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Conversation with Daniel Ross Goodman

Springfield native writes literary romance novel for the Orthodox crowd

By Stacey Dresner

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PRINGFIELD – In Rabbi Daniel Ross Goodman’s first novel, A Single Life, the main character Eli desperately wants to find a frum wife. His friends try unsuccessfully to make a shidduch and Eli fears he may always be a bachelor. Eli’s quest for love and his questioning of religion and relationships take him from a Baltimore yeshiva to a Jewish high school in West Hartford where he becomes a Judaic studies teacher. Once there, Eli indulges his love of secular literature and develops a crush on a co-worker – an English teacher who is a lapsed Catholic.

Oy!

A Single Life, published by KTAV Publishing House in August, is not an autobiography, but a few bits and pieces might have been pulled from Goodman’s life.

Born in Springfield and raised in Longmeadow, Goodman, 35, was raised Conservative by his father, Alan Goodman, a personal injury attorney, and his mother, Joan Freedman Goodman, a former television news anchor, now director of lay leadership at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

His maternal grandfather, Frank Freedman was Springfield’s first and only Jewish mayor in the 1960s. 

Goodman attended Heritage Academy in Longmeadow; then went for one year to the Hebrew High School of New England in West Hartford (now New England Jewish Academy). He then decided he wanted a more religious education and began attending Yeshiva University High School in New York. He later went to Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School and was ordained in 2016.

Along the way he also got a law degree; currently he is a PhD candidate at the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Goodman spoke to the Jewish Ledger and about his novel and his own single life.

JEWISH LEDGER: So, are you single?

RABBI DANIEL GOODMAN: I’m technically single, but in a long-distance relationship. It has been difficult maintain during the pandemic. She is in Brazil. Her name is Devorah and we have been in contact since early February. Right as we were feeling comfortable getting to know each other and were like, ‘Yeah we should meet up,’ that’s when [COVID] and the travel restrictions started.

JL: Can you tell us about your Jewish education in Springfield and West Hartford?

DG: We had a great day school in Springfield, Heritage Academy. It was really fabulous, and I got a wonderful education, both secular and Judaic. In 9th grade I went to what was then the Hebrew High School of New England. So in my book you will see the high school there in West Hartford is modeled a little bit on it.

I didn’t graduate from HHNE, I ended up transferring in the 10th grade to MTA, which is the Yeshiva University High School for Boys. And so that’s where my yeshiva background really started to come in.

JEWISH LEDGER: Why did you switch
to MTA?

DG: I loved my friends [at HHNE] and I loved the area, but at that time in my life, I was in a very zealously religious space. I had not grown up Orthodox; I grew up in a Conservative household, moderately observant of some things…By the time I was about 14, I was really craving something very frum — very yeshivish — and I had a lot of conversations with my parents about really wanting to go to yeshiva. We looked at a few in Monsey but they didn’t want me to go to a place that was just a yeshiva; I also needed to get secular high school education. So they found this place, Yeshiva University High School, both a yeshiva and high school. And that worked out really well. 

JL: So what were your career plans or goals? Did you want to be a rabbi back then?

DG: I remember my first grade teacher at Heritage said I was rabbi material. I remember other people saying “You would make a good professor.” And I’ve always been attracted to study. I’m studious, that’s just who I am. 

It’s manifested itself in different ways and different directions at different times of my life so during high school when I was in my very frum years, I just studied mostly Gemara, Talmud, Jewish texts as often as I could. I really wanted to be a yeshiva rebbe, and that’s what I thought I was going to be when I was in yeshiva high school.

That started to change a little bit when I went on to YU and I started reviving my interest in secular studies again in history and literature. At that point I was thinking I would really like to teach, whether in high school or in college, but I knew that to teach in college I would need to get a PhD. 

My father really wanted me to go to law school. I figured, well okay, I might as well do that, so I went to law school at Western New England – the same law school my father went to. I finished up, passed the bar, and worked for a small independent copyright, trademark law firm in New York, but quickly realized that that was just not going to be for me.

And that’s when I found out about Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical school. That was a really great experience too. I made some great friends there. But I still felt like that wasn’t exactly the culmination of what I wanted to do; where I needed to be. I didn’t want to be a pulpit rabbi, and I didn’t want to be a rabbi in a high school. I really needed to be in a college setting. I applied to graduate programs and JTS seemed like the best option. I started a fellowship for a doctoral program in Modern Jewish Thought and Theology. I’ve been there for going into my fifth year; it should be my last year.

JL: It sounds like you are very busy with you studies; what made you decide to write a novel?

DG: I started to write fiction and publish short stories maybe five years ago now. I had never written fiction before… The novel came originally from an idea for a short story, but I realized that I couldn’t confine it to a short story alone, this was much more expansive than any work of fiction I had written so far.

JL: Did the idea for A Single Life come from your own experiences as a single person?

DG: Yes, in many ways. That’s probably been the most common question that I’ve been asked so far by people. 

For me, the stakes in dating are so much higher when you are religious and the only reason you’re dating is looking for a marriage partner. And if you think that you have found the one or you have found a person that you could see yourself with, the emotions become so much more fraught. “Will she correspond with me? How come she hasn’t responded to my emails or texts for three days?” 

You picture marriage, children and a family life together and at the moment that there’s a little bit of doubt about that, the whole image just disappears in your mind. So a lot of this is based on some my experiences in the actual world and in the emotional world.

JL: What would you say is the book’s genre?

DG: I wrote the back cover description of it and I think this is the best description … it “blends literary style, and a public sensibility with the romance tradition.’ So it is working within the romance tradition in a literary way, not like a mass-market romance you would pick up at the drugstore. More like Flaubert or Tolstoy literary romances, but also bringing in the traditions of the Jewish novel — Sholom Aleichem — and Jewish writers I studied at JTS like Henry Roth and Philip Roth and that whole tradition.

JL: Many of the characters are religious Jews and lot of the dialogue is in Yiddish and Hebrew, with sometimes a half a page of footnotes explaining them. It seems like it is for a Jewish audience, but what with all of the footnotes, do you expect a wider audience to read it too?

DG: This goes back to the intent when you are sitting down to write. I never intended anything that I’ve written in fiction to be for a particular audience But as I was writing the novel and working with the character and the way that the characters speak, it eventually became evident to me that even though I would like to have the novel read by as wide an audience as possible, the readers who will probably most appreciate this are Jewish readers with a bit of Jewish knowledge, maybe a little knowledge of Yiddish or Hebrew or both. But I put the footnotes in there so that I could attempt to make it accessible for people who do not have that knowledge.

JL: So this book is about very religious Jews. You grew up in a Conservative household, became frum and went to yeshiva. Now you are getting your doctorate at JTS, a Conservative seminary. May I ask, what do you consider yourself to be religiously?

DG: I do not like the denominational labels. I go to Orthodox synagogues and I have an Orthodox rabbinic ordination, but I would identify as shomer mitzvoth, which literally means “one who observes the commandments” (i.e., an observant Jew). That’s what I primarily identify as, because it is a more traditional label than the newly invented 19th century terms like “Conservative, Orthodox, Reform.” I don’t not acknowledge that I’m Orthodox if someone wants to label me as such, but I just prefer the term “shomer mitzvoth.”

JL: The main character sort of questions life and love and his situation. Do you think the book will speak to religious Jews who may have some of those same questions?

DG: I think it might resonate with certain people in the frum world   who do think more and question more, and who maybe keep these questions and curiosities and conflicts to themselves. So I think there are people who are conflicted with the dueling claims on them — how to deal with your sexuality when you have so many prohibitions that apply to it. How to deal with your creative impulses, when you’re compelled so often to just observe and follow. 

The book does depict frum characters like the girl Reena, who questions it enough that she goes off the dereck — off the path, and people of the religious Christian world, like Emma, who questioned it and left. 

Eli never contemplates leaving religious observance. Its more about how is he going to deal with this romantic situation in the context of his religious observance and if it would be workable for him.

JL: The ending leaves things a little bit up in the air. Do you think you might write a sequel?

DG: I will never say never…but as of now, I have no intent to write a sequel… I will finish graduate school in May and then want to teach in a college or university. And at the same time I would love to continue writing fiction and working on my second novel. My publishers were very pleased with this novel, and they invited me to do a second novel, so that’s in the works. So I would really like to continue doing both.

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