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Yeshiva Boy's Family 

Comedy and cathartic cruelty

Joshua Braff completed his first novel a good while back, but his agent couldn't find anyone willing to publish it. It was too quiet, they thought.

Then Braff wrote The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green -- and quiet it's not. It's a loud, funny, bittersweet look at a fictional Jewish family that lives in New Jersey, but it will resonate with most any reader who's ever fantasized escaping from his own flawed family.

The title character starts out as a 10-year-old yeshiva boy, attending religious school in the 1970s. Jacob has a gift for reciting Hebrew, and it makes his devoted but domineering father proud. "He reads Hebrew so beautifully it'll make you cry," Abram boasts at a neighborhood party.

But Jacob can't spell and he can't do math. He frets over imaginary problems: "If Moishe eats 4 pieces of bacon on Monday and 12 shrimp on Tuesday and 48 links of sausage on Wednesday..."

Then Jacob's brother Asher brings shame and scandal upon the family when he displays a drawing in the school library. Asher has sketched the rabbi with two creatures Jews are forbidden to eat, a lobster and a pig. Except that the rabbi isn't eating the animals -- he's engaging in lewd acts with them.

That's the end of yeshiva for the Green brothers. They're sent to public school, where Jacob marvels, "A whole morning goes by and there's no talk of plagues or slavery or the smiting of anyone, and not so much as a peep on sacrificial slaughters or pestilence."

It's when Jacob is 13, the age of Bar Mitzvah, that his father's fury reaches its peak. Abram berates his son for poor spelling in his thank-you notes. "Look at these...you wrote, "Your one of my best friends,' spelled y-o-u-r. Are you...trying to do these crappy?" You don't have to be a Bar Mitzvah boy (or girl) to laugh at the notes a devious Jacob imagines sending instead. They're full of something too-often unthinkable -- the truth:

"Dear Morris and Dora Bitterman,

"[My father] is not sitting here right now as I write this and I am so very happy about it. I might be a retard, but when he's standing over me, watching every stroke of my pen, I become a much more substantial retard...

"Thank you so much for the dartboard and the darts. Asher likes to hang pictures of people he despises on it. He then hurls the darts from very close range with a running start. He completely ruined my Hall and Oates album cover.

"Sincerely, Jacob"

Since it's the 70s, no one's really surprised when Jacob's father becomes a student of est, the trendy self-help movement. His mother goes back to school and a sexy babysitter moves in to help with the children. Jacob's voice matures and grows stronger, along with his sexual urges toward the babysitter, and his desire to leave home with older brother Asher.

Braff's pacing is so sure-handed, his dialogue so dead-on authentic, that I wanted to know more about the author than his bio revealed. So we talked by phone recently, just after he'd begun an ambitious book tour that started in California.

He explained that as a child who went to yeshiva until the fourth grade, he drew on his own life experiences for the book. "I came from a Jewish background, and I took great license with that "truth,'" Braff explained. But instead of working to avoid what was stereotypical, he decided "to turn it on its head, and go right at it." Doing so allowed him to animate his characters with comic authenticity.

Abram Green's verbal cruelty toward his family can be excruciating to read, but there is something oddly cathartic about it, too. Slowly, as Jacob learns to stand up for himself, he finds a foothold against the torrent of fatherly brutality.

Maybe all children need to disappoint their parents profoundly to create our own identities. Maybe our parents' failings teach us how to cope with an unsympathetic world; their blind spots can help us see that world more clearly. And to survive, perhaps all of us, like Jacob Green, need to think the unthinkable.

Amy Rogers is a founding editor of Novello Festival Press, and the author of Hungry for Home: Stories of Food from Across the Carolinas.

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