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Is this the ‘great modern Orthodox Jewish American novel’?

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Published: 9 February 2021

Last updated: 5 March 2024

David Hopen’s ‘The Orchard,’ an audacious combination of ancient Jewish sources and Donna Tartt, points a way forward for Jewish American fiction

ONE OF THE MOST famous Talmudic stories, in Hagiga 14b, concerns four sages who penetrated into occult realms where Jews are forbidden to go. In the Gemara’s words, they “entered the orchard,” the pardes, of God’s secret wisdom. As a result, one of them died, one went mad, and one became a heretic; only Rabbi Akiva “came out safely,” his mind and faith intact.

The story is meant as a warning against mystical speculation, but of course it has the opposite effect: If the punishments are so grand and dramatic, surely that means there’s some momentous discovery to be made. The only way to know if you can survive the orchard like Akiva is to take the risk.

The Orchard, David Hopen’s debut novel, is an audacious attempt to translate this ancient legend to a modern American setting. The teenage boys at the center of Hopen’s book also find themselves drawn into dangerous mystical experiments—prompted, in their case, by Evan Stark, the novel’s brooding, charismatic antihero. Any reader who recognizes the title’s allusion will know that this journey isn’t going to end well.

But the pardes is only one of many Jewish tales, texts, and ideas that go into the making of the book. Indeed, with The Orchard Hopen may have taken the boldest step yet in the ongoing turn of the American Jewish novel back to the sources of Judaism.

FULL STORY The Great Modern Orthodox Jewish American Novel (Tablet)

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