November 3, 2022.
Sometimes we wind up inadvertently being something that we never expected to be.
My whole life has been pretty much inadvertent, just one example after another of bumbling into some ridiculous predicament, which is how I found myself running a publishing house.
I didn’t know anything about publishing, except that I ought to publish really good books, so I did that. And still do.
At the beginning, one of our books was a gentle, heartwarming memoir about a young Jewish man’s relationship with his grandmother, and his gradual awareness of her life in Czechoslovakia before she came to America, which involved some hiding, followed by some escaping, and then an accomplished and joyful life.
Armed with a batch of great pre-reviews, I got on the phone to Jewish bookstores, Jewish podcasts and so on, expecting the floodgates of love to open….
A surprisingly large number of Jewish bookstores and Jewish podcasts told me, we are not looking for Holocaust books.
No no no, I said. This isn’t a “Holocaust book”! This is a family story, about a woman of a certain generation —
I’m sorry, they would interrupt. We are not looking for Holocaust books.
So what do I know?
Do we forget that generation? Do we forget an entire world of Jewish experience?
A year ago, I moderated a panel on trends in Jewish books, sponsored by the Institute for Living Judaism in Brooklyn. We talked about all kinds of Jewish books, including the modern Jewish family novel, exemplified in Donna Levin’s work — Donna Levin, who was on our panel — and what we might call the “paranoid mind” novel, such as Alan Levy’s very Jewish geopolitical thriller, The Tenth Plague and Alon Preiss’s Thirtover novels, which generate Jewish paranoia from every sideways glance.
And Jay Greenfield’s novels, such as Max’s Diamonds, in which this great writer found an entirely new and darker perspective on the Jewish postwar generation; and in his new, soon-to-be published novel, he brings us a new and darker perspective on Jewish involvement in the 1960s civil rights movement, in which Greenfield participated as a civil rights attorney.
But we also looked at a trend that turns to a Jewish past, a Yiddish past, a magical realism that celebrates the generation that died and the communities that were eliminated, but visits them before the threat loomed on the horizon.
When authors today look to the past, it’s often this era they look to, communities that would face the Holocaust, but before the threat loomed, or in some cases, even earlier generations.
A striking example is a New Yorker story, a serialization called “Sell Out,” by Simon Rich, which became a movie called American Pickle, in which an Eastern European pickle man falls into a vat of brine in the early 20th century, which, of course, preserves him perfectly, till he is revived in our current day. He was there, before the tragedy; now he is here, after the tragedy. He just skipped it entirely. The tragedy is unmentioned; is it even a subtext? When I wrote for the Village Voice, in the 1990s, I interviewed the director Jiri Weiss about his film, Martha and I, which depicts the pre-war community of European Jews, but not the Holocaust. Weiss, who lost his family to the Holocaust, and who filmed news footage when the camps were liberated, explained his decision to leave it out of his movie by saying, “All these things have been shown a million times, and people don’t believe it anymore.”
Look again in the New Yorker, last year, Olga Tokarczuk’s Yente, a story filled with Jewish mysticism, about an old woman at a wedding in small East European village, early in the 20th century, who is taken ill, and whose spirit roams the nearby countryside and through time.
Look at a tale, originally entitled Jews with Swords, and eventually entitled Gentlemen of the Road, by Michael Chabon, about the medieval Jewish Khazar empire, a kind of Jewish swashbuckler. This is the same Michael Chabon who once urged the Jewish world to forget Yiddish, to let it drift away, to stop learning it, because there is no one left in the shtetls of Europe to speak to.
Read The German Bride, the great, bestselling novel by Joanna Hershon (who also spoke at my panel), which tells of a German woman, in the 1860s, who follows her husband to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Consider the amazing graphic novel, The Rabbi’s Cat, by Joann Sfar, about a talking Jewish cat, his rabbi, and the rabbi’s daughter, in Algeria in the 1930s. Helene Wecker’s The Jinni and the Golem, and its sequel, revive the mysticism and magic of turn of the century Eastern Europe, and tell of magical creatures who wander through this early era, and who become inadvertent immigrants to the New World.
Also consider the new popularity of never-before-translated works from an earlier era, before the tragedy, many by writers who themselves died tragically, but who are today celebrated anew, which upon publication are treated like the debuts of new authors. Books like And This is the Light, by Lea Goldberg, set in Lithuania in 1931, or 1877’s The Young Dark Man by Jacob Dinezon. New readers have rediscovered Reuben Sachs, by the 19th century novelist Amy Levy, one of the best authors you will read, ever, who was kind of like Jane Austen, if Jane Austen were a Jewish lesbian, and revered by Oscar Wilde, that great friend of the Jews.
Is something new going on here, a new way of remembering?
As Rabbi Sam Weintraub has noted, “[T]here is no word in classical Hebrew for ‘history’…. Memory is the central value, not history.”
But what is the nature of the Jewish memory? Can one celebrate the memory of a community that was destroyed? Or the memory of a person who was murdered? Is it permitted?
This is especially personal to me. When my mother died, boy was she ready to go. She’d been battling cancer forever, she was tired of it, she’d led a good life as a poet, potter and origami artist. She had friends. She was done. She succumbed naturally.
When my dad went, a few years later, he was not ready at all. Still in the bloom of good health; still walking unassisted; still driving; still writing physics papers. He and his new girlfriend were watching all the seasons of The Gilmore Girls together. The pandemic was lifting, and I was going to visit him, with my wife and his grandkids, a few weeks later, to celebrate his birthday. Then a drunken driver killed him. The driver, with an alcohol-poisoning level of booze in his blood in the middle of the day, drove headlong into oncoming traffic. My dad, driving back from the kosher supermarket, during Passover week, was unlucky enough to find himself in the man’s path.
I had a lot of trouble talking about him after that. Will my dad’s memory always be tainted with the tragedy of how he died?
When a Roamer meets someone new, she knows how he will end, and she can do nothing to prevent it.
Indeed, when one especially Jewish Roamer has what should be the great good fortune, in 1874, to meet a young, energetic, witty, charismatic and unknown writer named Oscar Wilde — that great friend of the Jews, Oscar Wilde — she sighs, “Poor Oscar,” and muses, “The problem with being a Roamer is that everyone you meet is a tragedy.”
In Alon Preiss’s novel, A Flash of Blue Sky, an atheist says to her Jewish husband, who is mourning his parents, who died in an unspeakable tragedy, “For goodness sake, Daniel … Be happy when you remember them.” He nods. Right, he agrees. I will be more happy.
Rabbi Sam Levine asks, “Is there a line of tradition that does not necessarily go to a place of moroseness, of sorrow and despair in terms of looking back at historicalized memory, but rather celebrates a life rather than a death?”
We Jews read a portion of the Torah each week in synagogue. Last week’s portion, Noach, the story of Noah, concluded with a genealogy organized by time and nature of deaths, a sad inventory that remembered each life only for its absence. This week’s portion, Lech Lecha, is a memory of a different sort, of our rise out of the Era of Desolation into a new Birth of Humankind, the early, optimistic hopes that God and Abraham have for us, a brief, nostalgic dream, before, in Vayeira, we start disappointing God and messing things up.
“The injunction to remember,” Jewish Studies Professor Michael Bernard-Donals writes, “is foundational to Jewish notions of justice — because Jews remember when they have been marginalized, disenfranchised, and enslaved, Jews are enjoined not to marginalize, disenfranchise, and enslave others.
“Memory can be seen [as] … a kind of early warning system. The command to remember Amalek, the group that tried to destroy the Jews … warns [us] to be watchful for those that would attempt to do harm. Memory of ‘the bad’ is a way to appreciate circumstances in which Jews enjoy relative peace living with their neighbors, and to caution vigilance….”
The 18th century German rabbi Yaakov Emden echoed this perspective: “One is forbidden to rejoice without bounds in this world,” he wrote, “… for two reasons: Because laughter and levity can lead a person to sin, and because of the destruction of our Holy Sanctuary and our splendor. … We have been persecuted relentlessly. We have never been permitted to live tranquilly among the nations — for we have discarded the mourning from our hearts.”
The Jewish memory, they say, remembers the bad. And this is good! It keeps us on our toes. It makes us nice. It keeps us on our toes!
Indeed, the Talmud tells us that in his last moments, in urging his sons always to keep the faith, our Patriarch Isaac cautioned them “to remember what we have gone through on behalf of God.”
In other words: “Boy, it’s been awful so far. There’s really no turning back now!”
On Tisha B’av, we remember the terrible last moments of the Jerusalemites who perished along with the Temple; we do not remember their lives, their moments of joy. We remember the Temple’s destruction, but not its glories. Isaiah writes, “You shall rejoice, all who mourn for Jerusalem.” When we sing, “If I forget, thee O Jerusalem,” do we promise to remember the glories of our holy city, or the tragedy of its destruction?
Some say that when you see Jerusalem, even though the city has been rebuilt, you should recite Isaiah 64:9, “Zion has become a desolate desert,” and rip your clothing in mourning; and when you see the Kotel, you should recite Lamentations 2:9 and rip your clothing in mourning. If one comes to Jerusalem twice within thirty days, he need not rend his garments again; however, if more than 30 days have passed, he must rip his clothing a second time.
Rabbi Hayim Halevy Donin writes, “In itself, death is not a tragedy. What we call a ‘tragic death’ is determined by the untimely nature of the death or the unfortunate circumstances surrounding it. When a peaceful death follows a long life which was blessed with good health and vitality of mind and body, a life rich in good deeds, then death cannot be regarded as tragic.”
The Mourner’s Kaddish (known in Hebrew as the “Orphan’s Prayer”) says nothing about death; it is a prayer of praise to God, who, after all, created the loved one whom we wish to remember with our prayer. If we might retitle it a “Kaddish of Gratitude,” we would leave our minyan feeling quite a bit more cheerful. But as things stand now, my eleven months of mourning, saying the Kaddish every day, was an intolerable burden, a dagger stab of tragedy in the middle of every day.
But is there a way to remember joyfully someone who died what Rabbi Donin calls a “tragic death”? Is there a joyful way for me to remember my dad? Or does Rabbi Donin contend that this is not permitted? One may happily remember only those who died “a peaceful death,” not those, like my dad, who died violently. Someone took took my father’s life. Has this man also stolen my father’s memory?
Every life, after all, even one that ended tragically, had its happy moments. Even a community that has ended in an atrocity is a community that once experienced moments of joy, accomplishment, celebration. The people of these communities did not live their every moment in tragedy. Is it possible to remember the happiness, or even the mundane?
I think that this is what we see in these new (and newly discovered) stories: we do not turn away from our people who perished, but instead find a different way to remember them, a different way to honor them, and another tradition to embrace.
And maybe the seeds of this kind of remembering have been with us all along. As Rabbi Heschel wrote,
The essence of Jewish religious thinking [lies] … in the ability to articulate a memory of moments of illumination by [God’s] presence. Israel … is a people of witnesses … Reminders of what has been disclosed to us are hanging over our souls like stars, remote and of mind-surpassing grandeur. They shine through dark and dangerous ages, and their reflection can be seen in the lives of those who guard the path of conscience and memory …. Since those perennial reminders have moved into our minds, wonder has never left us.
So we need not be miserable. We can be happy!
Steven S. Drachman is the author of a science fiction trilogy, The Strange and Astounding Memoirs of Watt O’Hugh the Third, which is available in paperback from your local bookstore, Amazon and Barnes & Noble; it is also available as a Kindle e-book.
This article is adopted from a talk he gave at East Midwood Jewish Center in 2021.
Image by the author.