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Identity, Longing, and Desire Propel Award-Winning Novel about an Interfaith Affair

In February, “The Evil Inclination” won the Grand Prize in the prestigious North Street Book Prize competition, beating out more than 1,800 competing entries worldwide.
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April 3, 2024

When Lev Levitski decides to skip shul on Shabbat morning for the first time in his life and stay home in quiet contemplation instead, his mother responds harshly. Already breaking protocol by sitting on the hard plastic slip-covered couch in the living room the Levitski family only visited on rare special occasions, 20-year-old Lev tells his mother that he simply doesn’t feel like going to shul that day. Equally hard and as emotionally slip-covered as her couch, she barks back. “What? Since when has being Jewish had anything to do with how you feel?”

Author Daniel Victor describes the moment in his novel, “The Evil Inclination”: “Lev had walked in its ways, but he’d never asked himself whether that was, in fact, what he wanted to do. It hadn’t occurred to him that he might even form an opinion about observing halacha. He’d behaved like an automaton, performing the repetitive tasks expected of him without question until that moment when he just didn’t feel like it.”

With this insight, Lev, whose name means “heart,” is catapulted into a wholly and unholy fall from grace, going “off the derech” (path) from  Orthodoxy. Intellectually gifted in Torah and Talmud study, Lev had never before stopped to question his contentment with his life. But two days after his mother shoos him off “the world’s most uncomfortable couch,” Lev allows himself to ogle a beautiful Italian Catholic young woman named Angela sitting in front of him in an economics class at Brooklyn College. She’s wearing a miniskirt, low-cut blouse, high boots and full make-up that she fiddles with during class. Lev invites her for coffee, and though from different religious cultures, and even speaking different languages in certain respects, they are drawn to one another. The worldly, experienced “Italian Catholic chick,” as Angela calls herself, delights in initiating Lev into a torrid sexual relationship that both must keep secret from their respective families and friends.  

In February, “The Evil Inclination” won the Grand Prize in the prestigious North Street Book Prize competition, beating out more than 1,800 competing entries worldwide — quite a feat for a debut novel. Author Daniel Victor grew up Reform, became Orthodox after college, practiced law for 40 years, and has been writing prodigiously for the past six years. He has also been studying Talmud daily during the current daf yomi cycle. 

Victor told The Jewish Journal that his novel is not a morality tale, but one he hopes will prompt discussion about the metaphor of the “derech,” common parlance in Orthodox circles. “Most Orthodox Jews are familiar with the phenomenon of  modern Orthodox men or women, raised by warm, supportive families and receiving strong Jewish educations, who nevertheless abandon Orthodoxy in young adulthood,” Victor said. “Why does it happen? Perhaps it’s the power that the metaphor of the ‘derech’ exercises. If there is but one ‘path’ for observant Jews, then an all-or-nothing concept for Jewish observance contributes to young Jews leaving the fold. Once their resolve weakens, they see themselves as having failed and surrender to guilt or to indifference. Similarly, the idea that the Evil Inclination lurks, waiting to exploit our weaknesses, contributes to the disaffection of young Jews by undercutting individual agency and relieving individuals of responsibility.”

Each of the novel’s nine sections begins with a Talmudic passage that relates lessons and allegories about the Evil Inclination, referring to the lure of forbidden sexual enticements, and the herculean efforts needed to resist them. As Lev Levitski finds out, when one’s spiritual footing begins to slip, resistance is futile.

Angela is one of the most memorable characters I’ve come across in a novel.

As Lev and Angela’s sexual and emotional entanglement grows more intense, their secret becomes known, and the stakes are raised dangerously for each of them in their communities. Angela is one of the most memorable characters I’ve come across in a novel: at once crude, volatile, shameless, smarter than she at first appears, with hidden depth and humanity. She surprises and annoys Lev by beginning a self-study on Judaism from a quirky book she buys called “How Strange the Jews.” The more Lev pulls away from his Judaism to justify the affair, the more Angela begins quoting the book, asking increasingly probing questions that catch him out inconveniently. 

“Rabbi Dr. Erwon Arkadi says there are blessings for almost everything in Judaism,” she reads to him in the dumpy apartment they borrow for assignations. “There’s a blessing for when you see a rainbow; for when you hear thunder; for when you see lightning; for when you see the ocean. There’s even a blessing for when you see a really beautiful woman.”

“That’s right.”

“Did you say that blessing when you first met me?”

“No.”

“Why not? . . . You remembered to say the ‘I-just-went-to-the-bathroom’ blessing, but you couldn’t remember to say the ‘she’s a knock-out blessing’ when you first met me. I think something may be wrong with you.”

In fact, Lev evaded answering Angela truthfully because another guilt-inducing Talmudic passage about women had just intruded into his thoughts — as it often does in the novel. These Talmudic passages are a distinctive addition of serious Jewish content in the plot line. 

As a Shabbat-observant reviewer who is sensitive about how “off the derech” characters are portrayed, I found “The Evil Inclination” riveting, realistic, and thoughtful. Angela is complex and foul-mouthed yet often funny, discovering hidden yearnings for a spiritual center. Lev is a decent, well-meaning, intelligent young man who does not know how to stop his fall. He has no address to bring his reasonable questions about the role that personal feelings play in living a religious Jewish life. He scapegoats his insensitive mother to justify abandoning a tradition and family he loves, including a kindly if ineffectual father and several endearing brothers. Victor wasn’t sure how the story would end when he began writing it and allowed the characters to “tell him” what they were going to do next. When he got stuck on character or plot issues, he researched the appropriate section of the Talmud thematically, “and it often offered me a solution to the logjam.” 

Though the book isn’t autobiographical, readers have told Victor they wonder if he ever did have an “Angela” in his life, because they find her so believable as an Italian-Catholic young woman. Christians, and Catholics in particular, seem to love the novel, he said, identifying with Lev’s struggle more than with Angela’s. 

Even as Lev and Angela’s relationship grew increasingly stormy, I was not prepared for the ending, so I am eager for Victor to complete the sequel, which will follow these characters into the future. He also has plans to publish a novel about a young Orthodox couple in the throes of first love, as well as a completed collection of Jewish themed short fiction. 

In “The Evil Inclination,” Daniel Victor explores some of the toughest themes of the human condition, including how a love affair can propel a crisis of identity, faith, and love. He has done so with skill, and with lev — heart.


Judy Gruen is the author of “Bylines and Blessings,” “The Skeptic and the Rabbi,” and several other books. She is also a book editor and writing coach.  

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