"'Surely I don't love these Jews enough,'" muses Rachel Sonnshein, the rabbi's wife, sitting in the temple, listening to her husband's sermon. The thought becomes a kind of leitmotif in Silvia Tennenbaum's muchtouted first novel, "Rachel, the Rabbi's Wife" - 60,000 copy first printing. Literary Guild alternate selection, and a fat $100,000 advance for the authour who, if nothing else, now knows that it certainly does pay to be a rabbi's wife. Not that there weren't a few complications before the money began to pour in.
You see, Silvia Tennenbaum in real life was a rebbetzin, a rabbi's wife, for 26 years, until her husband, Lloyd, was fired by his congregation in Huntington, N.Y. - ostensibly for his so-called liberal views (anti-war, civil rights, pro-day-care centers - all the old conservative bugaboos). Tennenbaum's transparently autobiographical novel - a kind of marriage between Sinclair Lewis's "Main Street" and Philip Roth's "Portnoy's Complaint" - has already begun to appear on a number of bestseller lists, largely because it is being promoted as an anti-Semitic diatribe.
The fact is that "Rachel, the Rabbi's Wife" is not so much a Jewish novel (which it is, of course, in one sense) as still another story about female liberation, a kind of "Diary of a Mad Rebbetzin." Beneath its wisecracking, raunchy surface, Tennenbaum's story is the same one we have read over and over again in the last half-dozen years. Rachel simply gets tired of being a second-class citizen; her angst is heightened by Seymour's career (he might just as easily have been a Methodist or an Episcopal minister, since the problems would have largely been the same). Rachel/Silvia is fed up with having to attend every worship service, funeral, marriage, and bar mitzvah - fed up with being an appendage of her husband's career. And, since she is a reasonably cultured individual living in a rather sterile suburban community, she's tired of Seymour's having to talk down to his low-brow congregation: "They were politically conservative and religiously naive. They wanted their rabbi to incorporate the wisdom' of Kahlil Gibran and the 'philosophy' of Jonathan Livingston Seagull. They also wanted a rabbi who would offer himself as a religious scapegoat and set them an example of piety which would show them the way to heaven, and lead them straight into the laps of their bobbes and zaydes of blessed memory."
Rachel longs for bacon-lettuce-and-tomato sandwiches and a private life - in theis case a studio (a room of her own) where she can pursue her career as a painter. When she becomes truly frustrated by her assigned role in the religious community, she spends more time with her 16-year-old son, Aaron - in a relationship that becomes the highlight of the novel.
So why all th fuss about this book anyway? Well, Tennenbaum's kibitzing is not without its little surprises. Rachel has a brief fling with an old lover, Symour has an affair with one of the rich women in his congregation, and since the story is told from Rachel's foul-mouth point-of-view, there is the additional shock (I was going to say shlock) for some readers of discovering a rabbi's wife who swears like a trooper. Furthermore, Tennenbaum, who clearly has a great ear for dialougue, is blessed with a Borsht Belt wit which will carry many a reader along from page to page. She's especially good at oneliners such as the following: "Isn't it nice to have one neurotic friend who's a goy?" The seder is traditionally the time for family arguments." "Homosexuality is on the rise . . . even among Jews." You become a rabbi, you have to learn to beg."
Is this anti-Semitic? I think not. No more than Philip Roth or Franz Kafka, as Rachel herself realizes during her fiery goodbye speech to the congregation's Sisterhood: "The audience grew a little restless. They didn't really care about Philip Roth's misogyny - was his contempt for the Jewish middle class.They called it 'anti-Semitism.' THey knew that this word was powerful enough to foil his accusations of complacent materialism and vulgarity."
"Rachel, the Rabbi's Wife" is good beach reading for these snowy winter evenings. For Silvia Tennenbaum the real test will begin once she moves from authobiographical vendetta to imaginative fiction.