Set in the year 2000, Faith for Beginners follows the Michaelson's, a typical middle-class Jewish family from Michigan, who decide to holiday in Israel on the eve of the Millennium March. The Michaelson's aren’t particularly religious, approaching their sojourn with an eccentric mixture of benign hesitation and traditional duty, but they hope that the spiritual reverence that encapsulates this part of the world will perhaps rub off on them. The trip is fraught with concerns: Helen Michaelson worries about her husband, sick with lymphatic cancer, and Jeremy, her youngest son who just won't assume any mantle of responsibility.
Both Helen's sons are gay. Her eldest, Richard, much to Helen's relief, has settled down with a nice Asian man, but it is Jeremy about whom she worries the most. Decidedly rebellious, abashedly promiscuous, and cynically ambivalent towards his Jewish heritage, Jeremy provides Helen with most of her headaches; he dyes his hair green, courts a safety pin in his nose, loves to drink and take drugs, and has just survived a lackadaisical suicide attempt by smattering thirty-two Valium over an ice cream sundae doused with vodka.
When Helen reads a story in Detroit Jewish News about young people who find themselves while on "Missions to Israel," Helen hopes that Jeremy will gain a sense of piety on this trip, perhaps even obtain a sort of spiritual enlightenment, a natural high from all the "deep whiffs of holy air and hot sand." Helen, deep down, dreams of some sort of transformation for her son. It's not that he wishes he wasn't gay – although she does wonder how she ended up with two gay sons - it's just that she wants Jeremy to get a sense of his place in the universe, even "shed a tear or two, and then perhaps get on and finish his bachelor's degree."
Life for Helen hasn't exactly been a tragedy, only a bit quiet for someone who once dreamed of living boldly. She is frustrated with her husband's chronic illness and tired of feeling lonely. The certainties that she had counted on from religion, marriage, her husband, her house, and her children have all but failed her, leaving her only a nebulous connection to her faith and a vague desire to reconnect with the land of her heritage.
Jeremy is also frustrated and disappointed, deeply critical of the old world, its antiquated values, and its attitude towards homosexuality. Although he already knows many of the rules of Orthodox men, he realizes he could never be like them - rather a "manic-depressive homo" than some sort of prophet, forever stuck in the ways of the past.
Author Aaron Hamburger tightly distilled focus is on Helen and Jeremy. During their holiday they certainly don't discover God, but Helen finds comfort in the arms of Rabbi Sherman, his "expert hands, and thick studly arms lined with dense fur" sexually exciting her beyond her wildest dreams. Jeremy, meanwhile, hooks up with George, a deaf Arab boy who takes him on an adventure into the Old Quarter's Palestinian section, seducing him with his apolitical naivety, his sexy ways, and his kindly eyes.
Hamburger's gift is his mordantly humorous descriptions of the Jewish and Arab worlds, living unsettlingly side-by-side, always on the frontlines of war, where time flows constantly from the past into the present and the future, and where every conversation inevitably turns to politics. This is a world where Orthodox Rabbis care more about two-thousand-year-old laws than about people, and where those in the Arab quarter are forced to live in squalor, dislocated and disenfranchised from their ancestral homes.
The novel sparkles with witty dialogue and is packed with eccentric characters: there are the overly zealous, pointy-breasted tourist operator; the closeted young Rabbi, who yearns to dress in Western clothes; the head of a religious school who fiercely embraces the capitalistic West; the young Muslim mother who refuses to eat anything other than Arab food, and the world famous Rabbi, Orthodox preacher of Biblical catastrophe.
The strength of the story is in Helen and Jeremy's deeply ironic journey toward acceptance of each other, their familial dramas played out with subtly and intuition. Helen and Jeremy are often stunned by what they see around them, paralyzed by the heat, shocked at the economic inequality, and puzzled by the strange amalgam of tradition and modernism. They are often left to their own devices, and throughout the course of their holiday are forced to confront some difficult choices. Both undeniably Western and deeply cynical, neither Helen nor Jeremy can ever quite come to terms with this strange and inscrutable country where "normal is often crazy and crazy is often normal."