Debra Galant Photo by Frances Pelzman Liscio
April 03, 2008
Debra Galant was concerned that her new novel, Fear and Yoga in New Jersey, might portray certain segments of the Jewish community in a poor light. She needn’t have worried. Her book puts lots of groups — yoga adherents, suburban soccer moms, Reform Jews, Chabadniks, Jewish mothers, teenagers, pretty much the gamut of suburban life — in such a viewpoint. “I’m an equal opportunity offender,” she said in a telephone interview with NJ Jewish News.
The novel follows the travails of Nina, a new-age yoga instructor and mom, born Jewish but of late a member of the Unitarian Church; her husband, Michael, a newly downsized airport meteorologist; and their son, Adam, a middle-schooler who wants to have a bar mitzva for the swag.
Galant’s original title — One God At Most — was based on a Unitarian joke (see excerpts). “There wouldn’t have been many people who got the joke anyway,” she said, “And it would have sounded more serious.”
Those familiar with the Montclair area will have little trouble identifying local institutions. “I think it was easier in the sense of location. I was really making everything up in terms of the characters, but I was able to draw more easily on locations and visualizations, by working in Montclair,” said Galant, the founder and editor-in chief for Baristanet, a popular “community blog” about goings-on in the Montclair/Glen Ridge/Bloomfield area.
One of her key elements is partly based on the Lubavitch Center of Essex County in West Orange, which Galant “combined” with a Chabad house in northern Virginia — the former site of her YMCA summer camp as a child and counselor.
One day, while in a nostalgic mood, she looked up her old haunt on the Internet and discovered it had been “converted.” “I was really flipped out. It felt like an intrusion. How could you take my ecumenical YMCA, of all places, and turn it into a Chabad center?”
Galant lives in Glen Ridge with her husband, Warren Levinson, a writer for the Associated Press, and their children, Margot, 19, and Noah, 16, who was of particular help in his mother’s research for the character of Adam, whom she considers the book’s “total nugget.”
“Noah is very interested in writing and he’s very funny; he was named funniest kid in New Jersey at a 12 Miles West” — a local theater group — “competition,” Galant said. “Another kind of kid might have been more upset by the similarities between him and the character, but he never said, ‘Don’t write that or I’ll be embarrassed,’ because as a writer he sees it from the point of view of what the story needed.”
The other characters were more her own creation.
“Nina is not one person, but many people I met along the way that became Nina. The idea that she’s a Unitarian made perfect sense, and her background made perfect sense: the idea of someone who’s evolved from her Judaism into a new-age sensibility,” said Galant, who attends Temple Ner Tamid in Bloomfield. “She thinks of Judaism as being very old-fashioned, superstitious, sexist, old-school, and she’s new age….
“She’s rejecting her own religion because it’s too old-fashioned, but replacing it with feng shui, which is even more ancient? She doesn’t like the superstitious nature of Judaism, but embraces it from other cultures.”
Fear and Yoga is Galant’s second novel. Her first — Rattled — considered the encroachment of “McMansions” in suburban New Jersey. There is no daughter character in her current book, but she said she would make it up to Margot in her third novel, on which she’s currently at work.
Debra Galant will read from and lead a discussion on her new novel, Fear and Yoga in New Jersey, at Temple Ner Tamid, Bloomfield, on Sunday, April 13, at 3 p.m.
“LOOK, GUYS,” he said. “There’s a couple of rules you should know about before we get there.”
“He’s a Jew for fifteen minutes and he’s already an expert,” Belle snorted.
“I’m not an expert. But I did go on the Internet after school.”
“Go ahead,” said Max. “Tell us.”
“First of all, they’re shomar shabbas. Which means you can’t turn lights on or off or answer the phone or anything like that.”
“Duh,” said Nina.
“And it’s not just like we sit down and eat and then we’re out of there in half an hour. There’s all sorts of praying and singing. They call it benching, I don’t know why. And there’s special hand-washing rituals and stuff like that. And, I’m not sure, but they might have pieces of toilet paper already torn so you don’t have to do the work of tearing it on Shabbat, and I’m not sure if you’re allowed to flush the toilet after the sun sets.”
Nina sighed and rolled her eyes.
“Of course,” Belle turned toward Nina, “if you’d joined a normal synagogue, instead of a church, we wouldn’t have to be going to dinner with religious fanatics the minute your son got interested in Judaism.”
“Belle!” Max said.
“Define normal,” Nina replied calmly. “A place where you have to pay three hundred dollars a ticket to show up for the High Holidays?”
LIGHTNING FLASHED, and thunder crashed again, like God was playing laser bowling right outside the Abrahams’ dining room. The rabbi and his family sang louder, as if the weather were just a little friendly competition from a neighboring band of Chasids. Then the chandelier over the table flickered twice and the lights went out and there was only a soft glow coming from the Shabbat candles in the middle of the table, candles — Adam noticed — that had only about an inch of wax left.
Now there was a real commotion, and Adam wasn’t surprised that his grandparents were making the most of the noise. “Where’s a flashlight?” he heard Belle say. “Or extra candles?”
One of the rabbi’s children explained that they were not allowed to turn on a flashlight or light a candle after Shabbat had started.
“But it’s an emergency!” Max protested. “It’s a power failure!”
“If you’re too religious to turn on a flashlight, I’ll do it,” Belle offered.
“Nobody will turn on a flashlight,” the rabbi said.
“This is meshuggah,” Max blustered. “What if…what if…”
“What if what?” said Rabbi Mendel. “We’re sitting here, together with family and friends. There’s plenty to eat. The rain is outside. God in his mercy has put a roof over our heads and wine in our glasses. And the lightning is even providing illumination for us to see.”
“What if the hurricane’s come early! We should turn on the TV.”
“We can’t turn on the TV,” Adam said quietly. “There’s no electricity.”
“At least the radio! They must have a transistor radio.”
“God will protect us,” the rabbi said. “Just as he did our forefathers. Let’s return to our prayers.”
Telling them apart
ADAM THOUGHT about Rabbi Mendel, with his strange outfit and his full beard, tossing the baseball from hand to hand, talking abut Jews and the Red Sox. He reflected momentarily on Philip’s synagogue, where all the kids, carefully tutored in Hebrew from third grade on, hung out in the bathroom during services. Finally, he considered his own Unitarian Church, with its blue jeans-wearing, guitar-strumming minister, Gary. Just Gary. Or was Gary even called a minister? Maybe he was just a leader. Gary liked to joke that Unitarians believed in one God — at most. The grown-ups always laughed, but Adam wasn’t sure what it meant. So many religions to choose from, like all the different cell phone plans. After a while, you got tired of trying to tell them apart.
— from Fear and Yoga in New Jersey
by Debra Galant
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