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Jewish Pilgrims, Comic Progress : MASTER OF THE RETURN by Tova Reich (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $21.95; 240 pp.)

June 19, 1988|Faye Kellerman | Kellerman is the author of "The Ritual Bath" and "Sacred and Profane," the latter to be reprinted by Fawcett-Crest in July, 1988. and

Shmuel Himmelhoch has been missing for two years. His wife, Ivriya, wants desperately to know where he is, be he warm flesh or cold bones. In the absence of a corpse, Ivriya is destined to remain an agunah , "the abandoned wife" of Jewish law prohibited from ever remarrying. Mercifully, Ivriya is rescued from limbo by the fortuitous discoveries of Himmelhoch's diary in the tomb of Hannah in Safad, Israel, and a shallow grave in nearby Meron containing remains, assumed for Ivriya's convenience to be those of Shmuel.

Thus begins Tova Reich's "Master of the Return," a witty romp centering around a group of well-meaning, offbeat born-again Jews living in the Holy Land and their quest for spiritual enlightenment.

Himmelhoch, like others in his sect of Bratslaver Hasidim, has entered religious life after having indulged in an unabashedly sinful life style. As his rebbe, Lev Lurie, eulogizes, Shmuel had been "a hard-core Bohemian from the major leagues who had sampled everything, who had taken in and given out all the dirt, all the shmutz and dreck from the lowest of the lowest depths." After seeing the proverbial light and repenting, Himmelhoch sets his mind upon the future, his ultimate objective, that of all Bratslavers: a pilgrimage to the city of Uman in Russia, to the grave of the great Rav Nahman, founder of their sect. Death prevents him from achieving his goal, but he dies, according to his diary, with the hope that his son, Akiva, will fulfill the dream for both of them.

Reich propels us into a mystical yet unsteady world where intentions, though befuddled, are pure, and logic is an afterthought. The Bratslavers are extremists, comical in their mannered protocol but endearing because they're trying so hard. Their leader, Rav Lev Lurie, the kind-hearted (lev is the Hebrew word for heart; Reich has a lot of fun with her character's names), is the most sure-footed of the bunch, and takes his role very seriously. He is delightful in his gravity, the type of person you long to slap on the back and say, "Hey, lighten up." His dialectical adversary is Abba Nissim, a mystic breast-beating penitent by night, a tour guide at the tombs of Hannah and Her Seven Sons by day, lighting candles for blue-haired Hadassah ladies as he sadly recounts the tale of the noble matriarch and her martyred sons, later holding out his hands for coins.

Reich's female characters, though submissive, have a strength of their own. They're sufficiently intelligent to know they're an underclass, but having been knocked around by life, need to belong even if it means rationalizing their rights away. Witness Goldie, the spaced-out mathematician--a brilliant woman as long as her mind is occupied with equations rather than men. She's joined the Bratslavers after having been the battered mistress of a "Bedouin fisherman"--lots of high seas in the Sinai--then is married off to Rami Marom, a simpleton she doesn't love, who is543253103doesn't seem to mind. She's already fallen in love with her sociology professor--a shutterbugging convert from Munich.

Ivriya herself entered the sect at her nadir. A former topless bareback rider, her fall from grace ended with a literal fall that broke her spine and confined her to a wheelchair. Religion is her salvation because it gives her parity with the other "undamaged" women, because beautiful legs, like anything corporeal, are symbols of vanity.

Reich expertly captures the quirky side of religion, writing with biting wit but also much affection. As is common among most Ba'alei Tshuva --literally Masters of the Return--her penitents embrace their new faith with orgasmic fervor, yet are never quite comfortable with it. Like children with sticky hands, they're afraid to touch or to let go, living in fear that anything they say or do might constitute an infraction of the holy law. These characters, deliberately painted with a broad brush, are memorable because of their insecurities, lovable because they are touchingly human.

Reich is at her best when she focuses on the lighter side of life. Her dialogue is funny, her prose rich with comic irony. The ending of the book takes on an abruptly serious tone that dissolves rather than resolves. But that is inconsequential because like the journey to Uman, getting there is all the fun. "Master of the Return" is a swift and well-drawn read.

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