Reflections: The Bee Season

At the core of Myla Goldberg's Bee Season is the principle that true enlightenment means making your own choices despite the will of others. Young Eliza Naumann is an example of a new generation of Jewish Americans, the product of a father who broke with his secular and wholly assimilated family to become a Torah scholar and cantor. Eliza has no such deep connection to her roots, and this is the source of the novel's central tension. She cannot look to the past to find strength, but has a parent whose only source of strength is in his nostalgic rehabilitation of genealogical and mythic history.

Over the course of the story Eliza, a would-be spelling bee champion, experiences two moments of enlightenment, one false and the other genuine. Her false enlightenment stems from a dependence upon her father and his religious training to shape her raw talent. When her father takes her talent in spelling and interprets it as a sign of a special connection to God, he leads her into an improperly motivated quest for Shefa, or enlightenment. Eliza enthusiastically goes along with his study plan because she is so starved for the love and attention he has been showering on her older brother for as long as she can remember. The desire to be special, to win the spelling bee and her father's love, leads her to compulsively practice the mystic lessons her father teaches her.

Her intense commitment to a project not her own leads Eliza to send herself into a spiritual fit with very real physical manifestations. Goldberg paints the outcome in this moment of terror and pain as a moment of rebirth. The pain she experiences is "the pain of creation, of life emerging from void, of vacuum birthing being" (270). The vacuum of her life under the influence of ancient Jewish texts gives rise to the "being" of the individual who will choose her own guiding texts and ideas. In her newborn state, Eliza throws her next spelling bee, removing herself from the competition and the smothering effects of her father's will. Given the opportunity to recant the misspelling, and, by extension, her choice to go her own way, Eliza reaffirms her choice with a nod. The final sentence of the novel underlines the message: "She is sure" (274). What Eliza is sure of is that the attachment to mythic Jewish roots that created her father's identity will only bring her to destruction. According to this text, cultural nostalgia no longer serves the needs of young Jewish Americans.

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