In As Close to Us as Breathing, Elizabeth Poliner covers such familiar ground as love, the Jewish family, and community. But, notes Adam Kirsch, this “unusually perceptive” work also addresses a subject almost entirely absent from American Jewish fiction:
Early in As Close to Us as Breathing, . . . there is a remarkable scene of a group of men praying at a Conservative synagogue’s morning minyan. For eight pages, Poliner follows Mort Leibritsky, a department-store owner in Middletown, Connecticut, as he makes his way through the order of the service. . . . It is not that anything very imposing or grand happens. On the contrary, we see Mort striving for a feeling of transcendence, but then falling back into the internal monologue of memories and anxieties that makes up most of daily life.
The scene is remarkable, rather, because it is so very rare for American Jewish novelists to write about prayer. Of all the genres of American Jewish fiction—the nostalgic and the dysfunctional, the satiric and the elegiac—few have much interest in the prayers that are supposed to define Jewish life and practice. Perhaps that is because prayer gets right to the heart of the contradictions of our Jewish identity, exposing the gap between God as He is imagined in the ancient liturgy and the way most American Jews think about God today. Or perhaps it is because prayer is simply too routine, a duty rather than an encounter. . . .
Spirituality is difficult terrain for American Jewish fiction; family is where the action is. And so it proves for Mort, who says the words of the prayer but is mainly thinking about his father and his son.