The Orchard


One can only imagine the combination of fear and excitement that Aryeh “Ari” Eden, the protagonist of The Orchard, felt as he was uprooted from his greyscale life in Borough Park, Brooklyn to move to technicolor Zion Hills, Florida. The move from a Hasidic Brooklyn neighborhood, home for the first 17 years of his life, to a Modern Orthodox suburb of Miami, with no idea what it had in store, was a sheer thrill for young Ari—and the reader.

David Hopen started writing The Orchard during his senior year of high school. Though Hopen is a native of Florida, this book is not autobiographical. It is simply a powerful story he felt he could tell about a community in American society that, in his words, is often neglected.

There are two main portrayals of Jews in modern media, but The Orchard does not conform to either. There is the exoticized image of Orthodoxy, frequently seen in pop culture in the form of TV shows like My Unorthodox Life (on Netflix), which often puts Jewish faith on display in a negative light. Then there is the secular, typically self-hating or disconnected Jew, as seen in You People (also on Netflix), who disrespects the religion and culture often for comedic benefit.

While the portrayals of the religious communities in Hopen’s novel are not without flaws, they are shown with more nuance than in other recent cultural works shedding light on religious Jews. Tellingly, all of the characters in the story articulate an appreciation for Judaism, even the ones that may not be the most religiously inclined.

Before his move, Ari spent his life in a K-12 yeshiva in Brooklyn called Torah Temimah, where the rabbis refused to teach any modern Hebrew, advanced math, or science. From a young age, his mother would take him to the New York Public Library, where he educated himself on the great works of classical literature. He read Shakespeare, Elie Wiesel, Mark Twain, and many others,but other than his frequent library visits, his life felt a little dull. In the beginning of the book, looking back on his life, he proclaims, “It took me all this time to realize that this amounted to a beautiful life.” Yet when his father lost his job in New York and was offered another in Florida, Ari embraced the change. He felt no remorse leaving his childhood home, friends, school, and life behind.

In Florida, Ari starts his senior year at a Modern Orthodox school, where he meets new friends: Noah, the school’s golden boy athlete; Oliver, a slacker and pothead; Amir, one of the most religious and academically focused kids in the school; and Evan, the mysterious genius with a very close relationship with the headmaster of the school, Rabbi Bloom. Noah, who lives across the street from Ari, takes him under his wing, and all at once Ari is immersed in a high school social life that is completely foreign to him.

Suddenly he is going to parties, talking to girls, drinking, and playing basketball—things he couldn’t have dreamed of in Borough Park. Ari undergoes a transformation, some of which is natural growth that may have been suppressed in his previous environment, and some perhaps extracted by his new surroundings and the people that inhabit it.

The Orchard is a fabulous book about change, morality, and love. It does a remarkable job of sharing an American coming of age story and explaining the added complexity of Orthodox Judaism. It is a story guided by a kabbalistic fable through momentous changes in the lives of five adolescent boys. It is a beautifully written narrative that takes the reader on a wild ride that is joyful, sad, funny, serious, suspenseful, romantic, has heroes and antiheroes, is triumphant and defeatist, and will leave you wanting more.

Mr. Ocean Timmins is a homeschooled rising senior. He resides in Brooklyn, New York.

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