Jews run (but they cant hide) from fold in Hour in Paradise

“She’s slipped and called herself Ilana and is calling her parents Abba and Ima. She’s been Iyervasana and they’ve been Mother and Father since the ashram because she really needed to cut that cord, that intimate Hebraic cord. But her carefully constructed new self isn’t holding together lately, the whole thing starting to come apart, and here they are again, the old names, seeping into her talk.”

In “The Lament of the Rabbi’s Daughters,” one of the short stories in Joan Leegant’s debut collection “An Hour in Paradise,” a young woman known as Iyervasana to her friends and Ilana to her family struggles to keep her Jewish upbringing from impinging upon her adult life.

Easier said than done.

It is the greatest fear and the most stinging truth for anyone who has strayed from the Jewish fold: You can never get away. Like the sound of your bubbe’s “I told you so,” Jewishness has a way of ringing in your ears even after you have left it. For better or for worse, Judaism is a nudge.

Of course, according to Leegant, the nudging is all for the best. And it isn’t just because the author is a Jewish mother of two that she feels this way.

A wide cross-section of characters in Leegant’s work find spirituality only when they feel they are farthest from it. Most of the protagonists require the apparent intrusion of some outside force to give them that gentle push back towards their own true desires, their true selves.

Leegant’s resonating narratives force us to ask ourselves: Do we like the nudging? And, more importantly, do we need it?

With careful description and an ear for the familiar, Leegant tells the story of a former street hustler turned yeshiva student whose first assigned mitzvah is to visit a bedridden AIDS patient. Upon facing the dying man, Reuven is confronted with memories of his former life and racked with guilt over his past drug dealing, lying and stealing. How can he bear to watch someone die when he is the one who deserves to suffer?

In a haze of doubt and hopelessness, Reuven decides he is unfit for a life of piety. But the words of his rebbe’s teachings keep coming back to him, and the nagging desire to try overpowers his fears of inferiority and imperfection.

These moments of mystical return and renewed commitment are the resplendent sparks that illuminate each work in “An Hour in Paradise,” whether she is imagining a bride-to-be from the Bronx, a Jerusalem widower or a Florida retiree.

With a narrative voice that is part Gabriel Garcia Marquez, part Philip Roth and part Jonathan Safran Foyer, she traverses the spectrum of modern Jewish identities to find commonalities of spirit or kavanah — that talmudic essence of intention — a yearning to connect.

It is fitting that this promising new writer should draw on an old Yiddish proverb, “Even an hour in paradise is worthwhile,” to title her collected tales. In paying homage to one of the traditions from which her work has emerged, Leegant also reminds us of something that all of her characters come to understand: Happiness does not always coincide with our expectations. The things we most deeply want might be fleeting, but sometimes all you need is a little nudge in a new direction to find them.

“An Hour in Paradise” by Joan Leegant. (160 pages, W.W. Norton & Company, $23.95).