings," when Gandalf faces down the Balrog in the Mines of Moria. My Hebrew name is Esther (which is related to the word for "hidden" or "secret") Serafina (which means "burning"). This seems appropriate because although I don't usually put myself forward, I do care very passionately about a lot of things. Maybe through these blogs I can share some of these passions, as well as less weighty ideas and opinions, with others.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Book Review: Destined to Choose ****

Destined to Choose by Sheyna Galyan ****

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.


Blogger Sheyna said...

Wow, thank you so much for reviewing my book! Can I please reprint your review on my site and give it to my publisher, both with full citations and links to your blog? I would love to be able to share your wonderful comments. Thanks again!

April 16, 2009 at 12:16:00 AM EDT  
Blogger Servant of the Secret Fire said...

Please feel free to use it, Sheyna! I'm glad you found it worthwhile, and I'm looking forward to your next book.

June 27, 2009 at 11:42:00 PM EDT  

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