I cannot recall a book I have read that has moved me more to contemplate a return visit to the synagogue (I have not been back for many years), but I have an urge to do just that after reading “The Finkler Question”.
And not for religious reasons, though that may sound odd. But for nostalgia’s sake, to hear the old tunes and sing along.
“Finkler” refers to one of the characters – a popular jewish philosopher, writer and television personality called Sam Finkler – and also is the word used by Julian Treslove, the main protaganist of the novel, to describe all jews – he calls them “finklers”.
Julian Treslove, 49, is educated, intelligent and middle class, living in the part of Hampstead (a wealthy, predominantly Jewish suburb of North London) “that is not in Hampstead” – an often-repeated joke in the novel.
He regards himself, with a degree of complacency, as a failure of a man, as someone who never achieved much. He has two sons by different women, who left him before they gave birth (all women leave Treslove once they get to know him) and he has played no part in raising his children, and even dislikes them.
Once a radio producer of late-night music shows no one listened to on the BBC, he now earns his living impersonating celebrities like Brad Pitt, not because he looks so much like them, but because he does bear some passing resemblance to a lot of famous people, though no one in particular. An older American women who picks him up at a party, confuses him for Colin Firth.
The other principle character is Libor Sevcik, an 80-year-old Czech-born jew, former biographer of Hollywood stars who managed to resist the charms of Marilyn Monroe (she would ring him at odd hours because she could never figure out timezones), Jane Russell and other glamourous icons who confided and tempted him, and yet he remained faithful to his beloved, but very needy wife Malkie.
Both Sam Finkler and Libor Sevcik are recently widowed. Finkler misses his wife Tyler, though not desperately (he regards having an affairs as an acceptable male compulsion) while Libor is deeply sad at the loss of his wife and companion.
The friendship between the three men is the central plot of the novel as indeed is the notion of friendship, loss, guilt and loyalty.
But, at it’s heart ‘The Finkler Question’ is about Julian Treslove’s obssession with all things Jewish and his desire to penetrate, understand and become accepted into the mysterious but always scrutinised Jewish race.
He suffers the ignomy of being mugged by a woman in central London who he believes utters the words: ‘You Ju?” and comes to the conclusion that she mistook him for a jew or for his friend Finkler. But he can’t be sure.
The book really is about the “jewish question”. There are a number of anti-semitic incidents, which bring the idea of Jewish identity into sharp focus.
Jacobsen through his characters, is questioning what it means to be a jew in the modern age and all those things that bind one jew to another – the “jew-dar” as Treslove asks of his Jewish girlfriend Hephzibah.
And there’s all the other contemporary Jewish themes – Zionism, family, tradition and history explored in the stories of the three men.
And there is the food of course, which brings them all together, whether it’s the seder meal or the lunch prepared by Hephzhibah:
“‘What’s good,’ said Finkler “is this…” He reached for more of everything. Herring in red wine. Herring in white wine, herring in cream, sour cream, vinegar, herring curled around an olive with toothpics through them, herring chopped in what was said to be a new way and of course chopped still in the old…and then the pickled meat, the pastrami, the smoked salmon, the egg and onion, the chopped liver, the cheese that had no taste, the blintses, the tsimmes, the cholent.”
Treslove wants to be a part of this community. But always feels excluded. No matter how many words of yiddish he learns.
He is forever the non-Jewish outsider – the goy, the gentile – trying to get in, marvelling at it all, such as when he falls in love with Libor’s grand-niece Hephzibabh:
“He thought his heart would break with love for her. She was so Jewish…For his part he was ready to jump right in. Then and There. Marry me. I’ll do whatever has to be done. I’ll study. I’ll be circumcised. Just marry me and make Finkler jokes.”
Alongside the humour, there’s the anxiety, the worry, and the guilt all beautfiully written by Howard Jacobsen in his wonderful prose.
And it is all these elements that make me think about being a jew, though I don’t keep kosher or go to synagogue or even fast on Yom Kippur, I feel part of the community, like all Finklers.
The Finkler Question poses so many questions, it is about the mystery of being a jew and it’s that mystery that makes people want to be jews and to be rid of them in equal measure.
If there is one telling paragraph that sums up the book and what Jacobsen is trying to convey it’s this, as pondered by Julian Treslove:
“You could divide the world into those who wanted to kill Jews and those who wanted to be Jews. The bad times were simply those in which the former outnumbered the latter.”
And sometimes, you want to feel connected again by singing the Shabbat songs in synagogue on a Saturday morning, or attend the Passover seder and swap stories of the exodus from Egypt and ask the Four Questions – whether you believe in God or not.