David Kronfeld’s novel of linked stories, “Tales of the Havurah,” is set in the fictional Havurah Chaim Community in Boston, based on his experiences at Havurat Shalom, the first counter-cultural Jewish community, founded in 1968. Something of a progressive, creative, feminist, modern shteibel, Havurat Shalom inspired, among other things, the national havurah movement, and many of its members went on to become leading figures in the American Jewish community.
Kronfeld, who was a member from 1972 to 1977 and lived in the community’s large yellow house for part of that time, explores this world that has rarely, if ever, appeared in fiction. Through Solomon, the novel’s sensitive, quirky narrator with a sense of humor, Kronfeld provides an intimate view of the members’ personal and spiritual lives, mixing their interests in Jewish tradition, love and freedom, Shabbat, Eastern philosophies, marijuana, vegetarian casseroles, rock music and more.
Kronfeld wrote “Tales” after completing his doctorate in comparative literature, after he headed off to Jerusalem and Paris, knowing he had a rich topic. While he completed the novel 40 years ago, he is publishing it for the first time this summer. The following conversation is edited for length and clarity.
You’ve said, “I didn’t write this book.” What do you mean?
I’m 70 years old and already retired from a long career in business writing. But this book was written by a 28-year-old, filled with ambition, a wacky sense of irreverence and all sorts of unrealistic expectations about the future. His concerns back then, and even his writing style, were very different from mine today.
After having put this book aside for 40 years, revisiting it has been like looking back across a great chasm of time. But it’s been enormous fun to reacquaint myself with this lively young man and get back into his head-space. To borrow (and mangle) a term from Dickens, I feel like the author’s Ghost of Chanukah Future. Or maybe Yom Kippur Future.
What drew you to join Havurat Shalom?
In the early ’70s, I was in graduate school in Providence, R.I., and was desperate to get out of there. Boston was just 50 miles up the highway and still experiencing the tail end of the crazy ’60s, with its youth culture and alternative lifestyles and all the excitement that offered. And, I was friends with Rabbi Arthur Green, who founded Havurat Shalom; I occasionally visited for Shabbat and holidays. The Havurah was filled with interesting people, bursting with just the sort of intellectual and interpersonal excitement I craved. Unlike grad school, which was all in my head, the Havurah was about bringing ideas alive in the actual world.
In addition, I was going through ups and downs with my Jewish identity — a mixture of approach and avoidance — and Havurat Shalom seemed the perfect place to explore my religious side without having to buy in to any strait-laced, mainstream Jewish organization. It afforded a lot of latitude. So, I figured I could commute to Providence a few days a week, keeping my fellowship and maintaining my academic career.
The stories work on many levels: How do you incorporate Jewish symbolism and concepts, while also mixing solemnity and humor?
Judaism has a long tradition of pshat and drash [biblical interpretation], that something can be true on a literal level and also have other meanings on a symbolic level. It gives a deeper resonance to the text and the two levels play off against each other. And that reflected our consciousness in the Havurah: we lived in our quotidian realities yet were always aware of the overtones of Jewish tradition and symbols lurking in the world around us. I tried to capture that in the book. For instance, in the story “Tisha b’Av at Fenway Park,” a summer jaunt to a baseball game turns into a contemplation on exile and becomes a mystical meditation, even as the game plays out on the ball field.
As for mixing solemnity with humor, is there really a conflict? They both coexist in the human heart, and pivoting from one to the other is not always that far a leap.
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Moreover, at the Havurah, we took our Jewishness seriously, but serious doesn’t have to mean solemn. It can incorporate playfulness, too. Importantly, we loved the Jewish stuff — we weren’t making fun of it (well, mostly not), but were having fun with it. It’s one of the aspects of life in the Havurah that was so freeing.
How would you describe the legacy of Havurat Shalom in the Jewish world?
Havurat Shalom had a profound effect on American Judaism. When I grew up, most synagogues were rather formal places with the rabbi and cantor up on the stage in black robes, while the congregation sat back and watched the show. The Havurah spawned a movement across America to create havurot, some independent and some under the umbrella of synagogues, where people got together for small-group davening, which can be much more powerful and intimate than sitting in a big, formal congregation. It also promoted lay-led services, empowering regular people to reimagine services to express their own feelings and religious needs, which also got them more engaged in thinking about davening and community. The Havurah also ushered in a casualness, where you could wear jeans instead of a jacket and tie.
And, hugely, it pioneered egalitarianism. Women assumed equal liturgical roles, read Torah and were counted in the minyan — at a time when the rest of American Jewish communities rarely, if at all, let a woman even come to the Torah for an aliyah. In later years, it also became an early forerunner of places where the Jewish LGBTQ community could feel comfortable, too.