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Last Updated January 9, 2024.

The Penitent opens with the narrator’s account of his visit to the Wailing Wall in 1969; while there, he met a rabbi named Joseph Shapiro, who shared his life story with him.

Joseph opens his story in 1939, as he flees Poland because of the Nazi bombings. After the war, he returns to Lublin and reunites with his former sweetheart, Celia. Two years later, the two secured visas to America. Now living in New York, Joseph finds success in the real estate market, but he soon becomes dissatisfied with his life and takes a mistress, a divorced single mother named Liza.

One night, while Joseph and Liza are having dinner at her apartment, Liza turns the conversation to the topic of her daughter, Micki, and asks Joseph to fund Micki’s abortion. Later that night, Micki arrives and starts quarreling with her mother before angrily revealing that Liza has been seeing another lover. When Liza retrieves a kitchen knife and begins making threats, Joseph flees the building. He vomits upon reaching his home.

Joseph rings the doorbell multiple times but receives no answer. He goes to the back door and finds Celia sneaking out her lover, an elderly professor. Out of shame, he refuses to confront the pair and simply waits for the man to leave. While Celia locks herself in the bathroom, Joseph gathers his possessions, then takes a taxi to the nearest hotel, determined to live a new life as a devout Jew.

At the hotel, Joseph converts his cash into traveler’s checks and resolves to travel the world to learn to embrace the Jewish faith and traditions of his forefathers. Although he does not yet have the same belief in the doctrine, he reasons that it is better to lean into “extreme Jewishness.” A voice in his head instructs him to head to a synagogue on the Lower East Side. While he finds the establishment closed, another Jew asks him to join their minyan—a group of communal worshipers.

At the minyan, Joseph is amazed at how the elderly rabbi still has strength for prayer. He is so moved that he offers money to anyone who might need it. While the group agrees that the rabbi needs it the most, he staunchly refuses Joseph’s help. The rebbetzin—the rabbi’s wife—explains that money and hospitalization will only worsen the rabbi’s condition.

After leaving, Joseph purchases two holy books and sits down to eat at a vegetarian restaurant. Another voice in his head, which he dubs “the Evil Spirit,” commands him to return and take control of his home. Joseph is tempted by the voice but instead decides to take a cab to the Kennedy Airport, where he books a flight to Israel. On the plane, he ends up sitting next to an attractive young woman whom he immediately finds tempting. 

The woman, whose name is Priscilla, strikes up a conversation with Joseph when she notices him reading The Path of the Righteous. She explains she is also a Jew and intends to go to Israel and learn Hebrew. The two drink whiskey while Joseph wrestles with his attraction to her. When the lights on the plane dim, Priscilla shares her distaste for marriage and monogamy before suggesting Joseph place a blanket on his lap. They proceed to fondle each other in the dark but both end up unsatisfied. Joseph is disgusted with himself for giving in to temptation.

Upon arriving in Rome, Joseph sees a rabbi in ritual garb and decides that he must dress like “a real Jew” as well. While waiting for his plane, he...

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observes the rabbi and his students, concluding that dressing in such a way is necessary to distinguish Jews from pagans and idol worshippers. Finally, he arrives in Israel, though he laments that it is not Jewish enough in spirit—he might as well have been back in New York.

Joseph spends his first few days in Israel wandering Tel Aviv. Soon, he meets with old acquaintances from Poland who catch him up on those who perished in the war. He also visits synagogues, still finding the nation’s Jewishness to be “lukewarm” and borne out of routine or party membership. Nevertheless, he continues to pray, hopeful that he can discover the authentic faith he is searching for.

One day, Joseph attends a leftist kibbutz—a gathering—and is offended to find a picture of Stalin hung on the wall. In the same room, he eavesdrops on the conversation of a young woman planning to cheat on her husband with another man. That night, he also overhears an old leftist accusing his audience of lacking in conviction for socialist ideals. These experiences disgust him so much that he leaves for Jerusalem the very next day.

In Mea She’arim, a neighborhood in Jerusalem, Joseph enters a house of prayer and finds himself welcomed by Orthodox Jews. He is awed by their humble devotion to the religion. That evening, he eats dinner at the house of Reb Haim, the head of a yeshiva, a school of Talmudic learning. When asked why he chose the Sandzer study house, Joseph replies that it was merely a coincidence. However, Reb Haim points out that Jews do not believe in chance; it must be destiny. That same night, Joseph meets Reb Haim’s daughter, Sarah, and falls in love with her immediately.

The next morning, Joseph stops by a store and garbs himself in a prayer shawl and phylactery before continuing to the Sandzer study house. While praying, he is beset by the Evil Spirit’s taunts. In response, he decides to commit to vegetarianism—a choice that even Reb Haim dubs unnecessary and “excessively saintly.”

Joseph writes to Celia, asking for a divorce. Not long after, Celia writes back and agrees to the separation for a “small settlement” that, during the proceedings, quickly balloons to a big one. He attempts to flirt with Sarah, but she does not reciprocate his advances. One day, he bumps into Priscilla, who invites him to a cafe for a chat. The two talk about Priscilla’s affair with Hans, another man she met on the plane. They then end up debating over morality and religion.

That night, Joseph approaches Reb Haim for Sarah’s hand in marriage, who consents to the union. Over the years, the pair have three children together. Joseph ends his life story by sharing that, though the Evil Spirit still haunts him, he has found conviction in God’s mercy and wisdom.