As I Was Going Down Emek Refaim
By Joseph Skibell
I began work on A Curable Romantic in Jerusalem. I’d been invited to teach a course in fiction writing at Bar-Ilan, and the program had rented a beautiful, sun-washed apartment for me in Talpiot, not far from S.Y. Agnon’s old house.
I worked at a little table in the kitchen with the patio door open and the golden Judean sunlight slanting in. The work went remarkably well, and I attributed this to the spirit of Agnon, still hovering, palpably, in the neighborhood.
In the afternoons, I’d stroll down Emek Refaim, and it seemed marvelous to me that in Jerusalem the mere act of walking down a boulevard could simultaneously be a physical, a social, a political, a historical, a spiritual, and a religious act.
But of course, this had its disadvantages.
It was early fall, 2003. The second Intifada was going on, and the city was fairly deserted. I had dinner one night with a journalist named Noga. Our meal went long, and she was running late for her next appointment. The city was under high alert, but she let me out on Emek Refaim, half a mile or so from my apartment, before dashing off with a string of apologies trilled through the open passenger window of her car.
It was early, not yet nine, and the evening was pleasant and cool. I spotted a sign for Café Hillel and thought about going there for a cup of tea.
Almost immediately, I saw two men, with flashlights and security vests, lighting up literally every nook and cranny, every corner, every puddle of shadow on the street.
“Idiot,” I said to myself, “go home. The city’s under high alert.”
And so I went home, and less than two hours later, a blast sounded, the walls of my apartment shook. A single siren, and then a choir of sirens convulsed the night air with their terrible wailing. A suicide bomber had blown himself up inside the Café Hillel. Over 50 people were wounded and seven killed.
“It’s a peculiarity of us Jews, “ Dr. Sammelsohn, the protagonist of my novel, says, “that we tend to drag our history along behind us, clattering and clanking like tin cans tied to the tail of a frightened dog, and the more we attempt to outrun it, the louder and more frightening it becomes.”
I consider imagination the highest — indeed, the holiest — form of perception, and I’m denigrating neither Jews nor the imagination when I say that we are an imaginative people. The monuments we’ve given to the world — our Coliseum, our Taj Mahal, our Versailles, our Chartres — are works of the imagination: a trio of world-transforming books — the Bible, the Talmud, the Zohar — and a number of odd concepts, including: the holiness of time, the singularity of God, the divine rightness of justice, charity as a form of righteousness.
Take a step closer and you realize that these books are, in Henry James’ phrase, “loose, baggy monsters.” They’re the mother of all loose, baggy monsters. They’re the loosest, baggiest monsters there are. The Epic of Gilgamesh, the Code of Hammurabi, the Mahabharata, the Aeniad, the Iliad, the Odyssey are elegant Tweets by comparison.
And these odd concepts — “as I am holy, you shall be holy,” “love your neighbor as yourself,” “be a kingdom of priests” and “a light unto the nations” — are the sort of thing a lightly toasted group of transpersonal psychologists might cook up one night in a hot tub at Esalen.
And yet, these mostly unread, and in parts unreadable books, along with the sweet hippie-like notions that derive from them have, over the last few millennia, kept much of the world up at night. They turned out large and aggressive crowds for book burnings, massacres, pogroms, expulsions, a world war, and lately a string of suicide bombings.
It’s a Jewish misfortune that we appear as the villain in other people’s holy books. And it’s strange because, although “the Egyptian” plays a similar role in our holy books, modern Egyptians don’t seem to bear the weight of this archetypal projection. But from Shakespeare’s Shylock to Marlowe’s Barabas, from the Grimms’ “Jew in the Thornbush” to the “suits” in a Spike Lee film, the Jew is part myth, part dream, part symbol, part metaphor, part demon, part nightmare. Each time I walked down Emek Refaim, I felt all this. I felt the lightness of being a dreamy luftmensch and the dark weight of being someone else’s bogeyman. Violence occurs at the intersection between opposing descriptions of reality, like these, and that’s what I’ve tried to capture in A Curable Romantic—the sometimes violent tensions thrumming in the Jewish soul…between faith and reason, between fathers and sons, between the demands of the past and the call of the future, between the convulsive sweep of history and the simple human need for love, between the imaginariness of Jewish life and the realities of Jewish existence.