It's 1850, and new Rabbi Avram Belinski has just arrived in Philadelphia from Poland with a Torah for the new synagogue in San Francisco. He's looking to catch the next ship to California, but has arrived too late. All of the ships have already sailed, due to news of the '49 Gold Rush reaching the East. As another ship is not due to leave for several months, Avram attempts to find another way to reach California. An innocent, trusting and inexperienced traveler, Avram falls in with three con men, the brothers Matt and Darryl Diggs and their partner Mr. Jones, who trick him into helping pay for a wagon and supplies to go west. He is beaten, robbed and left on the side of the road. Gathering his belongings, he is rescued by the Pennsylvania Dutch, whom he confuses for his own Jewish kinsmen. After recovering, his Amish hosts, recognizing him as a holy man on a mission, help him to a train taking him west.
Click here to see the rest of this review
Upon reaching the end of the line, Avram begins working on the railroad to earn enough money to buy a horse to continue west. Hilarity ensues as Avram, unused to physical labor, creates chaos In Ohio as he learns his way around the construction site of the new railway. All the while Avram also narrates some of the peculiarities of Jewish culture while finding his way across this strange, yet wonderful country.
Upon earning enough to buy a horse, Avram slowly rides west, getting lost and losing his supplies through inexperience. Tommy Lillard comes upon him trying to stab fish in a creek and assists him with dinner. Not ever having seen a rabbi before, Tom, a bank robber with a soft heart, is moved by Avram's helplessness and frank personality. He recognizes a tenderfoot and agrees to help Avram to Sam Francisco.
Trouble occurs along the way. For instance, when Tommy robs a bank on a Friday, he finds that Avram, an Orthodox Jew, will not ride on the Shabbat — even with a hanging posse on his tail. With some luck, they still manage to get away, mainly because with the horses rested from having been walked for a full day, they are fresh and able to ride all night, outdistancing their pursuers. On another occasion, due to Avram's insistence on riding into foul weather, he and Tommy have to use an old Indian trick and snuggle up next to their horses, which they have gotten to lie on the ground, to wait out a snowstorm. While traveling together, the two experience American Indian customs and hospitality, disrupt a Trappist monastery's vow of silence with an innocent gesture of gratitude, and learn a lot about each other's culture.
While stopping in a town just short of San Francisco, Avram encounters the Diggs brothers and Jones again. He again takes a beating, but is rescued by Tommy, who has the brothers give back all they stole from Avram and a even a bit more. Seeking revenge, the three bandits follow the pair and ambush them on a California beach where Tommy and Avram have stopped to bathe. Avram experiences a crisis of faith when he is forced to shoot Darryl Diggs and Jones in self-defense. Once in San Francisco, he feels that his actions have made him less than he should be and no longer a rabbi. Tommy restores his faith with an argument of simple frontier language, reminding him that his actions were self-defense and that Avram still is a rabbi, despite what he had to do on the beach.
When Matt Diggs, sole survivor of the ambushing trio, suddenly appears and prepares to avenge his brother by killing Avram, Tommy springs to his friend's defense, explaining to a surprised crowd what truly happened. Avram regains his composure and shows his wisdom and courage in front of the entire community. He exiles Diggs from San Francisco, saying, "... I'll take San Francisco. You take the rest of America..." The story ends happily with Avram marrying Rosalie Bender, younger daughter of the head of San Francisco's Jewish community, with Tommy attending the ceremony as his best man.
Best part of story, including ending:
The culture clash of a true fish out of water is surprisingly humorous and refreshing.
Best scene in story:
Tommy and Avram are captured by Indians after losing the Torah in a chase. The chief questions Avram about his book, with its strange writing, and offers to let them both go if the Torah remains behind. Avram refuses and is 'cleansed' over an open fire as a test of faith. Despite the pain the rabbi never cries out. The chief is impressed with Avram's singular faith and gives both men their freedom and the Torah as a sign of respect.
Opinion about the main character:
Avram, traveling under extreme circumstances, remains a man of faith and hope at all times. Despite the many trials he faces, he comes through each one with a better understanding of who he is and truly grows into the role of rabbi when he reaches San Francisco.