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Reviewed by Viga Boland for Readers' Favorite
If you guessed from the title, The Rabbi Wore Bell-bottoms, that this “novel memoir”, as it’s been categorized by author Art Novak, is going to be a fun read, you are right. It’s fun, yes, but it’s also uniquely serious, and as such will have you thinking as much as laughing…a winning combination for readers looking for something different. But to completely enjoy The Rabbi Wore Bell-bottoms, it helps to be able to think outside the box that organized religions put us into at birth i.e. most of us are born to parents who, unless they are atheists, follow a religion of some kind: Catholic, Lutheran, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, just to name a few.
The narrator of this semi-memoir is Dan Berman, a Jewish member of the military who, hoping to avoid being sent to fight in Vietnam, has the good fortune to find himself assistant to the Jewish chaplain, Rabbi Weisberg, at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. Stephen is not that much older than Dan and, you guessed it, he’s decidedly non-traditional. After all, he wears bell-bottoms! Dan and Stephen hit it off from the word go and together they make the Jewish center at Fort Leonard Wood a super friendly community where the Jewish GIs can follow the dictates of traditional Jewish cuisine. Feasts of bagels with lox, corned beef and more are frequent and popular, much to the envy perhaps of other denominations who have chapels for worship but nothing comparable to a friendly community center. As the story progresses, that factor becomes a contentious issue that nearly sees the Jewish center closed down.
Complicating Dan’s life even more is his falling in love with Harriet, the daughter of the God-fearing Lutheran chaplain, who is also the Fort’s main chaplain. When Harriet’s father discovers the couple sharing a bed at the Jewish community center, all hell breaks loose. If Dan and Harriet didn’t already have enough reason to question just what organized religion should be doing for mankind, why there are so many religions, each claiming to be the one and only, and why wherever there is religion there is fighting, even war, they question it now. Dan and Harriet reflect, discuss, and reach this conclusion: organized religion shouldn’t be about keeping followers through fear of hell, but should “maximize the joy in life and minimize the pain.” As the author points out, nature has natural ways of “aiding and abetting racial and ethnic bigotry” by giving races different identifying characteristics…shape of eye, size of nose, colour of skin…but “in the case of religious bigotry, man alone shoulders the blame.” Sadly, how very true.
As mentioned above, The Rabbi Wore Bell-bottoms makes open-minded readers smile, often laugh out loud, but at the same time this novel memoir makes them reflect and think. Let’s face it: organized religions dictate our thinking and habits from a very early age but many people, as they mature, question much of what was drummed into our heads as children. Through The Rabbi Wore Bell-bottoms, Art Novak invites readers to explore the questions so many of us have about whatever religion we were born into…and makes us feel okay with the conclusions we draw. Five stars from this reviewer!