‘Bee Season’ by Myla Goldberg (2000)

16Jan06

With Bee Season, Myla Goldberg delivers a rich, sensual novel that explores a breadth of subjects including religion, language and familial relationships. Goldberg creates four distinct characters with very different worldviews, each on his or her own spiritual journey.

Aaron and Miriam seem to be on similar though diverging paths. Eliza’s spelling practice replaces Aaron’s guitar lessons in his father’s study, a time during which Aaron became acquainted with Judaism and prepared for his bar mitzvah. Ousted from the study, Aaron experiences a crisis of faith. At the beginning of the novel, Aaron is hyper-conscious of his body, sensitive that his body has not fulfilled the potential that his masculinity promised: he’s too pale, too thin, too weak, too small. Thus, in his exploration of religions outside of Judaism, he is drawn to ISKCON because of its emphasis of transcending the physical constraints of the body. Rather than transcending his body, Aaron reconstructs his understanding of his body through his religious experiences through Krishna. Once a source of embarrassment, his body becomes the ultimate instrument with which to praise god. The services at the ISKCON temple involve movement and expression with the body, and Aaron’s return to Beth Amichah prompts him to note that god should be worshiped through motion and not sitting in a chair.

Conversely, Miriam seeks a connection to her body or what she conceives of as her body or whole self. Miriam understands herself to be fragmented and describes the objects that she steals as pieces of herself. By “reclaiming” the pilfered goods, she strives to put herself back together. As an expectant and new mother, Miriam dislikes the baby’s demands on her body. Breastfeeding is particularly difficult for her because the baby is taking something from the body she strives to rebuild. Perhaps sex becomes appealing to her during her abstinence from breaking into houses because she feels as her body is being augmented in a way, even if sex is only a simulation of the feeling of reclaiming a piece of her “kaleidoscope.” Judging by Saul’s observations of his wife’s body during these encounters, Miriam does not derive any kind of sexual pleasure.

Aaron’s relationship to language acts as a gauge of his connection to a religion. During his studies with his father, Aaron masters his Hebrew pronunciation, which elicits a compliment from the rabbi on the day of his bar mitzvah. Performing the services in Hebrew that day evokes Aaron’s second experience of god, an experience which to him feels like an actual communion with god. However, Hebrew does not allow him a recurrence of that experience — he performs his part in services automatically, not needing to consult a prayer book for guidance, and plays “sheep” with Eliza. His distance from the language increases when he observes that he does not know what the words he says during services mean, merely how to pronounce them. While Aaron does not know the meaning of the words that he uses during ISKCON ceremonies, his lack of understanding does not concern him because he feels connected to god whenever he says them.

Saul and Eliza’s journeys are more closely connected. Saul’s spiritual path seems very much shaped by his father withholding his Jewish identity from him. Similarly, Eliza sees potential in his path to the national spelling bee because success at spelling could enable her to obtain something that Saul has withheld from her: his being proud of her for any reason but especially for her intelligence and academic performance. When Saul finally recognizes his daughter’s potential, he sets his daughter on a path that he had to abort because of his shortcomings. Besides her spelling ability, Eliza shows an understanding of language superior to her father’s in her ability to detect lies. Aaron notes several times his surprise at his father’s ignorance of his lying. Eliza always knows when Aaron lies and she knows her father lies when he fibs about Miriam after her arrest.

Saul is a character whom the reader both dislikes and pities: dislikes for his manipulation of his children and pities for his inability to attain his spiritual goals. Saul reminded me of a failed child prodigy in a way, in that he seemed to have greater success as a youth and young adult but his potential dried up and his success tapered off. Despite all of his aspiration to become a great spiritual leader, he only managed to be a dorm-room prophet, using his accumulated knowledge of mysticism to seduce young women and achieving spiritual transcendence only through the facilitation of drugs. He realizes the limitations of his collegiate and post-collegiate activities but never ascends higher than a cantor at a temple in his quest for transcendence through Jewish mysticism. Saul recognizes his children’s potential to continue the path that he started. With both Aaron and Eliza, he manipulates them into following a spiritual path: the safe haven from bullies that Saul offers Aaron becomes training for his bar mitzvah and the study help that Saul gives Eliza becomes conditioning for communing with god. Instead of offering obligation-free parental attention, Saul only offers his attention on the condition that the time ultimately results in his child fulfilling a part of his unattained spiritual path, i.e. Aaron becoming a rabbi and Eliza mastering Abulafia’s ladder.

Of the four characters, three have biblical names. In the bible, Aaron is Moses’ brother who leads Moses’ people in building an idol while Moses is up on a hill talking to God and the idol, of course, angers God. Naming the character Aaron as she does perhaps Goldberg alludes to Saul’s placing his faith in the wrong child: he expects Aaron to achieve the highest position in Judaism but ultimately Aaron “betrays” him by joining ISKCON. The biblical Miriam was Moses’ sister, I think, and one of the women who found him floating in a basket on the Nile. She was a prophetess and suffered from leprosy. This biblical characterization of Miriam as a prophet causes me to wonder if Goldberg is suggesting that her Miriam isn’t so crazy after all. And Saul is the first king of Israel whom God replaces with David because he broke God’s rules. Saul is a rather pitiable figure in the bible because God ousts him from his position for rather trivial reasons, including showing mercy to people in battle and not waiting to make an offering to God before heading into battle. Goldberg’s Saul has the namesake of his uncle Solomon, also a biblical king who was known for his wisdom. The combination of these two names describes Goldberg’s Saul rather aptly: he aspired to and was expected to attain wisdom but ultimately failed in a rather pitiable way. Eliza is the only Naumann name with no biblical counterpart, perhaps to accentuate her otherness in the family. “Eliza” is pretty similar to “Elijah,” who was an important prophet in the bible.

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