“Life is a Double Negative,” A Review of Joshua: A Brooklyn Tale

There are no heroes in Joshua: A Brooklyn Tale. There aren’t any villains, either. The story takes place on too personal a scale for such lofty classifications to be applicable. What there are are people, just regular people, doing the best they can to make a life for themselves and find happiness, nothing grander than that. In fact, Joshua isn’t even really a story. It’s a psychological depiction of several people as their lives intersect, and while there are conflicts that are resolved, there is no build toward a climax, and the resolutions aren’t neat. That said, it’s an interesting picture.

The anchor of the book, written by YU alum Andrew L. Kane, PhD, is Joshua Eubanks, a black man growing up in Brooklyn in the latter half of the 20th century. At the beginning of the book, Joshua and his mother, Loretta, have just moved from the poor black neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant into the more upscale, and whiter, Crown Heights. The impetus for their move is Loretta’s concern that Joshua grows up to make something of himself instead of becoming a no-life bum. Her fears are founded, since Joshua spends most of his time on the streets, running errands for a suspicious character named “Big Bob”. Luckily, Loretta’s plan to move to a better neighborhood is assisted by her employer, Alfred Sims, a wealthy Jew who left his faith behind in his zeal to achieve success and acceptance from “the WASPs”, and unbeknownst to any save himself and Loretta, Joshua’s father.

But Joshua squanders his new opportunities, skipping school to play hooky (and other things) with his classmate’s sister, Celeste Williams. Eventually, Celeste runs away from her abusive father to work as a prostitute for Big Bob, and Joshua, desperate to find her, goes to her family to report on his search, only to be attacked by a furious Mr. Williams, and is forced to kill Mr. Williams in self-defense. Thanks to Alfred Sims, Joshua has a good lawyer, who is able to keep his punishment to a few years probation. His probation officer, a kindly Lubavitcher Chasid, gets Joshua a job assisting the custodian of a synagogue in Crown Heights to serve out his time and earn some money on the side.

Meanwhile, Alfred’s son Paul, unhappy and lonely despite his privileged Long Island life due to his parents’ neglect of him and constant bickering with each other, has grown closer and closer to the Lubavitcher Rabbi hired by Alfred to teach him for his Bar Mitzvah. Paul is begrudgingly allowed to spend a Shabbos with Rabbi Weissman’s family, and finds a sense of belonging in the Lubavitcher community that he never had at home. Ultimately, Paul begins to adopt Orthodox Jewish practices, and when his school threatens to expel him for violating school rules by wearing a head covering, Rabbi Weissman convinces Paul’s parents to allow him to attend a yeshiva in Crown Heights, and recognizing that they are at a dead end, the Sims’ agree. Paul is pleased to be allowed to live in the Lubavitch community, not only because he feels comfortable there, but because it gives him the hope of one day being able to pursue the hand of Rabbi Weissman’s beautiful daughter, Rachel.

Rachel herself seems to be an upright, ideal Chasidic daughter. But she struggles with her desire to become a doctor, a desire that clashes with the sensibilities of her community, as well as with the expectations of her parents, who have no other children, and in her father’s case painful memories of the Holocaust, leading them to pin all their hopes and dreams on her. Despite their misgivings, Rachel convinces her parents to allow her to intern at a hospital, and all seems to be going well, until Rachel and a friend of hers are accosted by two Irish kids. Luckily for them, Joshua happens to be walking by, and he is able to hold off their antagonists until help can arrive. Although Joshua suffers permanent damage to one of his legs as a result of his heroism, ensuring that he will need a cane for the rest of his life, he earns the everlasting gratitude of the Weissmans, and over his convalescence, strikes up a friendship with Rachel.

The book then follows the rest of its principle characters’ lives, primarily Joshua’s and to a slightly lesser extent, Rachel’s. Joshua cleans up his act and gets into college, where he studies law and meets a radical professor of ethnic studies who will shape his future career. Rachel, blaming herself after her father has a heart attack upon finding out that the boy she had been matched with called off the shidduch after finding out that she wanted to go to medical school, gives up her dream and agrees to settle down and marry as a good Chasidic woman should, only for tragedy to strike time and again as it becomes clear that she is unable to carry a child to term, resulting in the collapse of her marriage. Through it all, Joshua is there to comfort her and be her friend, and although both want more, they are bound by the biases of their communities to go no further, and even the relationship they do have comes at a cost. And Paul, now going by Pinchas, begrudgingly accepts that he will never be able to marry Rachel, although his obsession with her lingers and leads him to neglect his own wife. In his zeal to fit in with the Chasidic community, Paul finds himself a part of a Chasidic effort to cleanse the neighborhood of black residents, and is a firsthand witness to the accidental deaths of two black children which led to the bursting forth of all the racial tensions running through the novel: the 1991 Crown Heights riots.

Although the novel doesn’t work toward any particular purpose, it doesn’t have to. It succeeds in painting a picture of Brooklyn’s various ethnic groups and the tensions that crackle between them, particularly the Lubavitch and black communities. There is a sense of doom hanging over the events of the novel, as the narrator consistently highlights when an event or action will lead to future consequences. In fact, the book begins with Joshua staying with Rachel to protect her from the rioters in 1991, and only then goes back 30 years to trace how they both got there. It’s the relationship between those two people, the black man and the Lubavitcher girl, that serves as a microcosm of the problems with race relations in Brooklyn. Indeed, the several riots, beatings, and civil rights cases that the novel addresses, even the Crown Heights riots themselves, are used more as illustrations of the obstacles facing Joshua and Rachel than as significant events to be detailed and explored.

Unfortunately, the novel falters somewhat under its own weight. Several characters receive some focus and personal development, only to be dropped, such as Paul’s mother, whose self-hatred and guilt over her treatment of her son are made clear, but who is not so much as mentioned once Paul moves to Crown Heights. Or Paul’s wife Chava, whose resentment of her husband and jealousy of Rachel are made clear through glimpses, but are never properly resolved. Even Paul himself takes something of a backseat to Rachel and Joshua throughout the second half of the novel, coming to serve more to illustrate the reactionary attitudes of hard-line Lubavitch elements than as a full-fledged character.

But the core of the book, Rachel and Joshua’s relationship, is solid, and holds up through everything that faces them, Rachel’s disappointments and Joshua’s obstacles within the black community that he serves. Their unconsummated longing for each other is touching, and both Rachel’s dissatisfaction and ultimate resignation with her lot in life and Joshua’s struggle to navigate between his duty to the blacks and his personal sense of justice are well-developed and impactful. After a rocky start to his life and so much effort having gone toward giving him opportunity, it’s satisfying to see Joshua do well for himself, as satisfying as it is painful to watch Rachel’s hopes and dreams come to nothing.

Ultimately, the book doesn’t really end so much as finish. Rachel’s final fate is too small-scale to even warrant being called tragic. Paul’s guilt over what he’s made of his life is left unaddressed, and while Joshua’s future is intimated, it’s left undefined. The time-span that the novel is covering simply draws to a close, and that’s that. At best, the characters just try to stand up for what they believe in and do their best to deal fairly with others. At worst, they are selfish schemers, consumed by their lusts. The only actions in the novel that lead to anything good happening for someone are the rare moments when real concern is shown for another, such as Rabbi Weissman’s honest interest in Paul’s well-being, or Joshua’s probation officer giving him a chance and not writing him off as a hood with no future. These moments are few and far between, but all the more precious when they’re found. The portrait painted of Brooklyn is of an area with a lot of sad history to overcome, but one that’s home to enough decent people to make some difference. All the reader can do is hope that the characters make the best of things and end up happy somehow. That’s life, isn’t it?