L.A.-based writer Aimee Bender is one of the world’s masters of magical realism. Her first two books of short stories, “The Girl with the Flammable Skirt” and “Willful Creatures,” both featured characters — mostly women — dealing with extraordinary circumstances in quite ordinary ways. For example, the girl who treats her potato babies like normal human infants. Her novel. “The Peculiar Sadness of Lemon Cake,” was a stretch on the genre, taking the unrealistic story of a girl who can taste the emotions of the people who make her food and making it the underpinning of an otherwise realistic story of family discord and loss.
Bender’s latest book, “The Color Master” is a return to the short-story form that made her famous. But even the most fantastic stories contain a certain sobering reality. The characters are more and more human, picking up their kids from school, stressing about aging, and dealing with infirm relatives. In two of the standout stories, “The Doctor and the Rabbi” and “The Fake Nazi,” Bender deals with Judaism in a head-on, direct way that she’s never done before.
In “The Doctor and the Rabbi,” Bender’s titular doctor, an atheist, is charged with caring for a rabbi who has a blood disease. He gives her weekly transfusions from Hindus, Buddhists, Christians and atheists, waiting to see if the new blood will cause her to think differently about her religion. Despite her healing, the rabbi remains a rabbi — and even encourages the doctor to pray with her.
The synagogue nearest to my new house is the second-oldest in Los Angeles. Recessed from the street in the largely Hispanic neighborhood of Highland Park, it’s so small that it nearly looks like a house — albeit one with lovely stained glass windows. The Rabbi, who used to be a dancer, seems to have brought new life to the place, but the congregation is still so small that it can’t support a traditional Hebrew school. The shul “has roots in conservative Judaism” but is unaffiliated.
I know all this because as soon as I moved from the west side to the east side of Los Angeles, I Googled the heck out of the place and, of course, did a drive-by. I’m intrigued, and I’m curious, but I haven’t been inside Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park and Eagle Rock, and I can’t decide if I want to.
Oh, not this old chestnut again, you’re thinking. But listen. We all know that non-Orthodox American Jews are increasingly uninterested in synagogue attendance and membership. We’ve seen the studies. Only 7% of conservative and reform synagogue members are between the ages of 18 and 34, according to a 2010 survey, and that number doesn’t exclude those college kids who are still on their parents’ memberships. What percent of post-college but pre-parenthood Jews belong to shuls, let alone take interest in them? Surely the number is tiny.
But I’m open. I want to be sold on a shul. I’ve already visited most of the conservative synagogues in the Los Angeles area and, for one reason or another, found them wanting. I’ve come to realize that what I want in a shul assuredly does not exist, which is why I’m avoiding setting foot inside the walls of my new neighbor.