“The Right Thing to Do at the Time,” by Dov Zeller
Avid fiction readers often anticipate the next release by their favorite authors, looking forward to a familiar style and the themes they enjoy, such as mystery, romance, or intrigue.
These books sell in the millions and bear the names of major publishing houses. At the other end of the literary scale is the debut novel by a young author. “The Right Thing To Do at the Time” is one of these, published by Tiny Golem Press.
There is no murder mystery, exotic locale (unless Martha’s Vineyard counts), or happily ever after. This is a wry multigenerational story of a Jewish family, where past and present societal values coexist with varying levels of comfort.
As the novel begins, best friends Ari and Itche are attending services at B’nei Tikvah in Brooklyn. Now in their 20s, they met years ago at summer camp. Itche annoys Ari by bringing up “remember when?” incidents from their summers at Camp Tabatchnik as if they were just yesterday rather than years ago. Ari’s beloved grandmother Bubbie Pearl is about to be released from the hospital and resents her family’s plans to move her into assisted living. Ari’s mother is a writer of no renown who retreats to her study to write, while the patriarch, Abe Wexler, is a person of perpetual anxiety, complaining loudly about the state of his kishkes and downing Alka-Seltzer as if it is his favorite soft drink.
Ari is an amateur violinist, and while his teacher Mr. Kimmelman thinks he has potential and should perform, Ari is content to practice only minimally and arrange nigunim that he hears at synagogue. He works as a clerk in a music library, a job he enjoys until a new supervisor takes over. Ari’s tendency to disappear into the restroom to peruse music scores rather than reshelving them doesn’t sit well with Louis Krohn, who berates Ari on a regular basis and eventually drastically reduces his work hours.
In need of a steady income, Ari finally responds to Kimmelman’s request that he take a look at a large collection of music manuscripts of nigunim collected in Europe. The collector wants to hire someone long-term to transcribe the manuscripts, create a website, and record some of the melodies. One of Ari’s most satisfying days is the day he can give his two week notice at the library when Krohn comes to him with yet another demeaning conversation. While at first Ari feels inadequate for the manuscript project, as he does in most situations, he is well-suited to the tasks required, and eventually collaborates with others to create a gallery opening of artifacts and audiovisuals related to the collected music, and he performs selections on the violin. The project gains him some prestige with the family, and allows Ari to have a deeper relationship with Bubbie Pearl. Bubbie has gradually adapted to life in assisted living and has made friends there, and she and her friends help Ari translate the Yiddish lyrics and descriptions from the nigun manuscripts.
The romantic side of life is more complicated than average for Ari because he is transgender. Born as Alana, he always showed an interest in what were traditionally boys’ activities and attire. The Wexlers never had much concern about this, since it seemed less of a problem than things such as drugs or criminal behavior, so Alana was allowed to transition to Ari with his parents’ general consent. He now takes hormones and lives as a man, but the family and many people at synagogue know he is transgender and tend to bring up the subject when the conversation turns to relationships. Between his gender concerns and anxious nature, Ari sometimes asks for advice from his butter dish, which cooperates in having conversations with him.
Ari and Itche have a platonic but very close relationship together, but both are also looking for a romantic relationship as well, though neither one is sure what gender of person they should be looking for. At one point Ari thinks he would like a relationship with Helen, while Itche has his eye on the exotic Talia, but when the two men separately find out that Helen and Talia have always been secretly in love with each other but never admitted it, Itche tries to play shadchen and fix them up. As the book draws to a close, we find that Helen is interested in Ari and not Talia, and whether or not Ari and Itche are actually the perfect couple is still up in the air.
The novel has 98 footnotes, conveniently placed at the bottom of the pages rather than in the back, defining or explaining the many Yiddish words, and a few terms related to the transgender community. The blurb on the back cover bills the novel as a “Jewish queer New York City retelling of ‘Pride and Prejudice.’” I hope readers won’t be put off by the contemporary gender themes, because in the end this is an entertaining look at the challenges faced by the generations in any family, with a detailed Jewish backdrop.