“Why read old books?” That was the title of Victor Davis Hanson’s essay at his Works and Days blog yesterday. Turns out Hanson doesn’t mean just any old books. He means the classics—Homer, Sophocles, Hesiod. You know the ones. But there’s another kind of old book—the book that is not a classic, has not withstood the “test of time,” and is (in fact) so very much a product of its times that to read it is to be transported to an earlier day. Something like an episode of Mad Men without the recherche and ironical self-awareness.
Fifty years ago this April one of the most useful American Jewish novels ever written—a lavish 341-page archive of information about American Jewish attitudes in the early ’sixties—was published by a Reform rabbi who had just quit the pulpit for the life of a bestselling author. “I have a sneaking suspicion that people appreciate what they have to pay for,” Herbert Tarr told the New York Times. “Sermons are free, and half of what you say from the pulpit is discounted as pious sentiments that just go with the robe.” The Conversion of Chaplain Cohen (New York: Bernard Geis, 1963), the first of his five novels, alternated the sermons with humor and social criticism (as it used to be called), and all for the price of $4.95. The novel went through five printings, selling more than 30,000 copies in hardback—not bad for a first novel in 1963.
But it’s not at all clear that Tarr had any clue what he was writing. The Conversion of Chaplain Cohen is not only one of the first American novels about a rabbi, but it is also the first about an American military chaplain of any denomination. True enough, Joseph Heller had included a chaplain in the joke with which he began Catch-22, published only eighteen months earlier:
The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him.
So Tarr’s Chaplain David Cohen is the second air force chaplain in American fiction, but he is the first who is something more than “sweet” and “decent.” He is also the first to get a book of his own. The novel opens in July 1955, during the Geneva Summit, at a moment when the Cold War was suspended between Korea and Vietnam and it looked as if there might be, as David reflects, a “lessening of friction between East and West.” He has chosen this moment to enlist in the Armed Services. Like his author, he has only recently concluded his rabbinical studies and received semikhah.
Now twenty-four, David is standing in line, buck naked except for a 3 x 5 card with which he can occasionally conceal the sign of the covenant, waiting for his physical examination in the old Army Building at the Battery in New York. In front of him, a doctor is examining a young Puerto Rican recruit. The young man has small English, and when he fails repeatedly to understand his instructions, the doctor yells at him: “Don’t they teach you anything in that stupid country you come from?” Without thinking, David calls out: “You’re certainly no advertisement for America, Doctor.” “Who said that?” the doctor demands. Tentatively, David identifies himself as the one who spoke:
David faltered. “Not exactly.”
A smile of triumph darkened [the doctor’s] face. “I was sure you wouldn’t.” He turned back to the terrorized Puerto Rican and dismissed him contemptuously. “All right, you can go now, you ignoramus. Do you understand that much English?”
Impulsively, David blurted out: “Horshoim kayom nigrosh ki hashkeit lo yuchol, vayigr’shu meimov refesh vovit.”
[The doctor] turned on David. “What was that again?”
David swallowed. “Hebrew.”
“Hebrew!” [the doctor] snorted. “Doesn’t anyone here speak English?
And so Tarr’s narrative plan is established. As Brendan Behan said in his New York Times review, Rabbi Cohen has the “idiotic notion that he should speak out against injustice wherever he sees it.” Assigned to a base in Mississippi, for example (it is obviously modeled upon Columbus Air Force Base, although its name is changed to Fairfield in the novel), he brings a Negro to a Passover seder at the synagogue in town, despite orders from his commanding officer not to interfere in “off-base discrimination.” Later he delivers an unauthorized political talk in enthusiastic support of Israel (“David was one Jew to whom Exodus automatically meant the second book of the Bible and not the novel”). Even later he publicly dresses down an officer’s wife, who is humiliating her partner at bridge. He calls her a “bitch” only to discover afterwards that she is the wife of the commanding officer.
Tarr means for Rabbi Cohen to come across as an angry and unfortunate prophet, but that’s not how he comes across at all. From a distance of fifty years, he seems little more than a mouthpiece for liberal pieties. Even his opposition to racial discrimination is more of a formality, an abstract maxim rather than a warm-blooded response to a human dilemma, since the black Jewish airman he drags to the seder is leaving Mississippi in less than a week, is not especially religious, and mainly wants to go in order to show off his singing voice in chanting kiddush.
David’s talk on Israel angers the president of the local congregation, whose son is becoming bar mitsvah at the service. Also the owner of the major department store in town, the man is appalled that the rabbi intends to say “how terrible it was for the U.N. and the United States to censure Israel for retaliating against Syria’s machine-gunning of Israeli fishermen.” The president tries to bully David into switching topics, reminding him that “you will be speaking to people who can’t be expected to view the Middle East through Jew-colored glasses.” David stands firm. “If he were to start running his ministry on the platform of No Offense to Anyone Ever,” he reflects, “he might as well have studied for four years to be a writer of deodorant ads.”
Comes the day, however, and what David says is anodyne. He blames the United Nations for the “current state of cold war between Israel and the Arab nations”—they failed “to insure Israel’s survival” and “neglected to develop practical plans for aiding the Arab refugees on a permanent basis.” Given these failures, Israel cannot be expected “to submit to annihilation.” Still, the rabbi allows, war is not the answer:
The best parts of The Conversion of Chaplain Cohen are the least timely. A bachelor in self-acknowledged search for a Jewish wife, David tries out two different candidates over the course of the novel, and both are surprising choices (if not particularly successful characters). The first, Dena Gordon, is a morbidly obese young woman who lives with her parents. She is good company, though, with a sharp tongue and a cutting wit, which she is quick to turn on herself. Dena accuses him of wanting only to counsel her (“A person who wants to enjoy a good old-fashioned neurosis doesn’t stand a chance any more,” she complains), and not even David is sure whether she is right. To prove her wrong, he consents to sleep with her, and only the deus ex machina of a coffee table, which trips him up with a smash and wakes the whole household, saves him from admitting Dena is right after all.
The other candidate to become Mrs. Cohen is a Holocaust survivor with the symbolic name of Ilona Lazarus. At a time when the only Holocaust novels written for American audiences were Meyer Levin’s Eva (1959) and Edward Lewis Wallant’s The Pawnbroker (1961), Tarr compresses the horrors into three pages. He even anticipates Sophie’s Choice: