The Chassidic Trauma Unit
By Abraham Boyarsky
8th House Publishing
The Chassidic Trauma Unit, set in a fictionalized Chassidic community in Montreal, is the latest of several novels by Abraham Boyarsky, a professor of mathematics at Concordia University.
The protagonist, Sender Pleskin, is a member of the Bubmer Chassidic community, which came from Hungary to Montreal, and has a shul there on St. Viateur Street, which straddles the Montreal neighbourhoods of Outremont and Mile End, an area populated by several Chassidic groups.
Sender began his working life by managing kosher food service at the Jewish General Hospital, and soon saw the need for a service run on Chassidic principles to give advice and assistance to people in all the forms of distress. He and his assistants are self-taught, but have the respect and co-operation of medical personnel in Montreal.
Like other professionals, Sender deals with a lot of cases when in his office. Asked to help a pious lady whose son has inexplicably lost consciousness in hospital, Sender and his assistants explore a number of options. Although pious and strictly observant, Sender is prepared to break rules to find out what he needs to know, and is willing to visit a nightclub, and even to shave off his beard.
Showing the influence of books like The Yiddish Policemen’s Union by Michael Chabon and The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett, Sender is exposed to great danger, but he solves the mystery, which turns out to be plenty sinister.
A good detective story, besides presenting a puzzle, gives the reader a feel for the location in which the story takes place, and also for its social ambience. Sender and his assistants lead us through hospital corridors, and also through the winter streets of Montreal, the more relaxed life of the Eastern Townships, and, of course, Shacharit, Mincha and Maariv, and some shul intrigue.
The implausible setup is stated early and keeps getting more implausible, so the reader can relax and have fun along with the author. But this is a Jewish story, and the novel probes conflicts between people trying to lead a religious life and rabbis trying to control how they do it. The shadow of Europe is always there, as is the reality of poverty in the Chassidic community.
Sender’s literary ancestry goes back further than The Maltese Falcon’s Sam Spade. He was brought up by a foster-mother descended from Rabbi Judah ben Bezalel Loew, the 16th century Maharal of Prague, creator of the Golem. As this review is being written, Outremont has passed a zoning bylaw aimed at preventing a new Chassidic shul. A legal challenge is expected. If the borough counsellors of Outremont could have been brought into this novel, rest assured Sender Pleskin would have taken care of the situation.
I do have one comment about the book’s style. Boyarsky unnecessarily uses English-language versions of some terms like ear locks, prayer shawl, and phylacteries when the Yiddish or Hebrew versions are more commonly part of the vocabulary. If the text had used peyes, tallis, or tefillin, Jewish readers – and, probably, most gentile readers – would understand what is meant, and the text, particularly the dialogue, would seem less artificial. A short glossary for readers who might not know such words would have done the trick.