By Jeffrey F. Barken/JNS.org
Hungry at night, salivating for raw meat, following his nose, Greg Samstag is becoming a werewolf. Ira T. Berkowitz’s new novel, “A Wolf in the Soul,” adds a new twist to this classic theme in the horror genre, featuring a native Long Island Jewish boy who is at odds with his affluent family and increasingly troubled by his exceptional animal instincts.
As Greg combats the werewolf in his soul, his faith is tested. Soon he embarks on a path of spiritual discovery, consulting alternative medicine to cure a bizarre case of acne: facial pimples that sprout silver hairs when the moon is full. Fleeing trouble at school, he flies to Israel—where he delves into the study of Talmud, only to discover that he must return to the U.S., face his family, and find a way to accept or overcome his condition.
“I’m not from a religious family myself,” Greg says, reflecting on his upbringing early in the novel. “But my parents sent me to a yeshiva day school because my father likes traditional Jewish things like Chanukah and potato knishes with mustard, and my mother wanted me to get some Zionism and Israeli culture.”
Greg’s parents’ involvement in Judaism is meant to enrich their son’s experience, but when coupled with their secular practices, it only serves to confound his thinking. He is critical of ritual, saying, “I don’t keep Shabbat because I don’t believe in it! Because it makes no sense to me to commemorate the creation of the world by using liquid toothpaste instead of Colgate!” Yet Greg is sensitive whenever he feels singled out or ridiculed for being a Jew. “I wasn’t going to let them insult the Jewish people,” he tells his younger sister, Jen, after getting in a fistfight with two boys who mock his appearance and Shabbat practices.
Berkowitz deftly portrays the difficult crossroad of Judaism and contemporary life in America, a context in which members of the Samstag family are suffocating. Greg’s father, Jeff, is a well-to-do investor, a materialist who feels closest to God only when he is on his sailboat. Greg’s mother Vered, on the other hand, often puts the “do not disturb” sign she stole from a hotel outside her office, indicating a depressive mood in which she dwells on her past. Confiding in his parents proves difficult, yet expectations are clear. Greg will attend Columbia University in the fall. Later, when Greg is away at school, Jen calls often, reporting on their parents worsening marital crisis.
Throughout the summer preceding his matriculation at Columbia, Greg seeks escape from nearly everyone in his life. He distances himself from his childhood friend, Joey Tawil, who is leaving to study at a yeshiva in Israel, and he seeks solitude in the park.
“After a sulky dinner with my parents,” Berkowitz writes from Greg’s perspective, “I usually returned to the nature preserve… I gave myself over to my senses: listening to the rustling of my feet through last autumn’s leaves and inhaling the smell of salt water that rose from Liggett’s Channel… There, amongst the trees, stones, and weeds, I felt a great, inchoate longing.” Greg’s wolf instincts have been unleashed. Strangely, his awakening vulpine qualities and subtle animal telepathy attract the attention of stray dogs who want to smell, lick, and chase him. Some even offer him their scraps of foraged food, including a slain kitten.
Such episodes echo throughout the book in some of Berkowitz’s most descriptive and imaginative prose.
“As I grew a little older, I began to see light,” describes Greg, imagining first opening his eyes as a wolf pup. “In a few more days, I could discern things: where my mother was and where she wasn’t; my littermates (four of them); my father and my two older siblings. Milk was soon replaced by meat. We leapt at the faces of the older members of my family, licking their mouths. Then the meat they had eaten—warm and fragrant—came back up for us.”
Just like in a Jewish family, life in the wolf pack centers on eating. Greg’s daydreams and nightmares, however, portray an existence where food is regurgitated by his parents, and shared with his siblings. Later imaginings reveal the thrill of hunting bison and deer.
At its core, “A Wolf in the Soul” is a story about a young man’s search for acceptance and the trials that boys undergo while attempting to assert their individuality and independence. Greg’s father has powerful sway over him, reminding his son on a soul-searching trip in Israel that his bar mitzvah money “won’t last very long.” Reality is always a hard chew—that is all the money Greg has to his name, should he follow through with his plan to drop out of college. But the rest of his father’s advice is unwitting and impersonal.
“Remember who you are,” he says before leaving Greg at Columbia University for the fall semester. Readers will be painfully aware that this shallow remark stirs the teenager’s emotional complex and is uttered by a man who is oblivious of his son’s physical crisis. Greg is unsure who or what he is.
At 460 pages, the book is a trifle long. Greg meets so many teachers on his path toward religious observance and spirituality that some readers will grow weary of the philosophy-laden chapters that contemplate Jewish thought and ritual. But the larger theme of becoming a werewolf and defying one’s vicious, animalistic tendencies is exciting. Something new and unexpected takes place on every page of the novel, scenes are vivid, and it’s easy to sympathize with all of the characters.
“A Wolf in the Soul” reads fast and is difficult to put down. Readers drawn to adventure and horror themes, and curious to gain a glimpse into Long Island Jewish life, shouldn’t wait for a full moon to grab it.
“A Wolf in the Soul,” by Ira T. Berkowitz, Leviathan Press (January 2014), 460 pages.
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