October 14, 1999
Adrift in a World in Which God is Hidden
It is remarkable how many great Jewish American writers first came to the public's attention through a volume of short stories.
Philip Roth's first book was "Goodbye, Columbus." Allegra Goodman's was "Total Immersion." Earlier this year, Nathan Englander published "For the Relief for Unbearable Urges," an inventive series of stories set against Jewish history and Orthodox life, and the book rocketed onto the New York Times best-seller list.
The best new book of Jewish short stories -- better than each of the above books -- was published last year, received glowing reviews in papers such as The New York Times ("intense, often searing...the writing soars"), the Chicago Tribune ("splendid...extraordinary stories") and the Houston Chronicle ("stories that absolutely shine"), and then sank out of sight.
Ehud Havazelet's "Like Never Before" (Anchor Books, $12.95; Farrar, Straus, Giroux, $23.00) is being republished next month in paperback. It is an occasion for the rediscovery of a remarkable volume of interrelated stories that portray the members of a Jewish family over a 30-year period. Adrift in a post-Holocaust world, untethered by the traditions that previously sustained them, they struggle to find themselves and each other, missing more times than they connect.
The first story -- "Six Days" -- begins with an idyllic scene of almost Edenic serenity. Shabbat eve; after services and a family meal, Max Birnbaum, a Polish-born Jew whose father (like his father before him) is a rabbi, walks through Queens with his young son, David. It is the early 1960s.
They walk by stores, by local landmarks, through nearby neighborhoods, talking to each other quietly, greeting the people they pass by, sometimes not returning home until after midnight.
Their favorite spot is an overpass from which they can see highways going east, west, north and south. Together they watch the stream of red taillights heading away. "From here," Max Birnbaum tells his son, "you could go anywhere, anywhere on earth."
It is a scene of infinite possibilities, a future unlimited, a portrait of closeness between parent and child -- a Shabbat that redeems the prior six days.
But like a camera expanding to a wider angle, Havazelet also provides a glimpse of David's view of this scene -- and it is a picture of resentment at the weight of the past and the prison of the present. As they walk through the Italian section of Queens, David "kept his eyes averted, aware of their Shabbos clothing." He is embarrassed by his father good-naturedly distributing "Good evenings, how are yous, as if he knew these men." He is stung by the "amused smiles all around, at him stuck with his father."
As the story progresses, the gulf between Max and David's worlds becomes even clearer. Max teaches at an Orthodox yeshiva, living in an ocean of books, translating manuscripts, lecturing to serious young men who are future rabbis. David, playing with his baseball cards, watches his father at work and disdains the students, who do not seem American to him. Trying to enter the world of his son, Max takes David to a Yankees game -- David excited by each nearby foul ball, his father unable to understand the game.
The story concludes, at the end of Shabbat, with the men coming out from shul "to praise God's world and ask his blessing for a few more days of good fortune and peace." But it is a world that includes only the older generation, not the new one. David and his friends have left the service in the middle, running to play outside before it is over. They are present but absent at the same time.
The title of the story has become ironic. At the beginning, it refers -- obviously -- to the separation of Shabbat from the rest of the week. By the end, it has become a metaphor for an immense separation between a father and son, between two generations -- one living in the religious traditions and rituals of the past, and the other in the new, secular American world -- the other six days.
In "Lyon," Havazelet flashes back to 1943, to Vichy France, when Max Birnbaum (then "Maxim Birnboym") is a teen-ager, sent to France with his brother, Rachmil, on an undercover mission to collect money to smuggle Jews out of Poland. The mission's sudden ending, and Maxim's two-sentence report to his mother -- "It's me, Mother, Maxim. Rachmil is gone" -- captures the horror of the Holocaust in a single incident.
The story also provides a contrast with David's later rebellious, self-absorbed youth, spent in an alliance with Arnold Leibowitz ("acknowledged titleholder of biggest troublemaker in the history of the Mid-Queens Hebrew Day School") and neighborhood baseball games that David seeks to win at all costs (he "didn't like to play fair unless he was winning and could make a show of it"). David grows his hair "as long as he could without inciting outright war" with his father, and, by age 17, is absorbed in drugs and drinking.
"The Street That You Live On" shows David several years later, seen through the eyes of his wife, Maura, in a marriage that at first seems ideal. They "had read the same books in college, liked and were now embarrassed by the same bands." Maura is comforted by David's self-assurance and his assurance to her that "nothing would ever happen to them." But their marriage is changed irrevocably by a seemingly unconnected event.
"Pillar of Fire" picks up after David's divorce from Maura, at the lowest point in his life. Literally and metaphysically lost, he meets two young girls who are replicas of his younger self. They need a ride, and he sets out with them in his car. The trip that follows ends with an epiphany that is all the more remarkable because Havazelet, through an astonishing literary device, makes it happen simultaneously to both David and the reader.
In the succeeding stories, life contracts rather than expands; misunderstandings accumulate; distances grow. David remains caught up in anger and resentment, the tension with his father increases, and his mother is powerless to bridge the gap. In a heartbreaking story devoted to her ("Ruth"), she concludes that "despite everyone's good intentions, in her own experience, love hurts more than it heals."
But from these family portraits, taken at various points in the characters' lives, a fuller picture eventually emerges. David and Rachel's tentative attempts, near the end of the book, to reconnect to each other, to redeem what remains of their family relationship, are juxtaposed to a picture of the Eden they surrendered -- an old family photograph David finds after his father's death. It is a picture taken long ago at a vacation resort -- Max, Ruth, Rachel and David, together in a boat that wouldn't stop rocking, as they try to balance themselves, laughing and afraid at the same time, caught by the camera just as they reach out to put their arms around each other.
God appears in this book mostly through silence. Max, reflecting late in his life that "any hardship in this world is easier to bear than a disappointing child," turns to God in his prayers and "requested guidance, solace...[and] asked, politely, for miracles." They do not come. Ruth, lying terminally ill, concludes that prayers "for our loved ones, for the poor, the unprotected, the helpless about to be harmed...are for ourselves, finally, always have been, for our hurt, our fear, our constant aloneness." For David and Rachel, God does not enter the picture at all.
Havazelet has written that, challenged by George Eliot's "Middlemarch," he wanted to write a book that was different from the American literature on which he was reared, with its portrayal of the open road, of grace under pressure, of heroic conquests and myths. Instead, he wanted to portray characters "whose failures, as often as successes...marked them as human and worthy, heroic in their own right." Writing stories of people who had no moment of glory in their lives but who were heroic nonetheless, Havazelet has continued, and added to, a literary tradition that includes Chekhov and Malamud.
His book is an important contribution to Jewish American literature. For the paperback publisher, publishing a book that in hardcover sold only a modest number of copies, it is an act of faith -- a belief that the reading public, if given a second opportunity, will respond to a remarkable work of art. This is our chance.
Rick Richman is a member of Sinai Temple in Westwood.