When Elie Wiesel spoke last year at the 92nd Street Y, teaching about Jewish texts, his quiet voice had a trance-like quality, as he shifted between classic sources, Chasidic tales and his own views of world events. His fiction is similarly powerful. Sometimes the words have the poetic feel of liturgy, holy words.
"To write is to pray," said the Nobel laureate, who will be the scholar-in-residence May 19-21 at Sinai Temple in Westwood.
"I want my stories to become prayers. I want my prayer to become stories," he said, quoting Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav, in an interview, when asked about the connection between fiction and prayer. "I love prayer. When words become prayer, something is added to the words. There's purity in lashon kodesh [sacred language]."
"Wounds, too, can become prayers," he added.
Wounds are plentiful in "The Time of the Uprooted," an absorbing novel that moves back and forth in time, from 1940s Hungary to New York at the end of the 20th century, shifting points of view, with emotional intensity packed into memories and stories.
Ever gracious and eloquent, the author of more than 40 books spoke of his fiction and the all-too-true news of the world, with daily reports of newly uprooted souls: thousands who no longer have home addresses and are scattered far from the ground they know.
Not unlike Gamaliel Friedman, who plays the central role in "The Time of the Uprooted." Gamaliel was born in Czechoslovakia and survived World War II in Budapest, left by his mother in the care of Ilonka, a non-Jewish cabaret singer. He escaped Budapest in 1956, leaving Ilonka behind, and moved to Vienna, Paris and then to New York, with stops in between. In New York, his closest circle is a group of exiles, each one with an intriguing story, spun with pain. Calling themselves, with irony, "Elders of Zion," they help others who are either still in Europe or exiles like themselves.
"Once a refugee, always a refugee," the narrator says of Gamaliel, and as Wiesel admits, could be describing the author, who feels close to fellow refugees. The narrator continues, "He escapes from one place of exile, only to find himself in another: Nowhere is he at home. He never forgets the place he came from; his life is always provisional. Happiness for him is a moment's rest. Love never ending is the blink of an eye."
The reader first meets Gamaliel as a child, still at home with his parents, when a vagabond storyteller visits; this begins his lifelong fascination with madmen. Later on, as a New Yorker, he is "no longer young," walking hunched over. A ghostwriter, he makes his living by penning "love stories for shop girls, Kiplingesque adventures in exotic settings, financial conspiracies, gritty detective stories: scribbling, not writing."
He thinks of himself as a banker, lending words to those who need them. At the same time, he is working on his own book, "The Book of Secrets," which runs through the novel, unfinished. He is divorced, cut off from his daughters, dropped by the last woman he was involved with.
"No trees line the ways of our lives," he notes.
His friends include Bolek, a survivor of the Warsaw Ghetto; Diego, who fought in the Spanish Civil War; Yasha, who survived Stalinism, and Gad, a former Mossad agent. They are agnostics and unbelievers, yet their conversation often comes around to God. Gamaliel is also close to Rabbi Zusya, a mystic who continues to believe. Suffering is what unites the group, although, together, they try to transcend it.
In this novel, perhaps more so than in Wiesel's many previous books, women play key roles; several have had much influence over Gamaliel. His mother is never far from his mind. With love, tempered by guilt, despair and acceptance, he looks back at his time with Ilonka and at his ex-wife and other women who have been close to him.
Gamaliel learns of a hospitalized woman who may be in her last days, seemingly without an identity, who is said to speak a language that sounds like Hungarian. He wonders if she might be Ilonka, the woman to whom he owes his life, or perhaps someone else from his past. There's nothing about her that he recognizes and it's not clear that she hears him. But there's some connection that draws him back to her, and also to a young woman doctor at the hospital, who wants to hear his story.
In this novel of ideas, Wiesel explores anew themes he returns to in his fiction and nonfiction: the link between memory and identity, dispossession, friendship, the mysteries of love, the constancy of suffering, the paths of writing and storytelling.
It's also a novel of compassion. And when there's compassion, there's also hope and resilience. As the author does in conversation, Gamaliel uses the phrase "And yet" as though posing new possibilities, new beginnings. On many levels, this makes for timely reading.
He says that his sense of memory grows stronger as years pass. Now, he sees some things more clearly, more urgently: "I have to work hard. I have a feeling that I haven't begun. With all the books, there's still so much I want to say."
Now 77, he keeps a steady schedule of travel and lectures, along with teaching at Boston University, where he has been Andrew Mellon Professor of Humanities since 1976. Each year, he creates different courses -- such as one course on banned books and another on Rabbi Nachman.
Usually, Wiesel spends his mornings writing fiction, sitting at his desk, and later in the day, turns to nonfiction and research in his library. He writes in French; the new novel is translated by David Hapgood.
The writer has no end of stories, pointing to an imagined pile under the table.
"I hear stories from people everywhere," he said. "You can hear someone say good morning. It becomes a story by the way a person says it. There's a story in every event."
The master storyteller is often described as a messenger, telling of life before the war and of the Holocaust.
"I feel almost helpless," he admitted. "I speak for many of us. It's not easy to tell the tale, but we tried, and it didn't change the world. The message was not really received."
"To this day I have doubts," he said. "Maybe if the survivors had all met and took a vow not to speak, the silence would have been so overpowering, it would have changed the world. I have a heavy heart. I don't know where we are going. And yet, we have to overcome it. We have to create hope even when there is none."
Sinai Temple will be hosting renowned author and Nobel Peace Prize winner Elie Wiesel May 19- May 21. He will be speaking to young professionals at a special Friday Night Live on May 19. He will be addressing the whole congregation at Shabbat services on May 20. And, on Sunday morning, May 21, the weekend will culminate with a teen forum with seventh- to 12th-graders. For more information, call (310) 481-3343 or e-mail Centennial@sinaitemple.org.
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