What does America mean, and what does it mean to be an American? These
are complicated questions with a multitude of possible answers. We
can’t open a newspaper or magazine, or turn on the television or
radio or browse the Internet without exposing ourselves to the
symbols, images, myths and messages of America.
Those of us who were born in this country begin assimilating these
messages at an early age. For immigrants, the meaning of America can
be as challenging and frustrating a lesson as the grammatical and
syntactic peculiarities of the English language. An even more daunting
challenge faces first-generation Americans, those for whom the
American experience is a synthesis, a difficult, occasionally forced,
reconciliation of the symbols and myths of America with their
parents’ customs and traditions.
The Red Heifer tells the story of a young Jewish boy’s
search for his unique American meaning in the New York City of the
1930s and 1940s. He grows up against the backdrop of the Great
Depression and the Second World War in an environment bounded on one
side by the customs and lessons imparted by his father, a Talmudic
scholar, and on the other by the secular, profane and often confusing
world of an America that offers the lures of baseball, penny candy and
the first rumblings of adolescent sexuality.
The titular Red Heifer refers to a seemingly illogical Jewish
purification ritual. The ritual cleanses a person who has become
unclean by coming into contact with the dead. At the same time, the
priest who performs the cleansing rite becomes temporarily unclean.
This strange duality becomes a metaphor for the immigrant experience
in America and the ease with which immigrants can lose their identity
by coming into contact with habits and traditions that seem at once
liberating and unclean.
The tension is not merely the product of a clash of cultures but also
of the always difficult relationship between fathers and sons.
Throughout the novel, the father’s sense of identity remains
rooted in his adherence to tradition, and he does his best to instill
respect for and obedience to these customs in both the narrator and
his younger brother. The sons learn these lessons so well that they
are baffled when people they meet aren’t versed in the spiritual
and cultural habits that form the bedrock of their identities.
As the novel progresses and his sons grow up and become more
acclimated to and influenced by the larger world they inhabit, the
father comes to acknowledge, if not necessarily accept, that the world
his son inhabits is not as clear-cut as the world in which he came of
age, or even the scholarly world of Talmudic study that forms the
boundaries of his adult life. The gangsters, gamblers, and baseball
players of America are beyond his understanding, but like it or not,
they are part of the fabric of his sons’ reality.
This realization causes the father to use his own brother’s
example as his touchstone to America. The brother, a shoychet
— which according to the Glossary of Yiddish and Hebrew words
Haber includes as a courtesy to his readers means “ritual slaughterer
of chickens” — becomes the father’s paragon; where the
father simply wrestles with the angels of Jewish law, his brother puts
the law into practical, worldly action. Ultimately, the father
encourages his sons to emulate his brother and carry the law with them
into the secular arena, to live an American life without losing his
respect and reverence for law and tradition.
The Holocaust and World War Two lead the narrator to question the
point of such respect and reverence. Although the War casts a long
shadow over the narrator’s coming of age, his youth and the
distance between his New York life and the horror in Europe force him
to confront the incomprehensible in a very personal way. In one of the
novel’s most affecting chapters, the narrator tries to
understand why God would allow his newborn sister to die. The anger,
confusion and sadness he feels over the loss of one innocent life is
his response not only to his family’s loss, but to the monstrous
reality of the Holocaust and the natural and impossible question of
why God allows the innocent to suffer.
In contrast, another passage in the book demonstrates the degree to
which traditional Judaism and the legends and stories of America can
compliment one another. What begins as a game of cowboys and Indians
becomes recast as a retelling of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac.
The story transcends the traditions of its origin and becomes an
ingredient in the mythological American melting pot. This, then, is
the model of assimilation, of different customs, traditions and
stories coming together in a new form. The difficult question inherent
in such a blending is whether the new version is stronger for the
infusion of different perspectives or whether these combinations cause
people to lose their uniqueness and forget where they came from.
While this reviewer — who was not raised within the Jewish
tradition — recognizes these tensions in The Red Heifer,
the novel is as much about resonance as it is about narrative focus.
Although Leo Haber crafts a story about the challenges of learning
America from a particular cultural and spiritual perspective, his
story carries echoes of the exploits of gangsters and gamblers in
Damon Runyon’s New York stories, the scent of penny candy
nostalgia found in Jean Shepherd’s tales of an embellished
Indiana boyhood, and the equal and opposite attractions of the old and
the new of Julia Alvarez’s How the Garcia Girls Lost Their
Accents. One of the great accomplishments of The Red Heifer
is the skill with which Haber brings out both the unique and the
universal in his characters’ experiences.
Even more impressive is the skill with which the author manipulates
the narrative voice of the novel. As the narrator ages over the span
of the story, his tone becomes more mature. As his understanding of
what’s going on around him becomes equally sophisticated, events
and actions that mystify when seen through the eyes of the young
become demystified and mundane. This deepening narrative richness
allows the reader to come of age along with the narrator.
Tradition and novelty. Spiritual and secular. Clean and unclean. Where
you came from and where you’re going. Past and future. Father
and son. Like all Americans, the narrator of The Red Heifer
traverses a landscape of duality in a search for meaning.