Did this book ever sneak up on me! Written in the 1960s about Jewish life in the 1940s, it has a simple style and a narrative that is hardly driven by today's standards. Chapters end with whimpers, not bangs. But the tale of two Jewish youths, the Hasidic Danny and the more liberal narrator Reuven, and their respective fathers, ends with a heart-stopping bang. It is a powerful meditation on fatherhood and its obligations.
Danny's father is the local tzadik, the head Hasid, whose central role in the community will be passed on to Danny by primogeniture. Since the boy was small, the old man has not spoken a word to Danny, except in weekly study of the Talmud. Reuven's father is a scholar, whose relationship with his son is warm, open, "modern." Reuven's father also has a relationship with Danny, which is secret to the tzadik. They meet in the library regularly, where Reuven's father suggests books for Danny to read. These are books that would never be approved by Danny's father, including the works of Freud, over which Danny begins to obsess. As the story slowly turns, the two young friends point in unexpected directions: The Hasid wants to be a psychologist while Reuven studies to be a rabbi.
Danny's becoming a psychologist will disappoint his silent father in more ways than one. For one thing, it will put the kibosh on the marriage that has been arranged for him since he was a young child, causing great embarrassment for his father. To say anything more would spoil the plot. Let me just add that this short, simple book seems like nothing much at all, until it suddenly says everything about the meaning of parenthood--especially in a world where old traditions like Hasidism are under fire where they haven't already been obliterated.