"Destined to Choose" by Sheyna Galyan is a truly wonderful first novel by a talented author. In it, we come to know Rabbi David Cohen, a Conservative Rabbi for a congregation in Minnesota. We experience with him the trials and tribulations of running a busy house of worship, balancing his work and family life, dealing with the counseling crises that come up and experiencing Cohen's personal angst that surfaces while trying to find answers to the major questions in life...as well as many of the smaller ones. Galyan tackled some gargantuan hurdles as she wrote this novel; it is approachable to non-Jews, educational for all readers and feels familiar to Jewish readers. The author has taken on the weighty issues of life and death against a backdrop of Holocaust (Shoah) survivors, as well interfaith marriage, pastoral confidentiality, Antisemitism, depression, and youthful questioning of one's background. In doing so, the author has created characters for whom I developed a true affinity and understanding.
As with any novel, I find it very hard to review it without comparing it to others. Initially, I began to see "Destined to Choose" in comparison to the works of Naomi Ragen and Dara Horn. Both of these women, who happen to be among my favorite authors, write from a Jewish perspective, and like Galyan, do not shy away from taking on challenging life issues using a Jewish world view. Like Galyan also, they do so with depth and meaning to every word. Although I was born into a secular Jewish family, I have been Episcopalian for most of my adult life. Reading books from a Jewish perspective has helped me to learn a great deal about my heritage and my own history. Additionally, I have learned to find a trail in literature to help me trace the path of my past. This past, of which I've known precious little, has been crucial to my understanding about who I am and where I came from. Jewish authors have written my past for me, leading me to the waters that nourish the piece of my soul that wants to learn more.
Additionally, I have to compare "Destined to Choose" to the "Harmony" series by Phillip Gulley. The Rabbi David Cohen novels will continue (God willing) and it is my hope they will become a series that parallels Gulley's fictional Quaker Pastor, Sam Gardner's ongoing struggles and life stories revolving around his ministry. Rabbi Cohen, like Pastor Gardner, have a cast of congregational characters I can't help but identify with. Having served on numerable church committees, I find parallels between the fictional small Quaker church in Indiana, the fictional medium sized Shul in the Minneapolis area and my own Episcopal parish in Maine. Both fictional places have caring, compassionate, funny, intellectual spiritual leaders, as does my own. All find themselves trying to be in the position of spiritual leader while being told, by their respective boards, to 'sell the church' to newcomers. I've sat through board meetings myself in which I could have taken dialogue, word for word, from either of these books and superimposed them directly into my own parish. What struck me, as I read both Gulley's and Galyan's work is how universal our experiences are in traditional houses of worship. There are going to be extremely difficult congregants who want to complain about everything. There are the inevitable loudmouths who gossip. There are those who are so resistant to change that their argument for not enacting new policies is "But, we've never done it that way before." There is also a sense of deep love, a passionate sense of community, an important view towards the congregational future, and a place of inspired spiritual learning. I smiled to myself, as I read "Destined to Choose", because I could have 'plunked' in my own church members for those who appear in the fictional synagogue. The similarities were striking.
Galyan's novel may have many similarities to 'real life' and to other novels. What makes "Destined to Choose" so unique is the fresh voice of Galyan's writing. She has a remarkable talent for weaving together spirituality, character development, educational asides and entertaining prose. This very 'readable' book challenged me to delve deeply into my own beliefs and ask myself the 'tough questions' regarding good and evil. Why does a loving God permit evil to happen? Is free will truly worth the pain it can inflict? Regardless of one's religious perspective, this is a novel that helps, not with the answers, but in truly Talmudic learning style, in teaching us to ask the questions...while still helping the reader find common ground. "Destined to Choose" is a wonderful book, and I look forward to the next one in the series.