Imagine, if you can, a novel that imbues pot roast, green beans and scalloped potatoes with Gnostic import not just evoking the aroma of Sundays past, with their old orderliness, aloof from all disruption, as in Marilynne Robinson’s last novel, Home, but embodying specific doctrinal precepts and divine mysteries. Reason recoils. Yet, in the philosopher-novelist Rebecca Newberger Goldstein’s latest work of fiction, 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, the rotund and orotund Jonas Elijah Klapper, the Extreme Distinguished Professor of Faith, Literature and Values at Frankfurter University (think of Brandeis), proposes the traditional Jewish Sabbath meal of cholent (bean and potato stew) and kugel (pudding) to his overawed grad student, Cass Seltzer, as a worthy dissertation topic. And he’s not kidding. All of the dishes have kabbalist significance, he tells Seltzer. The tzaddikim, or righteous ones, proclaimed that there are profound matters enfolded in the kugel.
Klapper, a Jewish walrus in a shabby tweed jacket and the author of The Perversity of Persuasion, among other masterpieces, is given to staring upward as he orates, letting the riches of his prodigious memory spill forth. He is evidently a caricature of Harold Bloom or someone uncannily like him. He is also, Seltzer regretfully concludes, going off the deep end.
Only a year into his Ph.D. program, Seltzer watched his guru throw over Matthew Arnold for Yahweh, trading the ethereal embrace of academe for the meaty bear hug of his Hasidic brethren at America’s only shtetl, an upstate New York community called New Walden. Named for the town of Valden, in Hungary, New Walden happens to be the place where Seltzer’s mother grew up. She left the village and raised her family in a non-kosher, non-Sabbath-observing home, but Klapper persuades Seltzer to rekindle his Valdener ties and wrangle an invitation to a members-only feast at the rebbe’s table. It is after this memorable meal that Klapper orders his disciple to explore God’s indwelling immanence through the intriguing mystery of the kugel Seltzer balks. There’s no way I’m writing a dissertation on the hermeneutics of potato kugel he protests.