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  • Written by Aaron Hamburger
  • Format: Trade Paperback | ISBN: 9780812973204
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Faith for Beginners

A Novel

Written by Aaron HamburgerAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Aaron Hamburger

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An acclaimed short-story writer has created a miraculous first novel about an American family on the verge of a breakdown–and an epiphany.

In the summer of 2000, Israel teeters between total war and total peace. Similarly on edge, Helen Michaelson, a respectable suburban housewife from Michigan, has brought her ailing husband and rebellious college-age son, Jeremy, to Jerusalem. She hopes the journey will inspire Jeremy to reconnect with his faith and find meaning in his life . . . or at least get rid of his nose ring.

It’s not that Helen is concerned about Jeremy’s sexual orientation (after all, her other son is gay as well). It’s merely the matter of the overdose (“Just like Liza!” Jeremy had told her), the green hair, and what looks like a safety pin stuck through his face. After therapy, unconditional love, and tough love . . . why not try Israel?

Yet in seductive and dangerous surroundings, with the rumbling of violence and change in the air, in a part of the world where “there are no modern times,” mother and son become new, old, and surprising versions of themselves.

Funny, erotic, searingly insightful, and profoundly moving, Faith for Beginners is a stunning debut novel from a vibrant new voice in fiction.

From the Hardcover edition.


Chapter One


1.HENBANE, or “SHIKARON” (“intoxication” in Hebrew). When ingested, induces a state of deep, colorful hallucination and finally a very pleasant death. Most common plant in the Wall.

2.PODOSNOMA. Roots can crack rocks to draw out water.

3.SICILIAN SNAPDRAGON. Prefers high altitudes.

4.HORSETAIL KNOTGRASS. Antidote for snakebite and the evil eye.

5.THORNY CAPER. Makes an excellent marinade for roast chicken.

6.PHAGNALON. Small and shy.

It was an intolerably hot morning near the end of June. A mother, father, and son named Michaelson floated on a cruise ship off the coast of Haifa, along with the other 251 members of the Millennium Marathon 2000. As they approached the harbor, their ship was briefly turned back by a black military helicopter, chartered to reenact the drama of Holocaust refugees sneaking into Palestine during the British Mandate. The Michiganders offered a light round of confused applause, and as if by command, the helicopter instantly swirled away.

Sweaty, bleary-eyed, and a bit deaf from the chopping of the helicopter, the Michaelsons collected their luggage and duty-free bags and streamed down the gangplanks with the other Michiganders. Aliza, the rabbinic intern, tried unsuccessfully to lead their group in a chorus of “Jerusalem of Gold.” Her lavender song sheets fluttered down the side of the boat into the murky green water of the harbor.

On dry land, they received commemorative T-shirts with a handprint-shaped outline of their state and the message “THE Millennium Marathon 2000! What’s good for the goose is even better for the Michigander!”

“Isn’t that a riot?” said Mrs. Michaelson, fifty-eight years old and often called handsome. She held a shirt up to the chest of her bored-looking son, who clearly did not think it was a riot. Her husband, busy emptying his nose into a hankie, had no opinion. And to tell the truth, Mrs. Michaelson herself didn’t think it was a riot either. She was distracted by the heat as well as the realization that this was the first time she had ever set foot in Asia.

Before she could explore the continent further, their group was confronted by three air-conditioned buses, two unlicensed Russian photographers, who were chased away by the police, and one rabbi. His name was Rabbi Sherman, but he encouraged them to call him Rabbi Rick. He looked younger than Mrs. Michaelson had expected—though actually in his forties, he could have passed for thirty-five—and more attractive than any rabbi had a right to be. He was also unusually hairy. The top of his head, his arms, his hands, the back of his neck, and even his feet, peeking through the gaps in his brown leather sandals, were all covered in black wool.

Rabbi Sherman, riding in the first bus of their caravan, led them to their hotel, which boasted a commanding view of the harbor. Mrs. Michaelson took it in alone on the terrace after dinner. A sultry breeze blew in from the purple water of Haifa harbor, where the crescent moon was reflected as a series of white dashes on the waves. Within minutes, her dress was sticking to the skin under her arms and along the neckline.

Clutching an empty wineglass, Mrs. Michaelson closed her eyes and imagined she was having a religious moment. A trickle of sweat inched its way down between her breasts; a mosquito tickled her ear. “It’s so late. . . .” she murmured.

A high, sharp voice, like a seagull, cried out, “Who’s there?”

Someone moved in the shadows. Mrs. Michaelson made out the wide smile first, a wall of chiseled white teeth. The smile belonged to a short, sharp-chinned woman with pointy elbows jutting out of a glittery tissue-thin shawl. She padded up to Mrs. Michaelson in her bare feet.

“Sherry Sherman,” said the stranger, her right hand thrust forward like a gun.

Mrs. Michaelson, who wasn’t the type to accost strangers minding their own business, gave a bored smile, as if she were placing her order at dinner. When she smiled, her kind gray eyes pressed together so tightly it was impossible to see into them.

“I’m sort of a den mother to you folks,” Sherry said. “Rabbi Rick and I live together in Tel Aviv. No, no, nothing like that. Of course, I’m much too old for him. And there’s one more small matter: he’s my son! By the way, your dress is stunning. Did you find it in New York City? I hope you don’t mind spilling all your secrets.”

“This?” Mrs. Michaelson said, holding out the material so that Sherry Sherman could admire the workmanship more easily. “It’s just something I made. The pattern was easy.”

“You made it?” said Sherry, fluffing her tight curls with the tips of her fingers. She was bony and spry like a cat, not a bit like the tall, strapping rabbi, who plodded ahead of their group with his shoulders thrown back like the Great White Hunter. “I don’t know anyone who still sews. Maybe a button, not a whole dress. You really made it? Now that’s special. But aren’t I interrupting? I heard you talking to someone.”

“I wasn’t talking to anyone . . .” said Mrs. Michaelson, who talked to herself so often that she’d had plenty of practice making excuses.

“Hush! Do you feel that breeze? That’s a typical Middle Eastern cooling breeze blowing in off the Mediterranean. Take a moment to let it soak into your skin.”

Mrs. Michaelson took a moment, but didn’t notice anything particularly special about the breeze. Chatty women made her feel like the chubby, soft-spoken girl she’d been in grade school, always dressed in stiff, frilly dresses suitable for antique dolls.

“You’re here for an adventure. Am I right? In that case, I’ll have to keep my eye on you to see how it turns out. If only I could visit Israel for the first time all over again.” Sherry sighed, then recited, “ ‘If I forget thee, Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning.’ That’s from Psalms.”

“I’ve heard that one,” Mrs. Michaelson said, smashing a mosquito on her neck.

“ ‘In Jerusalem, everyone remembers he’s forgotten something, but he doesn’t remember what it is.’ That’s by Yehuda Amichai, one of our great poets.” Sherry stared directly at Mrs. Michaelson, who looked away, back at the harbor. “You seem to have a case of the jitters, dear. It’s natural. I see it in all you first-timers, especially Americans. Listen, I’ve lived in Israel for six months, so I’m something of an expert now, and I can tell you we’re far safer here than in the States. Street crime’s practically unheard of. Death by tourism? Extremely rare.”

Mrs. Michaelson preferred not to dwell on morbid subjects like death. Someday she would die but, thankfully, when it happened, she wouldn’t be around to know about it.

“If we change how we live, then the terrorists win,” Sherry said with a firm nod. “You’re far more likely to die in a horrible car crash at home than by a bomb in an Israeli marketplace, but do you stop driving? No. You minimize the risk by wearing a seat belt, which, thanks to Ralph Nader, is now standard in all vehicles. Rabbi Rick and I have decided to vote for Nader in November, but he’d never tell you that, because my son makes it a point to stay out of American political debates. Can I ask why you’re holding that wineglass?”

“To calm my nerves” would have been the honest answer. At dinner, Mrs. Michaelson had slipped it into her purse when her son wasn’t looking, in case one of the waiters forgot her warnings and filled the glass by accident. She’d imagined the resulting scene: Jeremy grabbing the glass of wine in a fit of weakness, downing it in a single greedy gulp, and then falling to the floor, where he’d lie twitching like an epileptic.

But how to explain all that to Sherry Sherman, who said, “Oh, I see it’s a sore subject. I never pry,” and padded away.

For two weeks, their troika of air-conditioned buses trekked up and down the Holy Land, from the snows of Mount Hermon (no snow in summer) to the sandy wastes of the Negev (hot, poisonous winds, and dreary scenery).

Mrs. Michaelson applauded for an orchestra of Russian immigrants playing Gershwin at a kibbutz in the Galilee, though she didn’t really like Gershwin. Too showy.

She ate pita pounded thin and then toasted over an open fire by Bedouins in a desert camp in the Negev.

“Good?” they asked.

“Good, good!” she reassured them.

She watched Mr. Michaelson, who’d mysteriously dropped the title “Doctor” when he got sick, rape the Holy Land of its souvenirs: heart-shaped blue-glass eyes, inflatable camels, Dead Sea mud masks, a book of Golda Meir’s favorite falafel recipes, an antique Roman coin that came with a certificate of authenticity.

She received a welcome kit with a miniature cake and an airline-size bottle of kosher red wine (she confiscated Jeremy’s bottle while he was in the shower), a Millennium Marathon Daily Bulletin photocopied on goldenrod paper, and a plastic bottle of from sand to land sand, which Jeremy dumped into her glass of wine one night at dinner to prove he wasn’t the least bit tempted to steal a sip.

She pressed flesh with the mayors of Tel Aviv, Rishon Le-Tzion, and Eilat, where their hotel offered free samples of peppermint foot lotion, which she used to massage her bunions.

She witnessed a phalanx of ten women dressed all in black standing by the side of the highway near the Megiddo junction. Perfectly silent and still, the Women in Black carried signs in Hebrew, English, and Arabic calling for the end of the “occupation.”

She quickly learned the two ways to say “No thanks, I’m stuffed” in Hebrew, a matter of life and death in a country where tourists were apt to be pelted with unwanted extra helpings. The first expression meant “I’ve had enough to eat.” The other, which wasn’t particularly nice, meant “I’m so full I’m going to explode like an Arab.”

She clipped a photo of Ehud Barak from the International Herald Tribune, because he looked exactly like her father when he’d been Barak’s age. Back then, her father woke up at six a.m. to work at his grocery stand, then came home late, his hands chafed raw from washing vegetables in ice water. She loved him, but she used to hate touching his hands.

She posed for a picture beside a camel tied to a parking meter and invited Jeremy, standing a few feet away from everyone as usual with one of his cigarettes, to pose too. And, just for the picture, could he take out the safety pin he’d seen fit to stick through his nose? (There was nothing they could do about the green stripes in his hair, though by pretending to pat him on the head, she often managed to smooth out the sharp edges of his “faux Mohawk,” a pyramid of hair cemented with gel.)

It wasn’t a safety pin.

“It looks like a safety pin,” Mrs. Michaelson said. “What’s the difference?”

Jeremy pulled at the metal, stretching out his nostril. “This is sterilized. Also, for your information, camels aren’t the least bit biblical. They weren’t domesticated until six hundred years after Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”

At times like this she saw some of her own awkwardness in him, and she couldn’t help laughing.

“Why do I open my mouth?” he said. “You never listen to me anyway.”

So Mrs. Michaelson stood alone by the unbiblical camel, blinked away the beads of perspiration dripping into her eyes, and claimed to be enjoying herself. She recalled the dignity of the Women in Black silently protesting near Megiddo and imagined that by taking the picture she, too, was staging a silent protest.

As soon as the camera flashed, several charming Bedouin boys jumped down from the olive trees and came running at them, shouting, “Money! Money!”

Mostly she sweated. Miserably. They all sweated. Everywhere the Michiganders traveled, guides and drivers and souvenir hawkers told them how unlucky they were to visit Israel during a sharav (Hebrew) or a hamsin (Arabic), a blistering heat wave. These hamsins (most Israelis preferred the Arabic word) scalded the Levant every summer, but there hadn’t been one this bad in a while.

“We didn’t have one so bad for maybe fifty years, giving or taking,” said Baruch, their Israeli driver, as they churned along Highway 1 from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. She preferred Baruch to Igor, who stank of dill. Beside her snored Mr. Michaelson, leaking threads of drool from the corners of his mouth. She was so glad to see him enjoy a good sleep, she didn’t care how he looked. Jeremy sat four rows behind them and pushed up his hair. He’d caused a sensation that morning by pinning his name tag to the zipper of his camouflage cutoffs.

“The last time we had such a hamsin, it was a few weeks after our War for Independence,” said Baruch, his shirt unbuttoned down to his navel. He was always trying to impress her by careening around the edges of sheer cliffs or aiming their bus at fruit stands in picturesque stone alleys. “I was a boy, but I still remember everywhere there was shooting and crazy men with guns in their hands.”

“Terrifying,” she said as if she cared, but she’d heard so many hamsin stories by then, they blended together. She was surprised there was no commemorative T-shirt.

“That’s only the start, my dear Shoshana.” Baruch always called her Shoshana, Hebrew for Rose, though it wasn’t her name. “In a hamsin, a man can get all turned around. Normal becomes crazy and crazy becomes normal.”

Mrs. Michaelson had dreamed of exactly that kind of transformation for her son when she’d signed them up to visit Israel. No luck so far, and now they had only five days left before they returned home. She felt ashamed when she thought of how naïvely she’d pushed them all to come, and at such expense.

Their bus grunted uphill, slouching beneath a heraldic banner across Highway 1: Peugeot welcomed them to Jerusalem, Mrs. Michaelson’s final, though perhaps best, hope. If Jeremy was going to find himself, where could be more fitting than the capital of the Jews’ home turf?

Almost fifteen years earlier, Mrs. Michaelson had transferred her two boys to Jewish Day School after an economically and educationally challenged African American boy had punched Jeremy’s older brother, Robert, in the jaw at recess. Robert went about religion in the same methodical, businesslike way he went about everything. Jeremy, however, decided at the tender age of six that he wanted to become a prophet. He’d dress up in a white beard and black robe and quote passages from his Children’s Bible to point out the family’s sins. For example, they washed milk and meat dishes in the same sink, and ate swordfish, which in infancy had scales like a kosher fish should but then lost its scales in adulthood. He began wearing a yarmulke to meals and then all the time. After his bar mitzvah, he attended an Orthodox shul and wore a wrinkled cotton shirt with fringes under his clothes.

From the Hardcover edition.
Aaron Hamburger|Author Q&A

About Aaron Hamburger

Aaron Hamburger - Faith for Beginners

Photo © Anthony Palatta

Aaron Hamburger is the author of the short-story collection The View from Stalin’s Head, for which he was awarded the Rome Prize by The American Academy of Arts and Letters. He was awarded a fellowship from the Edward F. Albee Foundation and won first prize in the David Dornstein Memorial Creative Writing Contest for Young Adult Writers. His writing has appeared in The Village Voice, Out, Nerve, and Time Out New York. He teaches writing at Columbia University and lives in New York City.

From the Hardcover edition.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Aaron Hamburger
Francine Prose is the author of A Changed Man,
Blue Angel, and The Lives of the Muses.

FRANCINE PROSE:What attracts you to the theme of cross-cultural

AARON HAMBURGER: Growing up, I often felt like an outsider
and an observer, so that when I first traveled outside the United
States, it was a welcome surprise to be in a situation where I was
supposed to feel that way. I also found that when I came back
from traveling abroad, I had a new appreciation for the unique
qualities of place in the seemingly boring, placid suburb where
I’d grown up. I think these clashes of culture are great opportunities
for revealing character and for instigating growth and
change, essential qualities for fiction.

FP:Why do you refer to the main character as Mrs. Michaelson
and not Helen?

AH: To suggest the importance of formality and good manners,
which are Mrs. Michaelson’s guiding principles. She believes
that if everyone would just behave and say “please” and “thank
you,” we’d have a better world. Of course, she’s right. If everyone
obeyed the rules, we wouldn’t have terrorism, drug abuse, or
murder, or other unpleasantness. Her problem is she can’t comprehend
why it is that so many people choose not to say “please”
and “thank you,” or choose to engage in behavior that’s harmful
to themselves or to others. Another reason was that I enjoy the elegance
of formality in fiction. I love that there are certain characters
we think of only as “Mr. Darcy” or “Madame Bovary.”
“Fitzwilliam” and “Emma” just don’t have the same ring to

FP: Who were some of your influences in writing the novel?

AH: I always have to laugh a little when people ask how autobiographical
my work is because when I write I’m much more
conscious of books I’ve read than of people I’ve known. This
book is my love letter to upper-middle-class literary heroines
like Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and Evan S. Connell’s Mrs.
Bridge, and E. M. Forster’s Mrs. Wilcox, Miss Schlegel, and
Mrs. Moore. I value their common sense and goodwill as well as
their earnest desires for everyone to play fairly with one another.
That impulse seems all the more noble to me because
most people don’t want to play fair. They’d rather get the upper
hand than play fair, and these middle-class women have benefited
from their husbands’ investment in the class system. But
instead of just enjoying their good fortune, the women above
try to, within certain bounds, rectify injustice. With Mrs.
Bridge, it’s more of an internal struggle, yet all the women
grapple seriously with morals and ethics, and in their own limited
ways try to build a better world.

FP: Each chapter begins with a small anecdote or legend about
Israel. Why did you use that device?

AH: Because for me, a fundamental part of visiting Israel is the
difference between the dream of Israel and the reality of the
place once you’re standing there.
I’d grown up with images of the Middle East that were inspired
by the hokey illustrations in children’s bibles and by
Charlton Heston movies. Somehow I imagined that in Israel,
life would be more meaningful and inspired, that there I’d be
surrounded by idealistic pioneers and shepherds who’d invite
me to break bread with them under palm trees and sing hymns.
But modern Israel feels strikingly ahistorical. In contrast to Europe,
for example, it’s much more like America, with the usual
fast food shops, ads for blue jeans, and pop music playing full
blast everywhere you go. It can be disappointing if you’re expecting
religious inspiration at first glance. So for me, the anecdotes
juxtaposed with the text were a way to give the reader the
experience of disjunction between the fantasy and reality of Israel.
Also, as the book goes on, the anecdotes get increasingly
dark and even violent, which I hope gives a sense to the reader
of the darker turn the plot takes as well.

FP: How did you get into the heads of the different characters?
Were any easier to write than others?

AH: I tried to invest each character with some aspect of myself
that I could use as a way into them, so that no character ended
up being simply a villain or an object of scorn. I also tried to
think about people I’ve met, not only in Israel but also in New
York, especially the immigrants from the Middle East and their
attitudes about life.
I suppose everyone will think that the young man is me and
the parents are my parents, and nothing I can say will dissuade
them. But what actually is autobiographical in the book is the
father’s illness. My father was diagnosed with cancer when I
was in college and has been living with it for more than ten
years now. It’s a terrible burden for him to suffer, though thankfully
he’s been in relatively good health lately. Still, the shock of
seeing my father with a potentially mortal illness has been difficult
for me as his child to accept, especially because he has
been such a forceful presence in our family. Also, it’s hard
watching him try to manage the discomforts of his disease as he
gets older. In writing this book, I wanted to explore how one
deals with the idea of one’s parents’ mortality, and then by extension,
one’s own mortality.
My father was also responsible for how I shaped the character
of Mr. Michaelson in a different way. When I was a very
young writer, I used to write a lot of things directly inspired by
my family. My father would read my work and complain, “You
always make me the villain. Just once can’t you make me look
good?” Of course I can’t tailor my fiction to suit every reader’s
feelings, but my father did tap into something there. We’re not
used to reading about gentle fathers in fiction. The gruff, old
dad-knows-best model, both as an object of veneration and of
scorn, is much more comforting. But in this book, it’s the
mother, Mrs. Michaelson, who drives this family, economically
as well as spiritually.

FP: Have you gotten any surprising responses to the book so far?
AH: I’m always pleasantly surprised by the various reactions to
my work. I thought everyone would fall in love with Mrs.
Michaelson, but a surprising number of readers really like
Jeremy more.
So far, the most surprising and telling reaction for me has
been to the cover. I showed it to a Palestinian friend of mine,
who said, “I guess it’s alright if you want to appeal to a certain
sector of the population.” I asked her what was wrong with it,
and she said, “Why does the book held by the young man floating
in the Dead Sea say ‘Israel’ instead of ‘Palestine’?”
At that point, I hadn’t even noticed what the book’s title
said because the lettering was so small, but it was the first thing
that stood out to her. I think that gives an idea of how much
tension there is about this subject matter.

FP: Your first book was set in Prague, this one was set in
Jerusalem, and now you’re working on a novel set in Berlin. Do
you ever think you’ll write something set in the United States?

AH: I think every book I write is set in the United States, in the
sense that the U.S. dominates the world in a way no other country
has in a very long time, not only with our military might
but also with our culture, our way of life, our ideas, our way of
doing business. And with the Internet, our influence only increases.
This year I’m living abroad again, and I’ve noticed how
different the experience is from how it used to be. I read the
New York Times online, just as I used to at home. I can email
all my friends, every day if I want to, and send digital pictures
home seconds after they’re taken. I go outside and buy Diet
Coke and eat sushi or Pringles and hear Madonna’s songs playing
in cafes. The advertising is filled with English words. The
TVs and theaters are filled with American movies. So, I think
it’s getting harder and harder to get away from the United
States, even if you want to, and in a way, you can actually see
the U.S. a bit more clearly from a distance.



“Aaron Hamburger takes a deceptively simple situation–an American family visiting Israel–and spins a rich, complex, often profound comedy about religion, sex, politics, and love. He has an excellent eye and ear for the absurd, but more important, genuine sympathy for the hopes and confusions all people share under our cartoon surfaces. And nobody has written a better mother and son.”
Christopher Bram, author of Lives of the Circus Animals and Gods and Monsters

“Aaron Hamburger elucidates a truth about the search for faith: that the journey forward is seldom blissful. In Faith for Beginners, Hamburger peoples a volatile political setting with a handful of characters pursuing transcendence–through culture, through mortality, through the spirit, through the flesh. For Hamburger’s seekers, what transpires is risky, chaotic, and surprisingly tender. For his readers, exhilarating.”
Dave King, author of The Ha-Ha

From the Hardcover edition.
Discussion Questions

Discussion Guides

1. Why do you think Helen Michaelson is always referred to as
“Mrs. Michaelson”? What does this suggest about her character
and her values?

2. Why do you think each chapter begins with a quote or anecdote?
What do they add to the story? Which was your favorite?

3. Do you think this is a political story? If yes, what do you think
the book’s political view is?

4. Faith for Beginners shows three sets of mothers and sons:
Jeremy and Helen, George and his mother, and Rabbi Rick and
Sherry. How do these relationships differ from one another?
Which do you think is the healthiest?

5. Have you ever been on a directed group tour of a foreign
country? Compare your experience with the Michaelsons’ experience
on their “Mission.” Do you prefer traveling by yourself
or in a group? Why?

6. Were you surprised by Rabbi Rick’s relationship with Mrs.
Michaelson? How do you account for it? Do you think she
makes the right decision in the end?

7. What do you predict will happen to George after the book’s

8. One of the themes in Faith for Beginners is the difficulty of
communication. Trace this theme through the book and come
up with as many examples as you can of its impact on the characters.
Do these difficulties have resonance for you in your own

9. What is the significance of the book’s title? Who do you think
are the spiritual “beginners” in this book?

10. Late in the novel, Jeremy decides faith is something to do
rather than something to believe. Do you agree? Why or why

11. Though Hezekiah's water tunnel is a real place, its use in
the book recalls the metaphoric use of the Marabar Caves in
A Passage to India by E. M. Forster. Did you see the tunnel as
a metaphor and if so, for what? Why do you think Mrs. Michaelson
became so nervous there?

12. Which characters were the most sympathetic? Which did
you dislike most?

13. Aaron Hamburger says he overheard a couple’s exchange by
the Western Wall, similar to the one between Mr. Michaelson
and his wife at the end of the first chapter (when he asks her if
the trip has been a meaningful spiritual experience), and that
the conversation inspired the rest of the book. Why do you
think this small scene was the springboard for the book, and
why does Mrs. Michaelson have such a hard time answering the

14. Aaron Hamburger says the Middle Eastern conflict can be
seen in the food people eat and the water they drink. Take a
look at the food and water in the book. What does it suggest
about the people who make it and the people who eat it? What
do your own choices about food say about you?

15. Many people have commented on the frankness of the sex
scenes in the book. How did you feel about reading these scenes?
What did the sex scenes reveal about the characters who participated
in them?

  • Faith for Beginners by Aaron Hamburger
  • November 14, 2006
  • Fiction - Literary
  • Random House Trade Paperbacks
  • $19.00
  • 9780812973204

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