The Tears & Prayers of Fools

  • Review
By – January 8, 2024

Beau­ti­ful­ly trans­lat­ed from the orig­i­nal Russ­ian into Eng­lish, Grig­o­ry Kanovich’s 1983 nov­el invites us to enter a rich­ly imag­ined emo­tion­al land­scape of Lithuan­ian Jew­ry — a sub­ject that absorbed, even obsessed Kanovich over his long career as a nov­el­ist and mem­oirist of what was termed the Lit­vak Saga.”

Born in 1929 in the small town of Jon­a­va, near Vil­na, Kanovich expe­ri­enced the uproot­ings and dis­place­ments that have shaped much of the mod­ern Jew­ish expe­ri­ence. After the Nazi inva­sion of Lithua­nia in June 1941, Kanovich and his fam­i­ly moved to Kaza­khstan. He returned to Vil­nius as a teenag­er fol­low­ing the war where his works were pub­lished and became pop­u­lar among Sovi­et Jew­ish read­ers. These were read­ers who were seek­ing knowl­edge of an East Euro­pean Jew­ish past that they’d been denied as a result of the Sovi­et repres­sion of Jew­ish mem­o­ry and reli­gious practice. 

Kanovich even­tu­al­ly immi­grat­ed to Israel in 1993, where he died about a year ago at age nine­ty-three. His work has received acclaim in Israel, in his native Lithua­nia, and inter­na­tion­al­ly. Indeed, he is regard­ed as one of the last Jew­ish writ­ers shaped by and con­nect­ed to the lost world of pre-Holo­caust Jewry.

In all his writ­ings, Kanovich sought to recov­er the vibrant shtetl world of his Lit­vak child­hood. He viewed his lit­er­ary mis­sion as a mon­u­ment to the mem­o­ry of the Lithuan­ian Jews.” The Tears & Prayers of Fools suc­ceeds in this respect, con­jur­ing up a pre­mod­ern shtetl, cir­ca 1880, that’s filled with mem­o­rable char­ac­ters — char­ac­ters who recall the tales of ear­li­er canon­i­cal authors like I. L. Peretz and Sholem Ale­ichem. Pre­sid­ing over Kanovich’s imag­ined shtetl is Rab­bi Uri. The nar­ra­tor describes him vividly:

Rab­bi Uri sat down at the table and clasped the soot-cov­ered lamp. Heat poured out and spread through his joints, which had with­ered like tobac­co stems. The warmth squeezed through his dry veins, mov­ing up toward his stooped shoul­ders, up to his neck, which resem­bled a Torah scroll worn out from read­ing, and from there back to his heart, to his sick soul. And as a but­ter­fly unfolds its wings, his soul spread out and soared toward the win­dowsill. High, so high.

Rab­bi Uri is entan­gled with a skein of strik­ing char­ac­ters, Jews and non-Jews, whose his­to­ries each involve loss, bereave­ment, sui­cide, sex­u­al desire, and, above all, a long­ing for con­nec­tion. Like the rab­bi, Kanovich’s char­ac­ters dream of soar­ing; they seek a high­er spir­i­tu­al realm in order to cleanse the soul of bit­ter­ness, enmi­ty, and mistrust.”

At the core of Kanovich’s nov­el is the dis­rupt­ing pres­ence of a mys­te­ri­ous stranger, a wan­der­er with a vel­vet yarmulke that’s pinned with a clip. This strange, spell-bind­ing” char­ac­ter unset­tles the com­mu­ni­ty. Described as frag­ile, small and decrepit,” a lim­i­nal fig­ure drown­ing in sor­row,” the stranger takes on the sins of the com­mu­ni­ty. He’s a scape­goat for the shtetl’s many fall­en, haunt­ed inhabitants.

Who is this stranger? While he seems to appear out of nowhere, Kanovich is care­ful to give read­ers his protagonist’s trag­ic back­sto­ry — a tale of unimag­in­able per­son­al loss. As a result of this tragedy, some­thing inside him split into pieces.” A shoe cob­bler who seeks to reunite with his drowned first­born son, the stranger had a strik­ing abil­i­ty to trans­form every­thing around him … He could eas­i­ly turn real­i­ty into dream and dream into real­i­ty, and these trans­for­ma­tions nour­ished him.” 

In the end, Kanovich mag­i­cal­ly restores the world of his Lithuan­ian child­hood. His pro­found­ly Jew­ish lit­er­ary imag­i­na­tion alle­vi­ates the pains of real-world his­to­ry. Rather than chant­i­ng a solemn Kad­dish for the depart­ed, The Tears & Prayers of Fools estab­lish­es a site of Jew­ish mem­o­ry, cre­at­ing a sacred space in which fools can still dream of rean­i­mat­ing their dead. 

Don­ald Weber writes about Jew­ish Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture and pop­u­lar cul­ture. He divides his time between Brook­lyn and Mohe­gan Lake, NY.

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