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Yom Kippur in a Gym by Nora Gold

Reviewed by Jerry Levy

Some of literature’s most enduring and beloved stories include Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, George Orwell’s Animal Farm, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, Albert Camus’ The Stranger, Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Aside from having cemented themselves as classics into the hearts and minds of readers, what all these works have in common is that they are all novellas. While there is no universally-accepted definition, novellas typically run between 17,500–40,000 words (anything shorter usually constitutes a short story and anything longer, a novel). Moreover, they generally encompass a single or central character, rarely accompanied by the many side plots one often finds in novels. Because of the condensed word count, character development is normally/often confined to that single character (expanding too broadly upon multiple characters can lead to them being perceived as one-dimensional, perhaps even shallow). By doing so, the reader is allowed to focus on the one main character’s mindset and emotional universe.

What then, are we to make of Dr. Nora Gold’s novella Yom Kippur in the Gym, a story that has many characters and more than one side plot? Here the reader is exposed to Ira, a young student intent on committing suicide, Tom, a physician who hated his father and who has a strained relationship with his two sisters, Lucy, whose husband has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s, Ezra, seemingly a failed artist, and Rachel, the shul’s cook and baker. An ensemble as diverse as Tevye, Golde, Perchik, Chava, and Hodel, in Sholem Aleichem’s series of shtetl tales (Tevye the Dairyman stories), adapted into the popular Broadway musical and film Fiddler on the Roof. But therein lies the rub: Aleichem’s characters were spread out over many short stories, whereas Gold’s characters (each has their own unique story, encompassing yet other characters) are packed into a single novella. The question then is: does Yom Kippur in a Gym work? Is it cohesive enough to adequately give the reader a sense of each character’s personality and, most importantly, provide a readable and entertaining story?

In the hands of a lesser writer than Gold, this novella, with its host of characters and multiple backstories, might have been a “balagan.” (Balagan is a term of Slavic origin, used in modern Hebrew and Yiddish to refer to a chaotic, messy situation, or just a complete mess). And yet, it works. In fact, the novella works wonderfully and readers will certainly be enchanted by all the storylines and characters. The cast is fully fleshed out and just as importantly, we find ourselves rooting for the main ones, for these warm and complex people, wishing the best despite the difficulties inherent in their lives.

Certainly, there’s a lot to unpack in Yom Kippur in a Gym. In some respects, it reads like a treatise or meditation on what makes life worth living, a philosophical essay wrapped in a lyrical, poetic story. There are wide-ranging discussions and insinuations about the life-sustaining value of food, of singing, of a nurturing community. Further, it delves into the nature of existence, the problems and value of forgiveness, the dire ramifications of the lack of friendship, kinship and civility, the passing flicker of time, the fleeting nature of our thoughts, what constitutes “success,” belonging, love, secrets, self-loathing, suicide, sin, God, prayer, rituals, resilience, illness, death, dysfunctional families…many, many deep things to consider and reflect upon. And these are not directed solely at the reader, but rather also to the characters themselves. For instance, while Ira, intent on doing himself in because of a failed love affair (perhaps for other reasons as well), quotes the philosopher and novelist Jean-Paul Sartre in No Exit that, “hell is other people,” he later comes to understand that he has perhaps been too hasty in silently uttering such a line; when he is invited to Tom’s house to break the Yom Kippur fast with others, he muses that maybe people aren’t so bad after all.

Gold utilizes literary devices exceptionally well. In addition to enticing the reader with flawed characters we can root for, we are also witness to “foreshadowing,” subtle hints at what may develop later in the story. At the beginning, the members of the shul, many of whom appear pale and wan, akin to what some might say are ghostly figures (presumably because they have been fasting) “seat themselves gingerly on un-comfortable folding chairs and glance up warily at the basketball hoops hanging over their heads like swords of Damocles…” And indeed, something terrible later occurs to someone in the gym/shul. And we are also witness to a bird slamming against the gym window, lying dead on the outer ledge. Perhaps an omen that something untoward will befall one (or a number) of the characters in the novella? Or conversely, a hint that something good will happen to them? In many world cultures, the idea of a bird hitting a window entails that a great change is coming (seen as either good or bad).

Without giving away too much of the plot, two characters readers might find especially endearing are Rachel, the baker, and Ezra, the painter. Throughout the story, Rachel is concerned that she hasn’t made enough honey cake to feed everyone once the fast is over. She frets and worries and tries to come up with solutions, such as cutting the cakes into smaller and smaller pieces. She loves food, it’s an artistic creation for her, and is chagrined when the shul outlaws sugar, instead advocating the use of grape juice! But no matter, we know she’ll somehow overcome this atrocity, her love affair with baking is simply too great. We read some of her exacting recipes, such as the three-tiered White Chocolate and Raspberry Cheesecake, a beautiful mélange of chocolate, cream cheese, eggs, Cointreau, raspberries…goodness! Reading about Rachel and how much she loves food and feeding others (including herself, hah!) reminds one of the plot of Karen Blixen’s Babette’s Feast, where a French maid prepares an exquisite meal for a group of starkly pious and austere villagers in late nineteenth-century Denmark. The sensual food nourishes the people seated at the table and a certain mystical redemption of the human spirit settles over them such that divisions are healed and bonds formed. If ever they were to remake Babette’s Feast, it seems logical that Rachel should be cast as Babette!

The other character that we can’t help but pull for is Ezra, a talented artist who never made a name for himself in the arts world, mostly because he didn’t have the gumption to promote himself properly and who relied on others to do so (they failed), but also because he had to juggle the practical reality of earning a living and caring for his family. Now, many years later, he laments his failings and his lack of recognition as an artist. Ezra feels lost and disillusioned and realizes that time is quickly passing him by (he is 66) and that he will never attain what he most longs for, what other artists of lesser talent have. An existential crisis if ever there was one. Again, without providing any spoilers, this failed artist seems to find the ability and resources to rise above his deepest fears and doubts and give himself the chance to imagine a more fulfilling artistic life.

Both of these characters, just like Ira, Tom, and Lucy, are depicted as flawed, but fascinating. Moreover, Gold presents them in such a dignified way such that the reader will no doubt find them endearing and, as stated, will cheer for their happiness. For their dreams. Overall, Yom Kippur in a Gym is a wonderful read, a beacon of light in dark times.

Yom Kippur in a Gym is published by Guernica Editions, alongside a second novella, In Sickness and In Health, that we will review in our next issue of ORB.


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