Book Review: The Instructions by Adam Levin

April 6, 2011


“The Instructions” by Adam Levin is a fictional book taking place over three days. This long book which tells a short story follows one very bright troublemaker in Junior High School.

  • 1,030 pages
  • Publisher: McSweeney’s
  • Language: English
  • ISBN: 9781934781821

Buy The Instructions from*My rating for The Instructions – 4
Buy The Instructions from*
More Books by Adam Levin*


“The Instructions” by Adam Levin was a hard book to read and to get into, not due to its length but due to the difficulty of getting into the mind of a brilliant ten year old. However, once I got around that hurdle I found that not only did I enjoy reading the book, but I enjoyed even more thinking about it afterwards.

If I had to pinpoint the one thing which I found enjoyable is the great care Mr. Levin took in picking his symbols, words and their meanings. For example: the name of the protagonist Gurion Ben-Judah Maccabee. Gurion is a lion’s cub, a lion which is the symbol of the tribe of Judah (Judah being Gurion’s father) and Maccabee, a famed family who reasserted the Jewish religion as the Seleucid Empire.

Gurion Maccabee believes that he is the Messiah. “The Instructions” is actually presented as Gurion’s sermons of truth to the destructive 2006 events which made him famous. Along the way the reader is a witness to Gurion’s brilliant young mind. Unlike other sermons though, this books brings the reader along to the journey of a young man who can basically justify any action he takes.

Falling in love with Eliza June Watermark, a gentile classmate – no problem, he simply converts her.
After all, if the Messiah can’t convert gentiles than who can?

A boring detention assignment – no problem, scratch it out and write his own because the idiotic assignments are no match for Gurion’s intellectual superiority.

Gurion Ben-Judah Maccabee
Illustration by Zohar Lazar/NY Times

As in many books which could qualify as instructions (The Zohar, The Talmud, etc.) there isn’t much plot or an ending, but a bunch of diatribes, lists, charts and doodles. Surprisingly/disturbingly, trudging through lengthy pages which seem to baffle all other characters in the book, Gurion’s scripture starts to make sense.

Imagine Jeremy Piven‘s Ari Gold reading the Passover song of Chad Gadya (One Little Goat) with commentary by Larry David & Jerry Seinfeld – and you get the brilliance of “The Instructions”. A guest “appearance” by Philip Roth though, in my opinion, takes the cake.

My main problem with the book – I thought I was the Messiah


Supposedly a document written by Rabbi Gurion ben Judah Maccabee and “translated and re-translated from the Hebrew and the English” before being published the book consists of two sections: “The Side of Damage” and “The Gurionic War”.

The book chronicles four days in the life of 10 year old Gurion, who has been expelled from several schools (including a Yeshiva) and is fated (or is it damned?) to a disciplinary program at Aptakisic Junior High, suburban Illinois. Gurion, who believes he is the Messiah and amazingly convinces others for it to be true, organizes riots, a militia and overthrows the school’s administration establishing a new Jewish holiday.

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Waiting for the Messiah

This book reminded me of a song by Israeli artist Shalom Hanoch called “Waiting for the Messiah (Mechakim LaMashiach)”, you don’t have to understand the language to enjoy the music (any music) but the lyrics are below the video. From some reason I found myself thinking of this song as I read the book.

Sitting for hours, waiting for the Messiah to come
The Messiah is a key man, his hand is in everything
 and everything is in his hands,
Samich smoked and Yerucham licks his lips (???)
Yorah looks at his watch and rolls his eyes
An office in the north -- "Artzieli Ltd. - Advisors"
Afternoon and outside the world turns
Presses a buzzer, says: "Bring us coffee" -
The Messiah isn't coming -- he isn't phoning, either.

A general silence, five tense individuals
The door opens and Yardenah, all smiles:
"The black is for Yorah, the tea for Artzieli junior"
Yardenah leaves, Ezra doesn't stop smoking.
As each hour passes
Artzieli senior knows that he wasn't mistaken
He drips with sweat, bellows at his son:
"The Messiah isn't coming -- he isn't phoning, either."

The doorbell pierces the hum of the air conditioner
Yerucham jumps to the door, cutting the smoke
Artzieli junior looks at his father from the side
And in the entrance is revealed a policeman with cap in hand
And Yudah says: "Something must have happened"
Yerucham responds "They don't send the police for nothing"
The policeman says "There was an accident, and so
The Messiah isn't coming -- he isn't phoning, either."

"An accident with who?" asked the young Artzieli
"An accident of the State" answered the wretched policeman
"The stock market crashed, people jumped from the roof
The Messiah also jumped, and they announced that he was killed..."
"...everything's lost" cried Ezra Dahan the contractor,
"The Messiah is in heaven and we, without the money, are here"
And the beautiful Yardenah mumbles "This can't be!"
The Messiah isn't coming -- he isn't phoning, either.

"Bitter December" -- the headlines cried out
And the minister of finance gave an interview on the news:
"The public is stupid, so the public will pay,
What comes easily disappears just as easily.
The little man is forced to pay dearly."
And to me Yardenah is more interesting than all the rest -
Go to reserve duty, and count the money that's not there.
The Messiah isn't coming -- he isn't phoning, either.

Zohar — Man of la Book
Dis­claimer: I bought this book
*Ama­zon links point to an affil­i­ate account, the money is usually spent on books

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Wrap Up

The Instructions by Adam Levin


  • LauraApril 6, 2011 at 4:16 pm

    I think this is going to be up next for me. I not terribly excited about carrying it around though. I’ve been excited about this book since it came out, but totally intimidated by its physicality.

    • zoharApril 6, 2011 at 4:19 pm

      I hear ya’.
      This book has been seating in my library for a few weeks before I had the courage (and strength) to pick it up.
      Give it a shot.

  • bookspersonallyApril 6, 2011 at 9:33 pm

    What a fun review!(Also Dan Bern has a great song called Jerusalem in which he claims HE is the Messiah, so you might have competition. ;D)

    Sounds like a fascinating read.

    • zoharApril 18, 2011 at 10:14 am

      Thanks, I’ll check out the song

  • Julie @ Knitting and SundriesApril 18, 2011 at 10:05 am

    LOVE this review! When you are still thinking about a book after you’ve read it, that is the mark of a good one. I’ve sometimes read something that I thought was OK, especially if I wasn’t drawn in from the very beginning, but my thoughts about it afterward made it better for me (Room by Emma Donoghue comes to mind). This sounds like one for the shelves. Thanks for the review. (hopefully, I won’t think I’M the Messiah when I read it) 🙂

    • zoharApril 18, 2011 at 10:15 am

      I was actually a bit disappointed in Room, especially the second half of the book but you’re right – it is another one that makes you think.

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