The Head of an Ultra-Orthodox Yeshiva and His Surprisingly Good Pseudonymous Novel

October 16, 2019 | Henry Abramson
About the author:

Set in New York in the late 1950s, The Idiom and the Oddity (2017) tells the story of a young man who decides to revolt against his parents’ drift away from Jewish tradition and observance, leaves his family home in suburban Long Island for the Brownsville neighborhood of Brooklyn where he grew up, and eventually finds himself studying in a rabbinical seminary in upstate New York. While the novel was written under the pseudonym Sam Benito, Henry Abramson recognizes the author as a certain prominent ḥaredi rabbi, and the story as highly autobiographical. Abramson does not reveal the author’s identity, but argues that the work is a rich, if imperfect, coming-of-age tale:

[T]here’s certainly no salacious or otherwise inappropriate content in the 300-page novel, but even a superficial reading alludes to youthful experimentation with activities that, in the ḥaredi world, range from the merely frowned upon to forbidden outright. . . . The [author] describes his quasi-heretical youth, from attenuated adherence to kashrut to a non-Jewish girlfriend who lives in, of all places, the Long Island community of Babylon.

Readers with an appreciation of yeshiva culture (and baseball culture) will appreciate this work, but the author clearly assumes that his readers also possess a basic working knowledge of the great canon of Western literature and philosophy. . . . The sheer breadth of his reading is sometimes a liability. I often found myself groaning at the excessive puns-per-page ratio, many of which involved several languages. [Take, for instance], this Steinbeck-inspired Yiddishism: when a character named Roth defuses a tense moment with an ear-splitting belch, the incident is referred to as “the greps of Roth” (greps being Yiddish for burp).

The book is an homage to Joyce above all: the trajectory of the plot borrows happily from Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, the style from Ulysses (the main character is even named Bloom), and even Joyce’s most enigmatic work gets a nod when an Irish character departs the story, leaving “Finnegan’s wake” in the aftermath.

Unfortunately, in contemporary yeshiva culture, fiction is strictly forbidden as bitul zman, “wasted time,” and the medium that might best express [its author’s] vision is off-limits under his own name.

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