If God were here, there would be no need for religion. We wouldn’t have to remember him for honor him. We’d come out of our houses in the morning, and God would be sitting on a cloud with a lightning bolt in one hand and a Starbucks in the other.
You’d say, “Good morning, God. How did I do yesterday?”
If you were good, you’d get the Starbucks. If you were bad—
Sanskrit Aaron Zuckerman.
Some name, eh? Particularly for the least Jewish kid at Brentwood Jewish Academy (even below the school’s one-student diversity initiative, Tyler, who’s only Jewish on his mother’s side). Named after “a dead, goyish language” by his new-ager yoga-teacher mother (his younger sister was named Sweet Caroline by their father—at least Neil Diamond is Jewish!), Sanskrit sits at the bottom of his school’s pecking order, dreaming of graduation and The Initials. The former is his ticket away from his feuding, divorced parents; the latter is Judi Jacobs, the girl of his dreams, whom he went out with for one ill-fated week in second grade, when they were still at public school.
So is life at the beginning of Allen Zadoff’s devilishly funny (and occasionally devastating) novel Since You Left Me. Sanskrit would be perfectly happy not being at B-Jew: he’s an atheist, and things haven’t really been the same since his best friend Herschel came back from a teen trip to Israel and suddenly went from best barely-believing buddy to full-scale black hat Ortho. And yet Sanskrit stays, because it’s all paid for by an inheritance from his Holocaust survivor grandfather—it was either get a Jewish education or see the money all go to fund for Tay-Sachs disease research. (“Your zadie wants to save all the Jews, and he doesn’t mind screwing his own family in the process,” explains Sanskrit’s father, who hadn’t been on good terms with Zadie Zuckerman since refusing to go into the family business.)
Our hero is in a bind as the book opens, with his mother late for yet another parent-teacher conference. If she misses this one, Sankrit will be ejected from B-Jew, and with only a year left before graduation (and his subsequent inevitable travel to Brandeis University, “a Jewish university without much Judaism, all the way on the other side of the country”), he can’t afford that. So he tells the administrators that his mother’s been in a car accident. Oops. Things spiral out from there, with Sanskrit having to maintain the lie, bribe Sweet Caroline to help, assist The Initials in her efforts to create a tribute to his not-exactly-ailing mother, fight his conscience (in the form of Herschel, the only person who knows the truth), and deal with his mother’s friendship (is it just friendship?) with a guru from India who’s come to teach at the yoga center.
Zadoff’s prose is stuffed like a good pastrami sandwich with trenchant and hilarious lines from the narrator on life, God, and Judaism: asked by the guru how he feels about being Jewish, Sanskrit deadpans “We invented the bagel. How can you not love that?” I do wonder how some of the humor would come across to a non-Jewish reader; then again, this is similar to the material that Woody Allen made his name on, except a lot bitterer. Late in the book, Sanskrit describes his childhood trips to synagogue:
We’d have a separate and supposedly fun children’s service, designed to make us fall in love with Judaism.
The Hebrew school’s idea of fun? We sat on a cold linoleum floor, squirming and hating it, while they taught us bible stories and made us sing “Dayenu” and other Jewish songs.
When I was finally old enough to be in the synagogue, what did I discover?
A group of adults sitting on barely padded benches, squirming and hating it.
Jewish jail. It’s a life sentence.
That was the real lesson of synagogue. It never ends.
I remember those children’s services myself from my own youth and I remember the feeling of graduating first to the junior congregation on Saturdays (every attendee bribed with a weekly Hershey’s bar) and then to the adult services; if I’m not nearly as angry as Sanskrit, I understand his perspective. (I was raised conservative and bar mitzvahed, but nowadays my Judaism is almost wholly cultural; I also attended Brandeis for two years and hated it, although for reasons entirely unrelated to matters religious.) Allen Zadoff’s Sanskrit Aaron Zuckerman is a unique, memorable creation: a little Woody Allen, a little Holden Caulfield, and a lot of himself.
(Oh, and the title? Well, that’s got a whole bunch of different possible meanings, so read the book and decide for yourself which one it is. Or don’t decide. Maybe deciding that is God’s job.)