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Moving novel offers a window into lives of religious faith

Joy Comes in the Morning, By Jonathan Rosen, Farrar, Straus, & Giroux,, 389 pp,,$25

At a time when best-selling books on the religious life include bombastic visions of the apocalypse or religion as grand conspiracy, Jonathan Rosen's new novel, ''Joy Comes in the Morning," is a minor miracle. It arrives much like the way birds appear to the characters in the book: with a delicate wonder, not as swarming locusts or many-horned beasts.

The novel is the story of Deborah Green, a Reform rabbi who is as natural comforting a dying woman as she is yelling profanities in traffic. While she often works hard to stay true to herself as both a modern woman and a Reform Jew, the call of tradition is strong. Deborah is more observant of Jewish custom than are many of her peers, and she seems intuitively aware of the presence of God. And God seems to be aware of her. From one scene to the next, Deborah is greeted with serendipitous moments. These eventually take her into the life of Lev Friedman, whose stroke-victim father, Henry, has tried to commit suicide.

Lev makes a living as a science writer, but he is also a kind of melancholy seeker who returns to his father's side after Lev discovers a suicide note. It's a call to Lev to not only recite Kaddish, the Jewish mourner's prayer, but to try to discover what mystery, if any, lies beneath the tradition. Quickly, Deborah and Lev find themselves involved romantically, and in other ways as well. Lev looks to Deborah for religious instruction. Deborah sees in Lev an anxious soul to heal and a glimpse into a more empirical perspective on things. This isn't a novel with a densely twisting plot. It's a book of characters who want both God and the world, while each of these two things often seems to expunge the other. For both Deborah and Lev, doubt becomes a kind of spiritual condition.

Rosen is a master of internal monologue, the voice we usually keep to ourselves. At times the characters' voices are a bit self-conscious, and Rosen has a habit of tipping his hat to the reader. There is also little description of the external world the characters live in, except when the characters themselves notice it. Yet these moments reveal the very faith both Deborah and Lev struggle with. Just when the silence of God seems too much to bear, the existence of a bird becomes a wonder that, it seems, only God could have devised. In this way, Rosen provides a much-needed glimpse into authentically religious lives. His book is a window into the heart of faith, both its joys and its sorrows.

With this novel, Rosen is starting to carve out his own place in the tradition of the Jewish American writer. And there are indirect nods to his influences. In a scene reminiscent of Philip Roth's nonfiction book ''Patrimony," Lev finds himself having to clean up after his father, who has lost control of his bowels. As he kneels in front of Henry's soiled naked body to wash him, he looks up to see his father's humiliation and despair, clouded by stroke. Lev wants so much for such service to his father to take on religious meaning, but after it's all done, Lev has a different kind of realization: ''And he understood that God, however much He might or might not exist, played no role whatsoever in human affairs."

As the novel progresses, we see Deborah perform her rabbinical role with intuition and grace. Often in the presence of death, she believes this is where she can be of most service. Eventually it's death that leads her to question not only God's role in human affairs, but God's existence. It's not a very Jewish problem; for much of the tradition, the question of God's existence has been less important than one's own duty to God and the law. But Rosen makes it a Jewish question by fashioning authentic characters who yearn for meaning, even as they embrace the prosaic things of the world.

Rosen's novel is a book about death. But it's also the story of how unrealized forms of love rise to the surface when we find ourselves nearer to death than we might have expected to be. This is a deeply moving story. Rosen has a profound ability to describe those intimate moments of people struggling to love each other.

Rosen doesn't offer theological solutions. His characters aren't vehicles for his own religious convictions, whatever they may be. Deborah, Lev, and their family members all have unique relationships with whatever they believe in, and at moments, it is nothingness. But this belief in nothingness isn't nihilism. It's a call to be even more responsible to the world, as we might very well be here alone. Deborah rises as a kind of hero, because she finally understands that faith and doubt are not incompatible. Even on days when God is nowhere to be found, there are still weddings to perform, the sick who need comfort, and the dead who need to be buried.

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