Having an Affair with your Synagogue


In the new novel The Invitation, by Anne Cherian, a successful computer engineer invites his three best friends to his son’s graduation from MIT. His friends accept, and then immediately regret it. Their jobs are insecure, their families are unstable, and their lives are falling apart–not exactly the things you want to share at what promises to be a brag-a-thon with an old friend.

The set-up of The Invitation is one that could apply to almost any tightly-connected immigrant group, especially groups with a tendency to overachieve. In this case, the main characters are Indian-Americans.

One of the invited guests, Lali, isn’t just coming to Massachusetts in order to celebrate with her old friend: She’s taking a breather from her marriage to Jonathan, a Jewish man who’s been rediscovering his roots–and, in the process, isolating her.

It’s interesting to read about Jonathan’s Jewishness and their courtship from the point of view of the non-Jewish partner. “When they started dating, he told her the only thing Jewish about him was his name,” Cherian writes. Later, Jonathan and Lali move in together, and Jonathan notices that Lali keeps separate cutting boards for milk and meat. “You don’t have to,” he tells her; but she explains that in India, it’s a common practice. Now, more than a decade into their marriage, when he starts attending synagogue regularly and keeping Shabbat, she tells her best friend: “I know he’s not having an affair, but it feels like he is.”

While at MIT, Lali gains some longed-for distance and alone-time. It doesn’t reconcile her with her husband, but it helps her realize that maybe it’s not a bad thing for Jonathan to get in touch with his own heritage–and it’s not a bad idea for Lali to do the same.

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