Book review: David Hopen, “The Orchard”

In one sense, this is a story I’ve seen many times before. A “fish-out-of-water” tale, involving a sensitive kid from one neighborhood, is ejected from Point A and sent to Point B. Point B happens to be an elite prep school full of elite-prep-schoolers, and they all live in neighborhoods that embody the opposite of every value the sensitive kid thinks he left behind in Point A. Does the kid become as bad – or worse! – than the kids in Point B?

Maybe. Maybe.

Looking at this book from the perspective as a writer who knows all the tropes and genre expectations, “The Orchard” is a well-executed high-school story, but is not especially new. But there is another sense in which I simply have never seen this story done before.

What I mean is that I’ve never seen Breakfast Club-type tropes, wedded to Talmudic study. I have never seen teenage-brainiac dudes weighing the arguments made by Modern Orthodox Jewish philosophy. I’ve never seen dudes who are constantly experimenting with substances, while being steeped in Rambam. I’ve never seen kids who observe Shabbos sometimes and sometimes violate it on purpose and go back to observing it again. I’ve never seen kids who drive BMW’s, go to AP Chemistry, apply to mainstream colleges, and deal with girls and sex, and also the intimate nuances of grief, loss, love, faith in and doubt of G-d. I just haven’t seen kids who wrestle with Hashem in the most Jewish sense, while being wrapped inside a classic American genre tale.

The centrality of Judaism to the story can be seen in the title itself, as “The Orchard” is also a Talmudic parable. I know little about the legend, but Googling tells me it’s a story of four rabbis, each of whom enter an orchard and gaze upon G-d. One goes crazy, one destroys the orchard, one dies and one survives.

Now, I am no expert in American Jewish writing. But, simply put, I don’t can’t think of another work where the classic “high school” story and Talmudic study have been so intricately linked. I was first exposed to Chaim Potok’s The Chosen early last year. That work is about two Jewish schoolboys, one ultra-Orthodox and one simply Orthodox. That book was written decades ago, but my feeling at the end of The Orchard was similar – I had been exposed to a worldview and a lifestyle, of my own people, that I really didn’t know about, and don’t see very often.

Ari Eden is the center of the story and his observations, struggles and epiphanies, are the most powerful engine of the narrative. He and his family have to move from Brooklyn to a ritzy Miami suburb for his father’s work. Ari is comfortable in Brooklyn – but comfort is a trap, too. Comfort is staid; it can become easy and unchallenged and then, that which is supposed to be sacred, can degrade into something rote.

Right away, the reader sees that Ari possesses a depth of sensitivity, insight and curiosity that is innately pushing up against the intense, ascetic structure of his life in New York.

Structure is a curious word. Structure obviously implies boundary or a limit – but is a limit, negative? Ari seems to think it is. Fortunately, he finds in Miami structure’s polar opposite. His new friends, Oliver, Noah, and the arch-antagonist Evan, embody everything that Chassidic Brooklyn is supposed to protect Ari from. They have too much money, no parental oversight, no rules at all – in the end, they collectively showcase moral and spiritual anarchy. Evan has deep-seated pain to process, and his process takes the form of increasingly kinetic experiments – from abstruse debates, to hard drug abuse and beyond.

Going back to the book’s title, “The Orchard,” for a minute.

Evan’s experiments stem from a plot point I won’t spoil. Suffice it to say, he wants to put his belief in Torah and G-d and the entire premise of Jewishness, to the test. He goes to a Modern Orthodox yeshiva; he’s steeped in G-dly learning; but G-d has let him down catastrophically. He wants to know if he’s being taught gibberish, or truth. His behavior grows perilously extreme. The school’s chief’s Rabbi wants Ari to temper Evan’s radical impulses but the opposite happens: Ari is first sucked into, and then embraces, a secular, hallucinogenic haze; a confused, terrified state of lost-ness.

Ari is terrified of the truth – that he wants to taste the wildness, that Evan is trying to drown in. Can Ari be secular and wild, while not losing his Jewishness?

This is such a big question, I hardly know where to begin answering it, and I think the book is so successful because it doesn’t really answer it. The tension between worlds is never fully resolved;. Our protagonist exists as a spectrum of names: Aryeh, Ari, Andrew, Drew. Ari is not one name, he is all of those names, and so is his experience of being Chassidic and Modern Orthodox and just Jewish or whatever he is.

The story is not whether Ari is Orthodox or not; the story is him trying to find an authentic practice for himself.

The plot of the book is interesting enough. But what I can’t escape from, is the joy of reading characters that have this profound struggle articulated so vividly. Ari’s internal life is, by far, the most gripping part of the narrative; it is a pleasure to see a world that I know well, through his fresh, surprising, un-jaded eyes that grow more jaundiced the more he sees, feels and learns.

Does the book have weaknesses? Of course.

I’d guess that the dialog will stand out as either highly stylized or over-the-top intellectual. Yes, the book is prone to lengthy digressions into abstract philosophical concepts and debates that could end a page sooner. Yes, the kids cite an almost impossible volume of Great Thinkers, in their casual conversations. Yes, the actual grammar of the dialog itself can feel stilted – too formal, too precise, not naturalistic.

My counter-point is that the whole story is a parable, based on a parable, and so to an extent a highly stylized manner of talking, something real-but-bigger, fits a story that itself is trying to be real-but-bigger.

What about the drinking and drugs and sex? What about it? Sure, the substance abuse is heightened, but probably less than any adult would care to admit. There’s a lot of it. That’s real. A fair follow-up question is how all the hallucinogens jibe with a Modern Orthodox yeshiva community? That’s a more interesting question. At least in principle, there shouldn’t be any abuse of booze or pot. But that’s not reality and it’s certainly not the reality of this group of upper-class, unsupervised teens who have a lot of unexpressed pain. Maybe someone should be guiding them; maybe what they think is “freedom to do whatever” is really another cage. That’s an issue worth addressing. I personally had little trouble envisioning as “real,” teens of this sort going crazy with things that numb.

There are romantic sub-plots. Are they effective? Ari’s primary love interest is a sad young beauty named Sophia and while compelling enough, I was actually more interested in Ari’s tutor, the spunky Kayla. Ari arrives at this prestigious half-religious, half-secular school with an education that was almost purely religious. She helps bring him up to code in some secular classes – but she also calls him out when he really starts veering away from who he was when he first arrived in Florida. I found her more active and dynamic than Sophia, but both characters have surprises and personality.

The book is probably too long. The narrative occasionally goes off-the-rails with all its obscure theorizing. Isn’t this a bit like the feeling of studying Torah and Talmud, where an argument begins somewhere and ends somewhere entirely unrelated?

In the end, David Hopen has written something better than a perfect book, he’s written something fresh and exciting.

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