Joy Comes in the Morning: A Novel

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9780374180263: Joy Comes in the Morning: A Novel

Deborah Green is a woman of passionate contradictions--a rabbi who craves goodness and surety while wrestling with her own desires and with the sorrow and pain she sees around her. Her life changes when she visits the hospital room of Henry Friedman, an older man who has attempted suicide. His parents were murdered in the Holocaust when he was a child, and all his life he's struggled with difficult questions: Can happiness really come after such loss, or does the very wish profane the dead? Can religious promises ever bring peace? Deborah's encounter with Henry and his family draws her into a world of tragedy, frailty, love, and, finally, hope.

The New Yorker called Rosen's first novel "An impressive debut--a highly original addition to the distinguished line of Jewish-American romances." He has fulfilled the promise of his first fiction in this contemporary story of classic scope, whose characters hunger for love, grapple with faith and doubt, and seek to bind themselves to something sacred in the midst of modern chaos.

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About the Author:

Jonathan Rosen is the author of The Talmud and the Internet and the novel Eve's Apple. His essays have appeared in The New York Times and The New Yorker, among other publications. He is editor of a forthcoming series of short books on Jewish subjects.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Excerpt from Joy Comes in the Morning by Jonathan Rosen. Copyright © 2004 by Jonathan Rosen. Published in September, 2004 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC. All rights reserved.
SOMEONE WAS DYING.

Deborah felt it in her chest. She felt it along her spine. She felt it, though she could not have explained how, in her womb. The feeling stirred her out of half sleep. She opened her eyes. The shades were drawn but a blue light had begun to seep in around the edges. It was 6 a.m.

Now would be a good time to hear a voice. She would like to have been called. Deborah! Deborah! But it no longer happened that way, if it ever had. Deborah smiled at herself for a childhood fantasy that had never left her. The window glowed. She heard the flop of The New York Times against her front door. The newspaper delivery boy—actually a middle-aged black woman; Deborah had spied on her once through the peephole—stood in the open elevator and flung the papers, as if dealing a giant pack of cards. After a sleepless night Deborah found the sound reassuring, a town crier's reminder that the world was still there. Lately, there had been a lot of sleepless nights.

The strange sensation darkened her again, an inner shadow. Someone was dying. She tried to think who it might be. William who had emphysema and couldn't talk but whose hand she often held. The old woman on the eighth floor nobody came to see who had given her a recipe for sponge cake. Frank the trumpet player with AIDS for whom the complex cocktail no longer worked. That poor baby in the neonatal ICU, baby Emily the nurses called her, who had been born with a hole in her heart. Deborah shuddered at the memory of the tiny blue child. Angry Caroline with ovarian cancer, scarcely older than she herself was. That might explain the strange sympathetic sensation nestled in her own belly. She rested a hand there but her body told her nothing.

Somehow, she didn't think it was any of these. Of course, someone was always dying. It didn't have to be someone you knew. Visiting a hospital regularly you learned that pretty quickly.

She should make herself a cup of coffee and start the day. The newspaper was waiting for her. Reuben, when they had been together, all but heard the Times crying on the doorstep like an abandoned child. He would bring it into bed. Deborah could never look at the paper first thing in the morning. Though she was keenly attuned to the world's sorrows, internal matters always concerned her more.

Deborah decided to pray. She had promised herself that she would pray more regularly. She rose and stretched. She was wearing a T-shirt and nothing else. She stepped into a pair of underpants. It didn't seem right to stand bare-assed before God, though of course everyone was supposed to be naked before Him. Not that she thought of God as a seeing presence. Or a Him. Still, she slipped on a pair of red running shorts over the underpants. Barefoot, she padded across the wood floor and removed a large zippered velvet envelope from her top drawer. She left a smaller velvet envelope behind.

While she was up she shut off the air conditioner. It had been in the high eighties the past few days but Deborah hated the artificial cool. There was something dishonest about it, though this was the kind of observation that drove Reuben—who had bought the air conditioner for her—crazy. She always imagined that the heat was still lurking somewhere in the room, hidden behind an invisible veil of refrigerated air. If you exerted yourself only slightly you felt hot and realized that the whole thing was a kind of physical illusion. This belief was, in Reuben's words, a pantheistic delusion. But Reuben was gone, though his machine lived on, sucking life out of the room in his absence.

Deborah's grandfather had been surprisingly tall; she was reminded of this as she unfurled his large prayer shawl, ivory white with bold zebra stripes of black. Though she was five foot six inches tall, when she raised the shawl over her head she was completely shrouded. She loved the feeling of being wrapped, hidden away inside the soft armor of her grandfather's tallis. In the meditation she now recited, God was described as robed in light. Deborah held the ends of the prayer shawl together above her head and felt, for a moment, blissfully cocooned.

When Reuben had seen her in her tallis for the first time he had called her a transvestite. Remembering it now, she burned with shame and indignation. He had pretended it was a joke and flashed her his gleaming, bearded smile, but she could see the disgust in his eyes. He had nothing against women praying, he told her, but why did they have to pray dressed like men?

Reuben was Orthodox. Of course he had slept with her anyway—not, she felt sure, the only one of the 613 commandments he had violated, but perhaps the one he most easily discounted. He had shown more anxiety about the state of her kitchen—the morning after, she'd found him sifting through the silverware to make sure that she indeed had a set for milk and a set for meat.

Deborah lowered the tallis so that the strip of gold embroidery lay behind her slender neck; she gathered up the extra material on either side and threw it over her shoulders, doubling the great square of striped cloth back on itself so that she wore it like a cape. The tassels hung down in front and behind.

It annoyed her to be thinking of Reuben now, in her moment of prayer, with his ortho-arrogant awkwardness, his air of entitlement and insecurity. Modern Orthodox men were macho sissies. He wasn't the first one she'd dated. They expected to inherit the earth but they had a nagging, inborn fear that they might be driven from it first. In this respect they weren't quite American, and Deborah supposed it was this mild foreignness, coupled with her own weakness for ritual rigor, that had drawn her to them in the first place. She had met Reuben in his synagogue, not hers. She herself must have held a certain exotic appeal for him—a Reform woman rabbi. She must not have seemed quite American either, or quite Jewish.

She resented terms like Orthodox and Reform—they seemed a substitute for the inner state. Did she have a Reform soul? She didn't feel that way, especially draped in her grandfather's tallis. Reuben can kiss my Reform rabbinical cross-dressing ass. She hurled herself into Ma TovuHow goodly are your tents, oh Jacob—her heart pounding, trying to recapture the tented pleasure of the moment before. But it wasn't until she had blazed through Adon Olam and Yigdal—containing Maimonides's thirteen principles of Judaism, beginning with the existence of God and ending with the resurrection of the dead—that she settled down.

Deborah loved the praise part of prayer. In rabbinic school there had always been students who wrestled with praise and took a what-has-he-done-for-me-lately attitude toward God, an attitude of human entitlement and anger. Deborah had never understood this.

To praise God made her feel whole and she recited Birkot Hashachar with a schoolgirl's relish: Blessed are you God who gives sight to the blind; blessed are you God who clothes the naked; blessed are you God who did not make me a slave. She was using her grandmother's little prayer book, which made no apologies for blessed are you God who did not make me a woman. Deborah skipped that blessing and recited the female alternative, Blessed are you God who made me according to his will.

She found her groove and raced along, fast but focused, gathering the four tassels of her tallis in her right hand when she came to the "Shema and her Blessings" so that she could kiss them every time she uttered the word tzitzitAnd you shall look on them and remember the commandments, and not be seduced by the desires of the heart of the eye . . .

By the time she got to the Amida she had forgotten the distress of the morning and was moving smoothly along ancient verbal tracks of praise and petition. One of her liturgy professors had spoken of prayer in the language of sports. You break through the wall, he said, and you're no longer thinking, I'm running, I'm running, you're simply running. It's a beautiful state. She felt that way now. She entered the Amida almost before she knew it, bowing and bending and feeling the words alive inside her.

But then the persistent whisper in her blood distracted her. Again she thought, Someone is dying. Was it the hospital getting to her at last? Her sister, Rachel, had been telling her that she spent too much time there, which, considering the fact that Rachel was a doctor, was laughable. Though she was spending more and more of her time among the sick. She'd begun visiting congregants but had found herself spending time with other patients, too, Jews and non-Jews, old people and babies alike. Rabbi Zwieback, the senior rabbi, was only too happy to give her hospital detail, and for the past two years half her salary was paid by a grant that supported ministering to the sick.

Deborah had found in the hospital an air of truthfulness and, strange to say, vitality, that she could not account for. She sometimes felt the way she imagined a soldier might feel who discovers to his astonishment that he likes war. That in the thick of battle—bullets whizzing around his head, comrades falling, death undeniable, life its brightest and most immediate and most perishable—his inner state has finally found its outer expression. In the hospital Deborah found not fear but, oddly, a kind of peace.

Not that she had abandoned her other responsibilities. This very Sunday she would be performing a wedding. Now that was scary. Deborah had met with the couple twice and it seemed clear they weren't ready for marriage. Janet was only twenty-four and had already broken off the engagement once, during which time she had briefly re...

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