Remember the Sabbath

  • by Robert Julian
  • Tuesday October 25, 2005
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Remember the Sabbath

Faith for Beginners by Aaron Hamburger; Random House, $23.95

If you put an average middle-class Jewish family on an organized tour of Israel, there are going to be some humorous moments. Author Aaron Hamburger manages to create more than a few such moments in his debut novel, Faith for Beginners.

The Michaelsons, from suburban Detroit, are on a religious pilgrimage to the Holy Land, packed onto tour buses and led around on foot from one historic site to another. But the purity of their three-week odyssey is complicated by the Michaelsons' relatively dysfunctional family dynamic, a round of cocktail parties and fundraisers, and a relentless summer heat wave.

It is the summer of 2000, and Helen Michaelson hopes a trip to Israel will snap some sense into the head of her youngest gay son, Jeremy. Her eldest gay son, Robert, is settled down with a nice Asian boy in a conventional gay marriage. But Jeremy is the green-haired rebel without a clue. He wears a nose ring and was recently rescued from what may or may not have been an accidental overdose. Helen's husband, who is dying of cancer, is along for the ride, but he eventually decides to leave the tour early and return to Michigan. Soon his son and his wife fall into sexual liaisons with the locals.

Hamburger successfully paints a portrait of a mother and son who are so alike, they can barely stand each other. At the same time, they share a deep affection. While Mrs. Michaelson lounges by the pool and flirts with a rabbi, Jeremy is off trolling the parks and cemeteries of Jerusalem, looking for sex. Both of them are assaulted on all sides by well-intended hosts or fellow travelers who attempt to expand their understanding of Jewish history and culture — or are simply laying on a heavy guilt trip.

Faith for Beginners is steeped in Jewish tradition, religion and folklore. For a non-Jewish reader like this reviewer, that can be a problem. On more than a few occasions, I found myself wishing I had a frame of reference that would afford me a greater understanding of the material. In this sense, author Hamburger has failed to create a work that can be universally appreciated on the same level by all readers, regardless of their religious background. But as a sort of gay/straight, multigenerational, Hebrew Lost in Translation, Faith for Beginners creates its own peculiar niche.