Waiting for the Messiah (3) (American Quartet) Paperback – October 15, 2019
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--Authors on the Air Review Crew
"A profoundly funny meditation on how one can find strength in religion."--Kirkus
"In Greene's novel, the director of a new Jewish boarding school rankles the community with his offbeat style--and there are rumors that he might be the Messiah.
Nudelman, a successful and irrepressible truck salesman proposes a novel idea to the Synagogue Board in the Jewish community in Bolton, a small town in Western Pennsylvania: to start a Jewish boarding school. Although they initially reject the proposal, Nudelman wins them over, suggesting that an old retirement home has plenty of room to house incoming students, and the endowment that sustains it is considerable enough to be partially repurposed. The board hires a Russian school director, Lev Kyol--"tall, angular man, weathered as an unpainted barn"--whose resume boasts experience as a school superintendent in Moscow. Although he impresses everyone with his "aura of self-possession and strength," he also shocks the board with a series of surprising decisions; he admits a Palestinian boy to the school, inaugurates a celebratory Palestinian Day, and organizes a fundraiser for a Catholic hostel. Some members of the community are apoplectic--teacher Martin Schweig schemes to get Lev deported--while others think that he's the Messiah. Greene, the author of The Seed Apple (2016), hilariously entertains this latter notion in the narration by Mendel Traig, the community center administrator: "Lev had suddenly become a diabolical, socialist dupe, a naive and irresponsible idealist, and a courageous advocate of brotherly love and understanding." Mendel earnestly tries to figure out the newcomer, while also dreaming of a romantic relationship with his best friend, Estelle Cantor. The author's artful brew of farcical comedy and theological provocation may remind readers of the work of Booker Prize-winning novelist Howard Jacobson. Overall, it's a delightfully satirical exploration of the intersection between the quotidian and the absurd. Lev is a particularly memorable character; it turns out that when he said "superintendent," he actually meant "janitor," and he neither encourages nor repudiates the strange notion that his arrival is the fulfillment of biblical prophecy. Throughout, Greene wisely explores the salutary power of faith, which Mendel calls a "kind of spiritual walker for the psychologically disabled."
A profoundly funny meditation on how one can find strength in religion."
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Messiah is provocative too, and in many ways. One is the creative way that Bolton’s Jewish community goes about meeting the challenges faced in starting and sustaining a prep school. Greene doesn’t shy away from dealing with the ethical issues in the Job-like challenges characters face — ethnocentrism, homelessness, immigrant deportation, and computer hacking and fraud. Somehow, Greene gets the good people of Bolton, Pa—especially the Christ-like school director and ever-wise narrator —through these challenges.
An eminently worthy and delightful read.
With Waiting for the Messiah, Sheldon Greene has written a beautiful, meaningful, funny, inspiring and important book. I’ve put a check at the top of many pages with especially evocative selections, even certain sentences, even certain words, which I loved, so that I can easily find and re-read them.
I hardly ever laugh out loud when I read, but I cracked up with almost every paragraph in the first few pages. I anticipated liking this book a lot, since I really liked Greene’s first book, Lost and Found, the precursor to Messiah, when it was published years ago and I’ve enjoyed each of his books since then. I strongly recommend that you read it following Messiah. Honestly, Sheldon Greene’s my favorite writer.
Messiah is narrated by Mendel, an active participant/observer in the story. His occasional digressions are spoken naturally, as if he is whispering aside to the reader. He jokes that these comments are prone to wander here and there, just like our “monkey minds” are prone to do, not non-stop from “Minsk to Pinsk”, as his Uncle Mayer used to say. I love his wanderings.
With this natural and familiar way of sharing feelings and observations throughout this engaging story, Mendel, who I imagine often speaks for Sheldon Greene, establishes excellent rapport with the reader.
There is much suspense, exciting interactions, humor and pathos between the diverse personalities of the main characters, but there is the appealing simply described descriptions of the people and their everyday lives. All of the action is easily visualized, it would make a great movie.
I had trouble putting this book down, since anticipation and suspense kept building. Would the Jewish community in this small Pennsylvania town defeat or support the new programs they had initially created, and how would they deal with the inspired decisions of the determined and innovative school administrator they had chosen? Also, how would Mendel’s romantic interest turn out…I was tempted to find out by turning to the end of the book, but resisted.
For me, this book, with its moral and emotional intensity, is about virtues of goodness and how they are expressed by the Messiah-like administrator in numerous situations. And he, as a viable and accessible role-model for the reader, demonstrates these virtues meaningfully in an attempt to to create a beloved community on earth. That sounds like saccharine mumbo-jumbo, but there are numerous examples of these human traits and behaviors in several of the characters featured in this book and especially in the unique school administrator. I feel very fortunate to have witnessed him, to see him modeling thoughtful, empathic, kind, forgiving and self-sacrificing behavior (perhaps too much) in the service of the growth of other individuals and the community as a whole.
Thank you Sheldon Greene for offering an opportunity for me and others, hopefully many, many of others, to learn about true goodness in spirit and in action.