Pho­to by Carmine Savarese on Unsplash

It hap­pens at least once a month: I’m walk­ing to the sub­way and I find myself approached by a young man with tzitzit. 

Excuse me, are you Jew­ish?” he asks. 

I nev­er know how to respond. I am Jew­ish, yes, but I’m uncom­fort­able being accost­ed. I like to prac­tice Judaism on my own terms rather than at a stranger’s behest.

When approached, I say that I’m too busy. Too busy to lay tefill­in, or too busy to shake the lulav and etrog, or too busy to accept a free box of mat­zo. And yet — slight irri­ta­tion in my voice aside — part of me appre­ci­ates and even depends on these tiny moments of out­reach. It’s nice to know that, if I ever need­ed mat­zo, some­one would offer me some. It’s nice to know that if I ever felt alone in the world, some­one would tell me I still belong.

In my nov­el, The Men Can’t Be Saved, the main char­ac­ter Seth is approached on the street by a Chabad rab­bi. Seth is not the kind of per­son who would typ­i­cal­ly pay this rab­bi any mind; he’d much pre­fer to keep strid­ing cock­i­ly through mid­town en route to his glam­orous adver­tis­ing job in a Man­hat­tan sky­scraper. But when he cross­es paths with the rab­bi on this par­tic­u­lar day in ear­ly spring, Seth’s recent­ly been fired. Being Jew­ish is all he has left. It’s not long before he starts din­ing reg­u­lar­ly at the Chabad House, recit­ing prayers there, study­ing kab­bal­ah there, and prac­ti­cal­ly mak­ing it his home. It’s a messy home­com­ing, but it’s a home­com­ing all the same. Seth’s spir­i­tu­al self is evolv­ing before our eyes.

We often talk about Jew­ish prac­tices and iden­ti­ty as if they are a sta­t­ic thing. We label some­one as being obser­vant and imply that they are always engaged in Jew­ish tra­di­tions. Or we say that some­one is not obser­vant, sug­gest­ing that they nev­er weave Judaism into the rhythms of their dai­ly life. But in my expe­ri­ence, one’s rela­tion­ship to one’s Judaism is some­thing that ebbs and flows.

We often talk about Jew­ish prac­tices and iden­ti­ty as if they are a sta­t­ic thing.

I was wit­ness to this in my child­hood home. I had just entered high school when my mom switched her affil­i­a­tion from Reform to Con­ser­v­a­tive. For over a decade, my fam­i­ly held mem­ber­ship at the local Reform syn­a­gogue, but after my mater­nal grand­moth­er passed away, my moth­er decid­ed to become a mem­ber else­where. Why? She want­ed to be able to say kad­dish every day as part of a minyan, and the Con­ser­v­a­tive shul offered that. Dur­ing those eleven months of mourn­ing, my mom wasn’t just par­tic­i­pat­ing in a new rit­u­al as part of her usu­al Jew­ish prac­tice. She was embark­ing on a new prac­tice of Judaism altogether.

And yet she nev­er stopped being a mem­ber at the Reform syn­a­gogue either, because she knew even­tu­al­ly she would go back. And she did. Not too long after the mourn­ing peri­od end­ed, my mom returned to the shul of my upbring­ing. She had ful­filled an oblig­a­tion and now felt ready to resume Judaism as she prac­ticed it pre­vi­ous­ly. Her Jew­ish iden­ti­ty proved more flu­id than I’d realized.

In the process of writ­ing my nov­el, I read a lot of fic­tion by Jew­ish authors and took inspi­ra­tion from a vari­ety of Jew­ish char­ac­ters. I was espe­cial­ly moved by Saul Bellow’s Moses Her­zog in his nov­el Her­zog. Just as my book’s main char­ac­ter is in the midst of a cri­sis, Her­zog too is spi­ral­ing, his sec­ond divorce bring­ing him low­er than he’s ever been. It’s at this dif­fi­cult stage in his life when he finds him­self ques­tion­ing the bedrock that was his Jew­ish reli­gion: I don’t quite under­stand what you mean by reli­gious’ …God comes and goes in man’s soul.”

What strikes me about this line is the invert­ed imagery of it. Typ­i­cal­ly one thinks of God as the fix­ture, where­as peo­ple are the ones com­ing and going. But in this for­mu­la­tion, it’s God who does the wan­der­ing. I like this visu­al because of how it human­izes God. The almighty is not immo­bi­lized up in the heav­ens some­where, but ambu­lates down here on Earth, pre­sum­ably stum­bling along with the rest of us. 

My novel’s title, The Men Can’t Be Saved, is rigid in tone. It sounds like a hard procla­ma­tion, the kind of thing one might find on the stiffest pages of the old tes­ta­ment. But I like think­ing of it less as a procla­ma­tion than a chal­lenge. What would it take for peo­ple — or men specif­i­cal­ly — to find per­son­al sal­va­tion dur­ing times of great adver­si­ty? And how might deep­en­ing one’s rela­tion­ship with one’s faith open up cer­tain pos­si­bil­i­ties in that effort? For my char­ac­ter, it’s unclear whether his Judaism will ulti­mate­ly help him through this dif­fi­cult peri­od of unem­ploy­ment. But at least it’s a com­fort to him to know that being Jew­ish is some­thing he can nev­er lose. Even if his boss has shown him the door, there’s at least one com­mu­ni­ty that will wel­come him in.

Ben Purk­ert’s writ­ing has appeared in The New York­er, The Nation, Poet­ry, Ploughshares, Keny­on Review, Tin House, and else­where. His poet­ry col­lec­tion, For the Love of End­ings, was named one of Adroit’s Best Poet­ry Books of the Year. He holds degrees from Har­vard and NYU, where he was a New York Times Fel­low. He teach­es cre­ative writ­ing at Rut­gers. The Men Can’t Be Saved is his debut novel.