The Seventh Beggar
Pearl Abraham follows closely in the footsteps of the 1978 winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, Isaac Bashevis Singer, whose short stories brought Jewish culture before the eyes of so many Americans. Unlike Singer, Abraham writes full-length novels. Her newest, The Seventh Beggar, is made up of multifaceted, multigenerational stories that link myth with faith.
Thematically, the novel’s plot line concerns the power of stories and the limits of creation and originality. Stories, old and new, happy and sad, long and short, intersect the plot and deeply influence the characters’ lives. Sippurei maՙasiyot (1815; The Tales of Rabbi Nachman, 1956) by Naḥman of Bratslav, the still controversial nineteenth century founder of the Bratslav-kabbalist Hasid, which retains followers today, is central to the action of The Seventh Beggar, a title inspired by one of the spiritualist’s homilies.
The plot’s fundamental stories concern two modern-day Hasids on the East Coast of the United States: JakobJoel, called Joel, a brilliant yeshiva student of the Berditchev Hasidim who dies in a flash flood, and his namesake nephew, JakobJoel, who has moved out of his upstate New York Hasidic community to live a secular life, attending Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston. Although JakobJoel has never even met his uncle, the two men live parallel lives.
As a troubled seventeen-year-old in Monsey, New York, Joel finds himself fed up with rote learning and goes against the wishes of his father, Rabbi Moshel, and the teachings of his popular rabbi grandfather, the “Berditchever,” by stealthily reading Naḥman’s book. To an outsider, the distinction between Joel’s yeshiva and its rival Bratslav-kabbalist Hasid might seem inconsequential, but the youngster’s study of the Bratslav writings is considered dangerous within his community. Indeed, traditional rabbinical advice would reserve such readings for men over age forty.
Joel’s father, deeply devout and supportive, and his warm, caring mother worry as Joel, hitherto a well-behaved and deeply religious child, begins to experience seizures. He then takes an abrupt Yom Kippur pilgrimage to visit Master Naḥman’s grave in the Ukraine. While there, Joel experiences a nighttime vision in the form of a young woman named Lilith who appears to him by Naḥman’s grave and attempts to seduce him. It remains unclear whether Lilith (the name given a biblical temptress), with whom the young scholar becomes sexually obsessed, is real or a vision. Joel learns later that she has tempted many men through the ages.
Upon his return to New York, the seventeen-year-old begins indulging his secret fixation in dangerous ways by isolating himself from society, starving through fasting, and by meditating for hours as he turns evermore inward. One evening, he is attacked by hoodlums at a rival yeshiva after combining meditation and masturbation. His consequent expulsion from his own yeshiva forces him to withdraw even more. Before his reputation is irreparably sullied, his parents attempt to arrange his marriage. Beginning at this point, Abraham ingeniously uses the life of Joel’s nephew JakobJoel to illustrate the devastated family in the aftermath of Joel’s death not quite halfway through the novel.
Joel’s counterpart and nephew, JakobJoel, at a temporal remove of twenty years, finds himself in a mind-set similar to that of his uncle. It is scientific curiosity, however, and not religious inquisitiveness that lures this young man away from his community during the mid-1990’s. Like Joel, JakobJoel fights his sexual urges, refusing at one point to date a woman who might cause him to become sexually aroused and thus interfere with his research at MIT. His work involves interfacing with Cog, a female robot in the artificial intelligence (AI) laboratory.
In their quest for spiritual and intellectual fulfillment, both Joel and JakobJoel are haunted by ghosts they intuit rather than visualize. Joel’s ghostly mentor, so to speak, is Naḥman, a great-grandson of the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, who through interior dialogue guides Joel in his everyday life and especially in matters pertaining to his quest for spiritual fulfillment. Conversely, JakobJoel experiences inner conversations with the ghost of his late Uncle Joel, who resides perched on JakobJoel’s shoulder.
Both men attempt to fashion a...
(The entire section is 1831 words.)