A Wolf in the Soul
Ira T. Berkowitz
Writing for audiences perhaps more familiar with werewolves from Harry Potter or Twilight, Ira T. Berkowitz takes up the pen of magical realism to tell the story of a modern Orthodox Jew, Greg Samtag. Greg, a mindful adolescent, navigates his transition from communal expectations to adulthood and, perhaps, a fraught independence. Members of the modern Orthodox community will recognize in Greg—perhaps through our friends if not in ourselves—the pressures of prestigious colleges, along with the temptations of a minimalist religious life. The same people who might discuss the state of the Orthodox Jewish community, throwing around idealized, ideological terms like “social Orthodoxy” or “Orthopraxy,” can benefit from a book that offers a refreshingly real look into the life of a typological Orthodox Jew. And then there are werewolves.
Fantasy novels, firmly planted within realistic communal worlds, can explore and examine serious topics that otherwise lie beneath the surface, without contrived reflective stances on everyday experience. Like in the Korean film, The Face Reader (Han Jae-rim, 2013), our story focuses less on the details of fantasy and more on its very real psychological and social effects, which touch on nearly universal themes of acceptance, family, and belonging. We hear from a wide variety of perspectives, from the scientific to Kabbalistic, without any single explanation or world view handed down by authorities providing easy answers to either Greg’s or our own questions.
Along with the fantasy’s genre’s inherent exploratory benefits, Berkowitz uses its entertainment value to keep his character examinations intriguing, prompting a loose comparison to Hesse’s Der Steppenwolf. The stories contain a rare combination of autobiographical and psychological exposition and development, and feature similar narrative arcs. We follow the main character as his animalistic, distinctly wolf-like nature lives in conflict with his better angels. Much like Hesse, who was influenced by Eastern philosophy, Berkowitz focuses both on inner conflict and also the possibilities of transcendence and wholeness that lie on the other side of a turbulent and rolling river, forded only at length and whole-heartedly. This is not a story of an idealized “Ba’al Teshuva” type that has been popular within Orthodox circles since the 1970s, but rather a kind of fictional expansion on aspects of the “famous” fourth footnote to Rav Soloveitchik’s Halakhic Man: an individual passing through a long, winding path of uncertainty, trouble, and loneliness before finding inner peace. Wisely, A Wolf in the Soul emphasizes these authentic, essential aspects of personality development while making them much more interesting through the use of werewolves. The perhaps magical, perhaps spiritual forces at play are skillfully told in such a way that does not chafe against the very real word populated by subway stops, pizza, and credit cards.
The book also offers an implicit critique of modern Orthodox Jews and their communities, which is not terribly difficult—people who live their lives aimed at two targets rarely hit both squarely. The attempts at both spiritual and material success without clear prioritization are well captured in this book, along with the many, wryly familiar foibles and contradictions. “Prep schools for people who have two sets of dishes,” Greg reflects on his high school, which we might recognize as any Tri-State area “yeshiva” high school, often gearing the entire experience towards rigorous preparation for a prestigious college, while also attempting to instill a mastery of the Talmud, the essential – at times impenetrable – text central to Jewish religious life.
Prestigious colleges remain the focus of these adolescent lives, where even in Israel, Greg’s yeshiva’s study partners are quickly identified by the institutions from which they would have graduated. Columbia University, in particular, manages to dominate the initial sections of the book more thoroughly than Harvard casts a shadow over Eric Segal’s The Class, a particularly impressive feat. I suspect that this is intentional, just like Greg’s abysmal study habits and apparent aversion to setting foot in the Butler library. What was the (thankfully for readers, highly condensed) college fuss all about, during those high school years? What was the point of it all? Caught up in other people’s visions, Greg’s initial lack of direction illustrates how people can be pushed into situations without inner drive to pursue the attendant possibilities. How he “grows up,” displays the agency to choose his own goals, and how he pursues them form a basic narrative arc that fits the bildungsroman genre, as we see a young person receive the education and formative experiences that they needed to draw out their true inner potential.
Greg’s sudden flashes of insight into things outside of himself and into reflections of himself must be consciously channeled inward during the final, and most rewarding, chapters of the book. This most significant character development has less to do with transformation into a wolf and more with the choices that Greg makes. Greg is a reluctant hero, born into material success, but poor in emotional stability or depth, and only rogue biology or poorly understood mysticism prompts him to better ground himself in self-knowledge. This pushes him out of a comfortable cocoon whose sickly embrace threatens to smother him. We follow the honest and convincing, at times emotionally self-destructive, paths taken by Greg, learning from the foibles of other characters, who too reflect the confusion of real people caught between impulses and ideals, both legitimate and contradictory. In the end, we see the full arc of a psychological journey, and along the way enjoy some running with wolves.