Faith for Beginners

Mon. September 25, 2006 12:00 AM
by Chad Sosna

Book: Faith for Beginners
Author: Aaron Hamburger
Review: 5 stars (out of 5)
This Hamburger is juicy

As one who has weak interest in reading about Arab-Israeli politics, finding one's fatih, or mother/son relationships, it took a lot for me to decide to settle down with this book. But I was redeemed with a refreshing read well outside of the typical gay-novel niche.

This is one journey to faith that is a lively excursion through Israel. The ways of Helen Nussbaum, her punkish son Jeremy and disabled husband bring an interestingly distinct contrast between settled American life and the very real turmoil of living in Israel.

The family is outside of their normal Michigan world and on a commercialized tour called the Michigan Miracle 2000. Helen is worried about Jeremy, her pierced, college-slacker son who has just survived a suicide attempt. But amid their travels through war-torn Israel, they take steps (sidesteps?) toward exploring their faith and achieving a sort of mutual acceptance. While her husband suffers from a slow but steady form of cancer, Helen explores intense sexual experiences with a young, hirsute rabbi. Jeremy has some fun of his own, meeting George, a deaf Palestinian. Politics of all types fill their lives (but in a captivating way) and as it turns out, Jeremy becomes the one who understands this strange, ancient land and its current climate the most.

Here are the ways Aaron Hamburger could have made this novel go wrong: making it solely a story about a mother who struggles with the fact that her only offspring, two sons, are both gay (not new); overloading the story with politics (he didn't); making Jeremy's rebellious nature the core of the story (again, not new); setting the story in Michigan (ho hum).

Instead, Faith for Beginners proves to be a rich blend of real, flawed characters, imbued with the easily-recognize (but often missed) humor of suburban family ennui.