The Book of Faith: A Novel
By Elaine Kalman Naves
Linda Leith Publishing
It’s certainly not required, but familiarity with contemporary Jewish Montreal, with the heavily Jewish suburbs of Hampstead and Côte Saint-Luc and the nearby neighbourhoods of Notre-Dame-de-Grâce (a.k.a. NDG), and with Congregation Dorshei Emet – Montreal’s Reconstructionist synagogue – will definitely add to a reader’s enjoyment of “The Book of Faith,” the debut novel by Elaine Kalman Naves.
While this is Kalman Naves’ first foray into fiction, she is a veteran literary journalist and the author of several works of non-fiction, including her family memoir, “Shoshanna’s Story: A Mother, A Daughter and the Shadows of History,” winner of the 2005 Canadian Jewish Book Awards Yad Vashem Prize for Holocaust Literature.
“The Book of Faith” – whose story takes place in the late-1990s and early-2000s – is a story of friendship, loss, love lost and found, and synagogue politics set in and around Congregation Emunath (emunath is Hebrew for Faith), a fictionalized version of Congregation Dorshei Emet.
From its Hampstead location, to its capital campaign to fund a new building, there is no doubt that the Reconstructionist congregation in the book is based on Dorshei Emet. As well, the book’s Rabbi Nate Kaufman seems to be modelled – at least in part – on Rabbi Ron Aigen, Dorshei Emet’s longtime spiritual leader, while the elderly character Moish Stipleman is even more obviously based on the late Lavy Becker, Dorshei Emet’s founding volunteer rabbi who introduced Reconstructionist Judaism to Canada in the early-1960s. For the uninitiated, Kalman Naves uses the character of Moish to creatively provide background on Reconstructionist Judaism.
The three main protagonists of “The Book of Faith” are three close friends: Faith Rabinovitch, Rhoda Kaplansky and Erica Molnar.
Faith, a child therapist, is the president of Congregation Emunath. (The book’s title could be an allusion to the congregation, to the character, or likely both.) Rhoda is a teacher, and Erica is a literary columnist and author who would seem to be, at least partly, based on Kalman Naves herself. The interactions of the three friends – with each other and in their individual relationships – are particularly well drawn. The women have interesting, complicated lives and lean on each other for support.
Among the other significant characters are Melly Darwin, an obnoxious businessman and Holocaust survivor who wants Erica to write his life story; Marty Reiss, a synagogue board member with secrets in his personal life who is romantically interested in Erica; and Paul Ladouceur, her editor at the Montreal Gazette.
In a short prologue, the book opens at a funeral at Paperman’s, Montreal’s Jewish funeral chapel. We don’t know yet whose funeral is taking place, but it is a sudden death that will be central to the plot when it takes us by surprise later in the novel.
Kalman Naves brings these characters (and others) to life as the various sub-plots weave in and around each other. The synagogue politics surrounding the fundraising efforts to pay for a new Congregation Emunath building are fun to observe – including the rabbi’s dismay when a Chasidic group builds a grand synagogue on an adjacent property just as he’s trying to secure the funding for the new shul building (which parallels the real life building of the Chabad-affiliated Montreal Torah Centre nearby just as Congregation Dorshei Emet was preparing for its new building).
The sub-plot involving Melly Darwin’s desire for an over-flattering biography is also fun to observe. As a journalist, it was particularly interesting for me to see Erica grapple with the ethical considerations of some of Melly’s demands.
The death that is alluded to in the prologue becomes the central tragedy of “The Book of Faith,” and Kalman Naves portrays its impact on the surviving characters with great sensitivity.
Ultimately, “The Book of Faith” is a satisfying read with its blend of comedy and tragedy, romance and satire, and characters you might think you know and those you don’t.