Prayers for the Living, National Public Radio commentator Alan Cheuse’s mythic story of the American Dream gone to pieces, is both grand in its vision and loving in its familiarity. Presented in a series of conversations between grandmother Minnie Bloch and her companions, the novel creates a layered family portrait of three generations of the Bloch family, whose members are collapsing under everyday burdens and brutal betrayals.
Her son Manny is a renowned, almost legendary rabbi. Respected by his congregants and surrounded by family, he yearns secretly for a life of greater personal glory. When an oracular bird delivers what Manny believes to be a message from his deceased father, he abandons his pulpit in pursuit of a life in business, and his entire life spirals out of control.
As his fortunes rise in the corporate realm, Manny falls deeper into an affair with a congregant; his wife’s alcoholism and depression become more profound; and his daughter Sarah is sexually traumatized at a nearby college. Incapable of offering either his wife or daughter the support they need, Manny becomes the target of Sarah’s plot to shatter his beloved new empire.
The devoted family matriarch, Minnie, observes and recounts her family’s tragic downfall with language as realistic and incantatory as any dreamer’s can be. Move over Ishmael, here comes Minnie Bloch.
“‘I want the world,’ shouts William Dubin, the biographer-protagonist of Bernard Malamud’s Dubin’s Lives, raging at a life that thinks he should survive without passions. Meet Dubin’s kinsman Manny Bloch, the tormented, cursed hero of this fine novel by Alan Cheuse. At once tender and brutal, unsparing and wise, Prayers for the Living masterfully ventriloquizes not only the voices of Manny and the people he cherishes and destroys, but those of an entire America staring at itself in a cracked mirror.”—Boris Fishman, author of A Replacement Life
“A tour de force of voice, character, and psychology from an American master at the height of his powers. Minnie Bloch’s tale of her family’s slow disintegration echoes Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! recast in New York and New Jersey, a search for understanding and meaning amidst the wreckage of a life gone off the rails in pursuit of the American dream.”—Christian Kiefer, author of The Animals
“Cheuse enlarges the immigrant tale of aspiration and loss. His narrator, in a lyrically heightened dialect as bold and capacious as the voices of William Faulkner, propels the story toward its conclusion with a dire largeness of scope that deserves the word ‘tragic.'”—Robert Pinsky, author of Gulf Music
“It’s an old story, darling, so don’t get offended.”
“I’m not offended.”
“I’m sorry I brought it up.”
“Don’t be so sorry.”
Mrs. Bloch touched a hand to her auburn hair, a surface so carefully crafted that it appeared to be an object made of stone or dark-stained wood that had been constructed elsewhere and then placed atop her wrinkled forehead.
“Now I’ve hurt your feelings. I’m sorry, Mrs. Bloch.”
“Why should it hurt my feelings to hear someone’s name mentioned, Mrs. Pinsker? I want the best for my son and if that arrangement makes him happy . . .”
“Mrs. Bloch, I was only bringing up the example of . . .”
“Of a mother-child . . .”
“A mother-child what?”
Mrs. Pinsker looked up from her coffee cup and gave a sign with her large, red-rimmed eyes that it was not safe to speak.
“Girls?” said the same black, gray-haired, stick-thin waitress in a white uniform who attended them each week.
“It’s the unofficial member.”
“The ex-ofisho,” Mrs. Bloch said, trying to remember a phrase that she had heard her son Manny use when speaking about temple activities.
“More coffee?” the thin black woman asked, her voice as much of a mask as her face.
“Girls, she calls us,” Mrs. Pinsker said. “If she wasn’t as old as us I’d get insulted.”
“How are you, sweetheart?” Mrs. Bloch asked.
“Same. Same as ever. More coffee?”
“And a doughnut,” Mrs. Bloch said. “Don’t you think I ought to have a doughnut?”
“I vote you should have a doughnut,” Mrs. Pinsker said.
“Something sweet always cheers me up,” Mrs. Bloch said.
“I didn’t know you were depressed,” Mrs. Pinsker said.
“You think talking about my son’s mistress makes me happy?”
“You said if it made him happy you didn’t care.”
“I don’t,” Mrs. Bloch said.
“Girls?” the waitress insisted.
“Sweetheart, a doughnut please,” Mrs. Bloch said. “A doughnut to make me happy.”
“He doesn’t make you happy?”
“Not when he’s sick.”
“You said Doctor Mickey said he wasn’t sick.”
“Not physically sick. He’s confused, darling. Why else would he fall? Why else would the world go dark for him? Dark, he said it went all dark. And on top of this he has a mistress, a married woman . . .”
“A widow. So she’s excused.”
“So she’s excused. But he’s got her. But if you think of it . . .”
“Think of what?”
“It’s almost part of his job.”
“Because of her . . . you know?”
“Because of the Holocaust, you mean?”
“That’s what I mean. Because she was in the concentrating camp, because she came to him for help.”
“You know all this?”
“I know more than you think, more than Manny thinks, and what I don’t know I imagine.”
“You’re telling me you make it up?”
“What I make up usually turns out to be very close to what’s true. Very close.”
“Then make up, make up,” said Mrs. Pinsker. “He’s my rabbi, so I’m entitled to know what’s going on with him.”
“You’re entitled. For you, darling, I’ll talk,” Mrs. Bloch said. “For the leading lady in the grandmothers’ club, for one of the founding members that you are, I’ll talk. Talking will help me, I’m sure. Talk, Doctor Mickey always says, talk away.”
“What a darling man,” Mrs. Pinsker said.
“His mother Mrs. Stellberg is very proud of him, and so would his grandmother be proud if she was still alive.”
“Do you know if she’s alive?”
“How could she be alive? Is your mother at our age? Is mine? But I’ll ask. I’ll ask him. I’ll get personal from my side of it for a change. He knows more about me, about my family, than anyone else—because I talk to him—but I don’t want nobody else should know.”
“But you’re telling me now.”
“Grandmother to grandmother I’m telling you.”
“You’re upset. I can tell.”
“How can you tell?”
“Your hand trembles when you lift your cup. Ten times a minute you wipe your lipstick with a napkin. Normally you don’t do this.”
“So I’m upset.”
“So you’ll talk.”
“Your food,” said the waitress from over Mrs. Bloch’s shoulder, and with a birdlike quickness set the dish on the table and stepped away.
“Who does she think she is? A princess? If I was a waitress I would be more polite.”
“Maybe she is better than us,” Mrs. Bloch said, her viscous upper lip curling back in a smile.
“Don’t get funny. So tell me the story.”
Mrs. Bloch held the pastry up in front of her.
“What are you doing? You’re studying it?”
“I told you. It’s an old story and I’m remembering it, darling. You want to hear it from the beginning?”
“From the beginning? From the creation of Adam and Eve? No, thank you, that part I’ve heard.”
“No, from Minnie and Jacob, that’s what I was thinking. From the creation of Minnie and Jacob.”
“For that you need to study the doughnut? Better you should get one with a hole in it, so you can look through the hole to the other side.”
“The other side? I’m seeing the other side without closing my eyes, without a magical hole in a magical doughnut.”
Mrs. Bloch took a bite out of the pastry. She chewed for a moment, and then said through a mouthful of dough, “Don’t look so impatient, it’s a long story, I need my nourishment.”
“You said old story, not long.”
“Well, what’s old? What’s long? As long as it’s good.”
“Well,” said Mrs. Pinsker, “how could it not be good? You’re sitting here, you lived, that’s it. A happy ending. I can tell. You’re smiling again, darling.”
“And I shouldn’t smile when I’m thinking about the beginning?”
“But so tell me what was going on with his accident.”
“With Manny’s fall?”
“No, with the president of the United States. With George Gershwin. Of course, with your Manny.”
“With my Manny it was an accident.”
“I was there, I could see, a man trips, a man stumbles, but I mean he’s all right? He’s not sick? A man just doesn’t all of a sudden tumble down after all these years for no reason. Look, everybody has reasons but not everybody falls down. So tell me his reasons? What’s the matter? He’s got a disease? He’s got troubles with you-know-who?”
“I told you, nothing. He’s got nothing. Nothing is wrong. He told me earlier in the day he had a little headache.”
“Headache? It’s a tumor, maybe?”
“Please darling, I told you, it was nothing. He had a little headache. In the hospital, after his accident, lying there, he told me everything. Ever since his father died, a long time ago, we’ve been very close, you know . . .”
“I’ve heard, I’ve noticed.”
“So you’ve noticed. So I’ve been like his concudante, do you know what I mean?”
“Do I know? Do I know? Don’t I have children of my own? Don’t I hear all the stories, all the troubles?”
“If they talk to you, you’re lucky. If they don’t, you’re happy.”
“I couldn’t agree more, Mrs. Bloch. So tell.”
“You’re telling me about his accident.”
“His fall. And later his summer and his winter and his spring? Keep talking.”
“Very funny. Summer, winter, whatever. I’m telling you he had his summer later in life than most boys, with this business he was making. And good for him, because early in his life, times were rough for him when he was a little boy, when my Jacob passed away . . .”
“That’s the beginning you were talking about?”
“So you’ll tell me that later. But now I want to hear the middle. The part I saw. Because even though I saw it I didn’t know what I was seeing.”
“What do you mean, darling, typical? You think I’m blind or something? I was there, I was looking down from the upstairs . . .”
“From up there we get a good view, don’t we, Mrs. Pinsker?”
“The grandmothers see everything, sure. So I was up in the balcony watching, like in the old days, when I’m up there watching the stage show at the Roxy . . .”
“Looking down at the stage show, of course. So you don’t think I remember those things? And let me tell you what I remember . . .”
“I’ll let you.”
“Thank you, darling. And I’ll tell you. What I remember is looking down from the balcony of the old shul on my old street, peeking from behind the curtain they put up around us to keep us ladies from looking down.”
“They put up a curtain?”
“You were so far ahead of everybody you never had no curtain? In some places I hear, of course I never saw, they had a wall. And you could make eyeholes and peep through. They had their old ways. In the old country. And some were not so bad and some were not so good. I’m telling you, my Manny banged his nose against it when it came time for him to stay downstairs with the men. He didn’t want to leave me, the boy was such a good one. And he had to go to school? Same trouble. He didn’t want to leave me. Such a good boy. But what you were asking, that comes later and you were asking about his accident.”
“It was an accident.”
“But it comes first, not later.”
“First I’m telling, but in his life it comes later.”
“Don’t confuse me, just tell me.”
“I’m telling you. Just the way he told me.”
“His concudante? Like the confessor?”
“You mean like the Catholics? God forbid.”
“If He forbid we wouldn’t have the Catholics.”
“Don’t joke when I’m thinking about this.”
“Thinking to you is like praying? I shouldn’t disturb you?”
“I’m just trying to get it right.”
“Look, darling, sip a coffee, calm a little, and tell me what happened.”
“When he fell? It was awful. Remember, it was the high holidays, Yom Kippur, the very last day of the ten days of penitence, when it comes time for God to decide which book He wants to write our names in for the coming year—the Book of Life or the Book of Death.”
“Stop with the Sunday school lecture already and tell me what happened.”
“So I’ll tell. So Manny woke up that morning, he told me later in the hospital . . .”
“He tells you everything? Ah, I should be so lucky. My boys, they never talk. And you know why?”
“Because they are terrible talkers. They are like . . . like Moses’s brother Aaron, he talks with pebbles in his mouth. They have stories, believe me they have stories just as good as your Manny’s, but they can’t say them because they can’t talk so good. Book of Life, Book of Death? They could write books themselves, believe me, if they could only write.”
“Now your turn to stop.”
“So I’ll stop. You want me to stop? I’m not offended. So. I stopped.”
“You better keep stopping or I can’t tell you.”
“All right, all right, so go on.”
“I’ll go on. Please. Let me clear my throat. Aherm. Aherm.”
So he woke up that morning feeling, he said, very very strange, not in the usual way as though something is going to happen—because you know when you feel that way it never does—but strange because he had the idea that something already had taken place, that something in his life had been decided for him. Do you know? As though God had written in the book already, and he didn’t know which one. Except he didn’t think of it that way except to explain it to himself, the feeling that something had already gone past him. Or something had been lost.
He went looking, first for his good soft-soled shoes because this was another day of standing all morning and afternoon and he wanted to be as comfortable as he could make himself, and these it appeared he had misplaced. He went up to the top of the house, and down to the study, his library, even to the basement, and he couldn’t find the shoes. It got so he was cursing, because who wants to stand all day in uncomfortable shoes on top of everything else—the fasting, the hard work of leading the service, the looking down into the faces of the congregation and feeling his fatigue rise in him like water crawling up to the brim of a glass—and then of course he felt terrible because he was cursing over nothing but a stupid pair of shoes. When he had so many other more important things to worry about, I don’t have to tell you, he was worrying about her, about both hers, the mother with the problem in the store—you didn’t hear? I can tell by your look you never heard, well, so later I’ll tell you, but not now because I don’t want to be distracted—and the other her, the daughter with the problem with the boy—both hers, her and her. To think, women give him such trouble when all his life while growing he didn’t have no problem with me . . . don’t laugh, don’t laugh or I’ll close my mouth!
So . . . down the stairs, up—he can’t find the shoes, and then he feels a headache coming on, from the fasting probably, he figures, an ache so big it’s like one of those dark summer thunderstorm clouds you see blowing in over the water at Bradley Beach, and he shudders when he thinks what he’s doing with his life, with his congregation, with his business, because after all what is he? Can he stand every weekend in front of the temple crowd and make his sermons and still go in twice a week to the city to work with his brother-in-law in the holding company? He’s wandering around the house, thinking to himself, I’ve lost more than my shoes . . . and if I find them how do I find what else I’ve lost?
He’s in the kitchen, he’s looking behind the desk in his study, he’s on his hands and knees snooping behind the couch and you know what he finds there? He finds a pair of panties the size the same as both hers wear because the daughter has now reached the point where she has the same hips as the mother, and the same hair, as you know, but God forbid the same disposition, there it’s maybe too early to tell, and so anyway, he says to himself, on top of everything else, what’s this? What’s this? and he stuffs the panties in his pocket and keeps on looking, the panties in the pocket along with a piece of glass he carries with him all the time, a souvenir, a piece of glass shaped like a Jewish star, and about this don’t ask a question, because I’ll explain in a while if you want me to, or maybe even if you don’t, because it’s a story from the beginning, and this I’m telling you now comes from the middle—and God forbid we should see the end.
So he’s on his hands and knees and feeling the first drummings of the headache and the first winds of the dizziness, and then he’s up again, shouting for Maby, and where is she? Who knows, taking a bath? She takes so many baths you’d think she got herself dirty like a baby when the truth is ever since the business in the store—and I’ll tell you, I’ll tell you—she doesn’t go out at all except when he says you absolutely have to, only to services, not even to temple affairs—so she doesn’t answer, and he calls for Sarah. Sarah! he calls, and where is she? Outside on the back porch playing, would you believe this? Playing her guitar! And singing, on the holidays! He can’t believe this either!
Sometimes I feel
Like a motherless child.
Not a bad voice, and on other days he might have stopped and thought to himself, My daughter, with such a good voice, but the song, oi, the song it gives me heartache.
Sometimes I feel
Like a motherless child.
A nice song, an American song, because in the old country we had our mamas, we knew our mamas, and if we sang we sang to celebrate our mamas, not to tell the world we got lost, except, of course, for later, for the ones that got lost in the Holocaust, but that’s another story. Here she is, singing the song of the lost child, she’s strumming good, she’s singing strong and loud, and he goes charging off after her, not knowing exactly where she is, following the music, the song.
Sometimes I feel
Like I’m almost gone.
“How can you do it to me on a day like this?” he growls at her when he bursts out onto the back porch.
“I’m playing my guitar,” she says. “I’m not out in public. I’m on the porch. Am I embarrassing you?”
“The porch is public,” he says, trying his best to keep his voice down. “The porch is outside. The porch is the world. Go inside, young lady, and get ready for temple.”
“I am ready,” she says, poking a finger at one of the guitar strings.
“Are you?” And he yanks out of his pocket the panties he found under the sofa and says, “Put these on if you’re so ready!” And throws them in her face.
“That’s . . . disgusting!” she says to him, her face covered over as if with a veil. And she snatches them up and flings them over her shoulder into the garden.
“Pick those up,” her father says.
“Pick them up yourself, Rabbi,” she says. And she plucks a loud thirrum with two fingers on the guitar.
Maybe if she had only been insolent, just mean, nothing else would have happened. But she added that title, Rabbi, and it did something to his temper, to his mind. Fathers and daughters! What a story, an old story, ach, and a bitter one, bitter, bitter, bitter. So. She called him what he was, and that changed it all. Why? Even now I’m still finding out, after he’s telling me all, after she’s talking to me, this poor old grandma with the bad eyes, and they’re talking to her, but to each other do you think they’re talking? You can imagine. Look! He reaches over, and she cringes, like a dog fearing a smack, but he doesn’t want her, no, he grabs the guitar and even as she’s screaming, “No! No!” up he hurls it, and it sails end over end, making a strange shape in the air as it spins, and it comes down, like a filmy piece of silk or nylon but also like the thing of wood it is and smash! onto the walk beyond the porch steps, and it splinters, breaks into pieces.
What a way to start the holiest of holy days! Everyone already feeling tired and irritated, because of the fasting, because of the heat—always in Jersey it’s hot like summer in India when the high holidays come around—and his breath stinks in his own nose, and now he’s got this to contend with! As if everything else weren’t enough, as if the life he’s made hasn’t been enough, as if he doesn’t want to pick it up like that guitar and throw it into the air without caring where it comes down in pieces! He can barely stand up to it, and he says, holding down his voice as best he can, but you can hear it trembling—I heard it trembling because this was when I opened the door and came onto the back porch . . .“Little girl,” he is saying, “little girl . . .”
And you can imagine what this did to her, this girl growing up so quick, her life like a merry-go-round ride, going around in circles at the moment but moving, quickly, quickly—don’t I know what it was like? But she had stung him with that word, the piercing word, Rabbi, though how could she know? Maybe her instincts told her? Was that how she stabbed right through? He was thinking about his life, on this holy day, on the day when God’s moving finger or pen or whatever He writes with, maybe even now a typewriter or a computer, when He—or She or whatever God is these days—marks in the Book of Life or the Book of Death, he’s been thinking, wondering, pondering, sweating in his brain, milking his thoughts, should I go on with this farce—wait, all this will come to you—should I go on with it? or should I get out? All week long, all day long the day before, and all night lying there in a sweat, alongside his sleeping beauty, the woman dead to the world from all the pills she takes so she can sleep, should I? shouldn’t I? What could the daughter know of the father? She couldn’t know, the children never know until it’s too late. Even now do you think he knows about me? his own mother? and did I know mine?
I’m telling you, the whole world works backward in reverse, that the parents should know of the children all the time and be unable to do anything and the children know only when it’s too late! And even more than the parents of the children it is the grandmother who knows triple trouble, because she knows her troubles and the children’s and the children’s children’s, and thinking about it, talking about it, gives me such a headache I’m telling you that if there is a God in heaven—and don’t be shocked that I say something like this, because today you hear a lot worse from smarter people than me—but if there is, He must have the biggest headache of all from knowing everything backward, forward, past and future, but then if He’s so great I suppose He can make for Himself the biggest headache powder, no? Poor little girl turning big girl who I rocked in my arms when she was a newborn, how could she know what she had said?
“You are going to pay for this,” my Manny shouts, “you are going to pay! You little . . . little . . . !”
Please don’t say something terrible! I call out to him in my mind. And maybe he hears, because he turns and goes back inside, walking around me to do it, like I’m a stranger, “Excuse me,” he says, and goes upstairs to his dressing room—because by this time it’s separate bedrooms for them, which, Sarah told me, is very troubling to her for not-so-obvious reasons, and he reaches into his pocket and takes out his favorite piece of glass and sees his finger all slashed from it, and he goes into the bathroom to wash off the blood and put on a little bandage, and there he finds her, Maby, throwing up into the bowl. I’m telling you, it’s early morning and this man has already had quite a day.
He didn’t say: “You’re not sick, are you? Poor dear.”
He said: “You’re sick again and today of all days?”
“It’s the heat,” she said, in that voice like a sound trying to shrink back into itself, the voice that came out to shrink only when she was in one of her states. “I was taking a bath and the heat got to me, Manny. It made me ill.” And this was a big difference between them, my son and my daughter-in-law, him saying sick and her saying ill, a difference in upbringing, her from the fancy Cincinnati school, him from where we came from, from Second Street, from the old rabbi’s school, some finishing school that was! When I first saw her, with her red hair, the pale pink face, I asked myself, this is one of us? But then I learned . . . too much I learned, if you ask me.
“You know what just got to me?” he says to her. And he launches into a tirade against the daughter, telling about the guitar, about her curse—he took it that way—upon him.
“I don’t want to hear!” Maby says, spitting up more into the bowl. “Just leave me out of it, do you hear? Leave me out.”
“She’s your daughter as much as mine,” he says, “and she’s insolent and cruel and . . .”
She spits up more into the bowl.
And with his bleeding finger, he grabs from the medicine chest a little bandage, and he walks out into his own room.
This was how he started that day. If you think it got any better, guess again, darling, guess again. You were there. You saw the moment. And there were other moments behind the big moment, I’ll tell you. Here is what it was. First he’s dressed quicker than you can say Jack Ribicoff and then he’s standing at the front door calling back to me.
“Ma,” he’s calling, “Mama, tell Maby to get after Sarah to get ready because I’m on my way.”
“Behind the voluble narrator, who always speaks from the heart, and often with poetic grace, stands the artistry of Alan Cheuse, a sharp-eyed writer who is the voice behind the voice.”
“‘It’s an old story, darling,’ Minnie says, opening the book, and she is right. It’s one of the oldest stories in the book: the sweeping, expansive limits of a mother’s love.”
“Cheuse stands in more than one literary tradition, not only the boasting and keening of Jewish mothers, but also the sharp-eyed social chronicles of his fellow Jewish novelists such as the early Philip Roth, Mordecai Richler and Bernard Malamud.”
“Prayers for the Living reminds me of Frank Norris’s McTeague, Abraham Cahan’s The Rise of David Levinsky (especially the portrait of the hero’s mother and the irony of the title), Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Allan Ginsberg’s “Kaddish” (don’t ask me why), and Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep.”
“Behind the voluble narrator, who speaks always from the heart and often with poetic grace, stands the artistry of Alan Cheuse, a sharp-eyed writer who is the brilliant voice behind the voice.”
Read Curt Leviant’s full review for New York Journal of Books.
“When he was growing up in Perth Amboy, Alan Cheuse began a Jewish literary journey that has influenced much of his prolific writing. It began during his undergraduate years as editor of the Anthologist, the literary magazine published on Rutgers University’s New Brunswick campus.”
Read more about Alan Cheuse’s Jewish literary journey, and Prayers for the Living, on the New Jersey Jewish News site.
“This is a family saga in which the family members stumble, but Minnie’s commentary will resonate with the reader.”
Read the rest of Sandee Brawarsky’s review in Jewish Woman magazine.
“At its best, this story of a Jewish immigrant family tested by fate is as haunting as it is entertaining and as fresh as it was when it was first published nearly 30 years ago.”
Read the full review on the Kirkus website.
“You have heard Alan Cheuse review books on National Public Radio and read his reviews in this newspaper. He has published novels and short stories. Now Fig Tree, a new independent press devoted to fiction about the American Jewish experience, has embraced his affecting multigenerational novel Prayers for the Living.”
Read Anne Morris’s full review for The Dallas Morning News online.
“The story of Minnie, Manny, Maby, and Sarah is one mixed with humor and hardship, a curious Jewish American immigrant family and how they individually deal with tragedy.”
Read the full review by Jamie Wendt on the Jewish Book Council’s website.
“If this morally complex saga of one man’s rise and spectacular fall in late 20th century America is typical of the quality of the publisher’s titles, its future is promising.”
Read the full Shelf Awareness review by Harvey Freedenberg online.
In a review for Washington Jewish Week, Aaron Leibel summarizes Alan Cheuse’s Prayers for the Living as a “fascinating account of a family in turmoil” (and reminds the local community of an upcoming reading at Politics & Prose bookstore).
Read the full review online.
“Prayers for the Living troubles notions of righteousness and forgiveness, madness, and fate, providing no easy answers while still leaving readers feeling edified. Cheuse’s is a challenging and intelligent novel, replete with beauty and heartbreak, and perhaps even containing a measure of redemption.”
Read Michelle Anne Schingler’s complete review for Foreword Reviews online.
The following is Tova Mirvis’ new Foreword for Prayers for the Living.
When a recent move required me to pack and unpack all my books, I took it as an opportunity to reassess my literary real estate. I flipped open worn paperbacks to long-beloved first sentences, to see if I still valued them as I once did. I rediscovered books that had gone unread, obstructed behind other books. I spread stacks of books across the living room floor, spending an impractically long time plotting out possible ways to order them, in search of a sort of personal Dewey decimal system. I paid careful attention to who might do well living next to whom, as though at night, while the inhabitants of my house slept, these books might slip out and engage in fervent, perhaps heated conversation with their neighbors. I situated the books I love in prime real estate; other books were sent to the outer-neighborhood shelves. In the Jewish part of town, a selection of Yiddish writers gave way to the great American Jews; Israelis resided one shelf away, and to assuage my discomfort at shelving Jews only with Jews, these clusters were interrupted by a row of favorite novels, their primary link to one another only the fact that I love them most of all.
I read Prayers for the Living the same weekend this arranging took place, asking myself: Where does this book fit in the landscape of American and American Jewish fiction?
Prayers for the Living could live happily next to Philip Roth’s American Pastoral for its intensity and scope; in its portrait of familial unraveling, it would make a fine neighbor for Richard Yates’s Revolutionary Road; with its rendering of immigrant experience, it ought to dwell in proximity to Anzia Yezierska’s Bread Givers; its rich descriptive power suggests that it would share space well with Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. Prayers for the Living is a novel with the weight of legend, the feel of myth. In this story of the rise and fall of Manny Bloch, a rabbi turned business mogul, Alan Cheuse explores the shedding of tradition and the return to it; the travails of the immigrant; and the complexities of success, which brings its own burdens. The novel asks a dazzling array of questions about living a life of the spirit or of the world, about order and randomness, about the long shadow of the Holocaust, about silence in the face of injustice, and about families connected and estranged.
At the heart of this book is Minnie Bloch, mother of Manny, grandmother of Sarah, whose voice is supple and rich and utterly commanding. She speaks in a Yiddish-inflected, Jewish mother’s voice that is funny and endearing; it feels familiar without veering into stereotype. It is a voice that moves seamlessly from the quip to the deepest emotional registers, and that it can do so in the space of a sentence or two speaks to the ability and necessity, in life both on and off the page, to live in humor and sadness at once. As Minnie says, she has arrived at an age when “we can eat and weep at the same time.”
Some of what Minnie tells is based on recollected conversation. Some information is based on letters her son Manny sent while away at school, and other information is gathered on the sly, for which Minnie expresses no apologies. Reading the private writings of her daughter-in-law, for example, she says, indignantly, “What do you mean you don’t want to snoop? This is not snooping, snooping is something else. This is learning.”
The narrative is so sure-handed, so seamless, that the question of whether Minnie is to be trusted as a narrator seems a matter of small consequence. There is little distinction between knowing and creating, and I can imagine Minnie looking me squarely in the eyes and with a shrug of the shoulders silencing such a silly inquiry. A mother knows, she would surely say to me. In this book, a mother occupies a hallowed space, and a grandmother even more so.
But Minnie is more than just a well-informed matriarch. In her role as omniscient narrator, she places herself on par with an all-powerful divine figure. She casts the story of her own life in mythic terms as well, telling how, when she was a young woman in Europe, her parents chose for her a scholarly bridegroom who, in her olfactory estimation, smelled like “a dead dog.” Unwilling to marry him, she ran to the river where she happened to meet Jacob, “a bulky-bodied, hairy-chested, strong-armed man.” She chose the man of the field over the man of the book. “Because if until then my life was just the story of a country girl, here it becomes poetry. A miracle takes place!”
This is a novel of immigration, and Minnie lives within a dual world—between then and now, here and there, which is perhaps the way an immigrant always lives. “We are an oceangoing people,” says Minnie, and in her telling too, she crosses repeatedly between the Old World and the New. The young girl who arrives is ever present in the old woman our narrator, and the New World which she once sought eventually becomes as well. In the elegiac, grand, and evocative style used throughout the book, Minnie says:
I wanted freedom and escape and a life with a man I wanted and who wanted me, and that was the American part beginning right there in the old country, and it was there when we sailed here, and it was present, of course, when we arrived here—get up in the apartment and look out the window . . . and you can see the lights of the very place where we arrived, the same pier itself and the buildings nearby, little pinpoints of light now down below in the city dark, like stars in a sky turned upside down and become the ground we walk on—that was our destination, and this, right now, this was what we sailed toward, and here we have arrived, after lightness, this dark, after young days, this age, a New World? a country of the old.
Newly arrived in a still-new and untarnished America, Minnie’s husband Jacob, a “ dreamer and hardworking peddler all in one” decides, as did so many immigrants, to work on the Sabbath, setting into motion one of the central questions of the novel: Is it possible to be both “rich and blessed”? If you work on the Sabbath, a rabbi tells Jacob, you will wander, and your son will wander. “I’m going to wander up to Union Square, that’s where I’ll wander, so I can sell enough bananas to buy this boy a winter coat,” Jacob tells the rabbi in one example of the irreverent humor that flavors the book. And then, as happens in the sinner’s worst nightmare: the God whom you defy is indeed watching over you and, with an outstretched arm, punishes you for your transgression. In the case of Jacob, the punishment comes in the form of a toppled milk cart, which crushes him to death while his son Manny looks on. “The way a life breaks. The way life goes. The pieces. The pattern. What happens next,” Minnie agonizes, as she recalls her husband’s demise.
Young Manny begins to study with the rabbi, who tells him, “Your father died like a goy and you’re helping to make him a Jew.” The father’s dilemma is visited on the son: “Did he want to live a life dedicated to study? Or did he want to live a life in which he could use the talents he inherited from his father? . . . He heard a voice in his head telling him, both! Choose both!” Whether he can in fact choose both is one of the novel’s central questions, along with others that probe what it means to live a Jewish life. Is Jewish law to be lived in a vacuum, away from the world? Does the rabbi reside on high, upon a dais such as the one on which Manny stands as the book opens on Yom Kippur? In the biblical rendering of Yom Kippur, the high priest wears a red thread that turns white, sin expunged, holiness affirmed; in this Yom Kippur, the rabbi stands on the podium, experiences a vision delivered by a bird, and he falls and he falls.
But even as this dichotomy is framed, the book argues with the division between the world of the spirit and the world of the everyday. Prayers for the Living revels in the messiness of life, with descriptions and sensibilities that are rich with smells and sounds and spills, a book stained with ejaculations, with milk and blood and tears. Not even God is left unsullied. Add Minnie Bloch to the list of biblical figures that argue with God. In her hands, God is not a being who watches from on high but a character who can be invited, say, to the diner, to share a nice bowl of soup before being taken to task over dessert. In wrestling with the Holocaust, Minnie posits the idea that “God looked the other way. But with what was He so busy that He could blink and lose so many of His chosen people? You think He was like me and was having trouble with His eyes?” Absent the theologian’s lexicon, she nonetheless asks necessary questions about Jewish law and observance. She understands that Jewish law, which is grounded in mundane detail, doesn’t adhere to this dichotomy of life of spirit or life of mind. She recognizes a Judaism that isn’t sealed away in hallowed study halls, but one that is pockmarked by life’s realities. “I’m saying that the rules they change and twist and bend and that’s life—the rules live, too, and the rules change, like people change, and if I don’t understand it I can at least understand that I don’t understand it.”
And yet, even as she is willing to argue with God, or usurp him, some of her prayers are as raw and wrenching as any imaginable. She wrestles with God as a bereaved wife, as someone with her eyes open to history. But most forcefully she speaks as a mother. “I make this silent request of you, God, whoever You are, wherever You are—a burning bush, a naked back, a cry in the night, a great big white, flapping, winged bird. Whoever. Whatever. Dear God. Please keep my children from harm.”
This last sentiment—please keep my children from harm—is uttered in varied ways throughout the book, even as it proves ultimately to be a futile plea. No one can be kept from harm here, because to live is to be inevitably harmed. “Fathers and daughters! What a story, an old story, ach, and a bitter one, bitter, bitter, bitter,” Minnie laments, about her ostensible subject. For the story of Manny and his daughter is indeed bitter: there are small slights and grand betrayals, love that turns to hatred and still the wish for a renewal of that earlier love. But at its center, this is a book that casts as mythic the power of the mother and grandmother. “It’s the mother’s arm the person in pain wants holding around them,” Minnie says. “From the first it has been that way and it will be that way to the last. And if I’m sounding like the Bible that’s because such things are in the Bible, and if they’re not they should be.”
Whether a son might balk at hearing his mother cast herself as the truest love of his life matters little; any narcissism she exhibits feels forgivable. Minnie belongs to a long and storied cast of Jewish mothers, but while she shares many of the presumably worst qualities attributed to this group—she too can be called intrusive, overbearing, self-centered—Cheuse wrests open these words to find the empathic center. If Portnoy’s mother was skewered for an intrusion borne of consuming anxiety, Minnie’s intrusiveness seems forged primarily of love. If Minnie comes off as controlling, it is only out of a desire to steady her family’s careening lives.
Even as she assumes omniscient control over the book, steering the reader through the story’s swells like an all-powerful ship’s captain, she grapples with what even she does not know of her child:
You wash his clothes, you mend his clothes, you make his bed, dust his dresser, comb, when he’s little, his hair, make him wash his face, make sure he has a little sweet here and there . . . and what do you know? You know nothing. Dark. Darkness. Like in the middle of the night. In the middle of the day. In the bright early morning. Dark, dark, dark.
And then something happens, and it’s like lightning in the storm. It lights up, darling. You see everything, but only for a second.
This is as beautiful and as pained a description of motherhood as I’ve read.
The other women in the novel have their own tragedies to bear. Florette, the rabbi’s mistress, is a Holocaust survivor who speaks “with that slight Old World accent, the Austrian frosting on her American cake” (which, according to Minnie, he is attracted to because it reminds him of her own European accent). Maby, Manny’s wife, is hospitalized in a psychiatric institution where her veins are “churning with drugs, ropes to bind her in the hospital of sleep.” The tragedy of the mother is revisited on the daughter Sarah, who sets out to destroy her father. “She didn’t have any weapon to use against him except her life, and this, like a terrorist’s bomb, is dangerous both to the one who carries it as well as to the one who is the target.”
Minnie isn’t blind to her son’s failings and to the way he is being corrupted. But she is all-forgiving, slow to anger, compassionate, and filled with mercy; she is a creator who spares her creation from the harshest judgment. If the redeeming power in this novel is motherly love, the corrupting powers are business and money and greed. Manny rises higher than his father could have imagined. What a distinctly American story, and an American Jewish story—the fruit peddler’s son who rises to own an entire banana-producing country. But as always, there are no simple stories of arrival or success. Manny chooses to pursue business full time and does so after hearing a voice, which in this novel is rendered in biblical terms even when that voice is advising him away from rabbinic life. “Manny, it says, and if sound can have a light, it’s a bright light in the middle of the darkness that surrounds him, like a burning bush in a dark meadow. . . . “Manny, you must do what you must do,” this voice tells him and here, it’s not the voice of God but the voice of Manny’s father Jacob who is telling him to take a new road and put all of himself into his business.
The new world to which he ascends baffles Minnie: “All the time, oh, all my children always in motion, in cars, going up and down in elevators, and in airplanes.” Minnie sees the danger that her son faces, the temptation of money, as he and his brother-in-law take over one company after another. But here is where Manny begins to slip away from her—he listens politely but will no longer heed her word. “He was the same person only changed, changed by the heat of his life, darkening, no doubt, darkening, darkening, but the same person nonetheless.”
All the characters here are darkening, darkening, and all the characters are damaged—and if there is redemption here, it is in the act of telling a story that is ruthlessly authentic and unsparing. This is a novel, in the end, about the ways our lives inevitably crash into one another. One of the great wisdoms of the book is to know that these are not accidents that intrude into an otherwise ordered life, but that life itself is a series of accidents. Prayers for the Living offers a vision of harsh beauty and for its wrenching honesty, for its simultaneous intimacy and wide scope, for the power of its soaring language, it deserves to live among the great novels of Jewish American experience. It is a book that bears the weight of something old, yet feels new and utterly alive at the same time.
Would you like some questions to kick off the discussion within your group? Please feel free to avail yourself of the following:
1) The novel opens with a single statement: “It’s an old story.” How do you interpret that line?
2) Prayers for the Living is written predominantly as a monologue by Minnie Bloch. Why do you think the author chose to have Minnie tell the family’s story? What do we gain by having her as our narrator, and what might we lose? To what extent do we believe her narration of events or call that narration into doubt?
3) What does it mean to have a female character (Minnie) narrating the story of a traditional fallen (and male) hero (Manny)? What complications may arise when a male author writes a female character?
4) Rabbi Manny sees his major challenge as choosing between living a blessed life or a successful life. How does this perception affect his actions? Do you believe that it is accurate? Would you frame this dilemma in another way? How?
5) As the book moves along you can see that it is, in many ways, a traditional family epic. But in other respects, the narrative isn’t conventional at all. What are some of its more surprising, less traditional aspects?
6) How do you interpret the bird in Manny’s vision? Does the author make it seem like an actual part of reality or a vision or a hallucination of the main character? Can it be both? Or is there some other way to try to understand what it means?
7) The novel incorporates several different modes of communication: ordinary speech, sermon, lyrical exhortation/prayer, and language from the worlds of business and psychology. What is the effect of this blend? What are some especially memorable passages? Why do they stay with you?
8) Prayers for the Living covers a long period of time and a large geographical territory that encompasses Russia, the United States, and Latin America. In these respects, how might it resemble other novels you have read? How does it seem distinct?
9) In the book’s preface, author Alan Cheuse discloses that he found a kernel of the story, or the seed of the story, in a newspaper article. How do you imagine the story grew from there to what you have now read? How much seems true-to-life, how much invented?
10) The first version of this novel was published in 1986, before the 2008 financial recession and before discussions about sexual assault on college campuses entered mainstream discourse. How might the experience of reading this book today differ from doing so in its original era? How do current events and mores color our interpretations of what we read, and how do books impact our thinking about current events?