Steve Stern, win­ner of the Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award, is the author of sev­er­al pre­vi­ous nov­els and sto­ry col­lec­tions, includ­ing The Book of Mis­chief and The Frozen Rab­bi. His most recent nov­el, The Pinch, is now avail­able. He teach­es at Skid­more Col­lege in upstate New York. He will be blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s Vis­it­ing Scribe series.

I grew up in the South dur­ing a plague of amne­sia, cir­ca 1947. Due to a recent his­tor­i­cal trau­ma of cos­mic pro­por­tions, no one was able to look back, and var­i­ous lin­ger­ing plan­e­tary threats made look­ing for­ward a dicey propo­si­tion as well. Thus, the present was a bar­ren and hope­less affair, and the places con­se­crat­ed to giv­ing it mean­ing no less des­o­late. The syn­a­gogue in the South­ern city where I was reared was as anti­sep­tic as a Methodist church, the rab­bi dron­ing con­ven­tion­al wis­dom in eccle­si­as­ti­cal robes, the choir singing vapid hymns in their loft, the con­gre­ga­tion more or less chlo­ro­formed. There was a stale mythol­o­gy of tired house­hold tales, sto­ries of giants and floods worn thread­bare by cen­turies of rote nar­ra­tive that inoc­u­lat­ed the lis­ten­er against authen­tic mag­ic. When I was old enough to leave, I set out in search of mys­tery and romance, but end­ed by liv­ing the life of my gen­er­a­tion, med­icat­ing myself along with my brethren against the claus­tro­pho­bia of our time. Even­tu­al­ly I returned home emp­ty-hand­ed, where, in the absence of what I’d been seek­ing, I began to write sto­ries that invoked my own idea of mys­tery and romance. The prob­lem was that, with an imag­i­na­tion con­fined (and defined) by the infer­tile present, my sto­ries tend­ed to revolve around char­ac­ters search­ing for mys­tery and romance and find­ing none. Because the char­ac­ters were in need of some nod toward iden­ti­ty, how­ev­er super­fi­cial, I some­times tagged them with Jew­ish names, and was sur­prised to find that the names more or less fit. One of my char­ac­ters, Lazar Malkin by name, dis­sat­is­fied with his expe­ri­ence on earth, nev­er­the­less per­verse­ly refused to die. Exas­per­at­ed by his obsti­na­cy, the Angel of Death (a stock per­sona from the tired tales I’d been weaned on) hauled him off to heav­en alive. This seemed to me an orig­i­nal notion: a fresh idea had sprout­ed in my oth­er­wise desert envi­ron­ment; my sapling of a nar­ra­tive had born fruit. But when I tried to pluck the fruit, a fun­ny thing hap­pened. When I tugged, the sapling itself came out of the ground, drag­ging with it a root sys­tem larg­er than a giant sequoia’s. The erup­tion from under­ground seemed to dis­place every­thing else on earth, over­whelm­ing the nar­row isth­mus of the present with a time­less dimen­sion. And attached to those prodi­gious roots was anoth­er world shak­en loose by the great dera­ci­na­tion. The roots were in fact an invert­ed tree that my per­sis­tent tug­ging had pulled upright again, and from its branch­es hung many ver­sions of the sto­ry I thought I’d invent­ed: There was the Hasidic tale of Rab­bi ben Levi, anoth­er stub­born old man, who deceives Malach Hamovess, the Angel of Death, into admit­ting him into par­adise alive; and Eli­jah the Prophet who ascends to heav­en in a fiery char­i­ot, only to return to earth in var­i­ous dis­guis­es to med­dle in the affairs of men; and Enoch, who walked with God, and was not,” who was trans­lat­ed while yet alive into the archangel Meta­tron. Turns out I wasn’t so orig­i­nal after all. Acci­den­tal­ly I had tapped into a vast net­work of liv­ing myths that, once unearthed, began to dog me like crea­tures out of Pandora’s Box, or (to put it in a more Jew­ish con­text) from under the Foun­da­tion Stone of the Tem­ple that King David lift­ed against God’s decree. 

The Tree had its geo­graph­i­cal locus on North Main Street, a blight­ed down­town dis­trict in my home­town of Mem­phis. And with the Tree’s res­ur­rec­tion — hav­ing as it did a genealog­i­cal as well as a myth­i­cal sig­nif­i­cance — the denizens of the once vital North Main Street ghet­to com­mu­ni­ty reap­peared; the dead came back again. Mr. Sebranig the shoe­mak­er came back, and Mr. Sacharin the fish­mon­ger, Dubrovn­er the butch­er in his bloody apron and the Wid­ow Teit­el­baum, who ped­dled boot­leg whiskey from under the counter of her vest-pock­et del­i­catessen. I saw my grand­fa­ther and grand­moth­er, her puck­ered mouth ringed clown­ish­ly with borscht, whose wiz­ened face I would recall as a hedge against pre­ma­ture ejac­u­la­tion. Now her fea­tures echoed a whole cul­ture with its tra­di­tions and super­sti­tions, all the bag­gage she’d brought along with her from the Old Coun­try, some­times referred to as the Oth­er Side. This includ­ed the demons and imps called shey­dim and mazikim, wan­der­ing souls called dyb­buks and hid­den saints or lamed vov tzad­dikim. There was the golem, the soul­less mon­ster the old sor­cer­er rab­bis had fash­ioned out of clay, and Lilith, Adam’s first wife turned suc­cubus, who stole babies from their cra­dles and vis­it­ed sleep­ing men to embar­rass them with noc­tur­nal emis­sions. And there were sum­mer nights in the Pinch, which was the name of that North Main Street ghet­to, when the apart­ments above the shops were infer­nal and the whole neigh­bor­hood would sleep out­side in the park under the Tree — from whose branch­es these myth­i­cal crea­tures would descend. 

Check back on Wednes­day for Part II of Dis­cov­er­ing the Pinch.”

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