Earlier this week, Steve Stern offered his recollections of the Memphis community in which he grew up and the Jewish mythical lore occupying it. His most recent novel, The Pinch, is now available. He teaches at Skidmore College in upstate New York. He has been blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council’s Visiting Scribe series.
There’s the familiar Chasidic parable about the forest, the fire, and the prayer that describes how the Baal Shem Tov, when he needed enlightenment, went to a place in the forest, lit a fire, said a prayer, and mirabile dictu, enlightenment was granted. His nephew would go to the same place in the forest and light the fire, only to find that he’d forgotten the prayer; but it was sufficient just to be by the fire in the forest. Then the nephew’s nephew would go to the forest, where he was unable to remember the prayer or light the fire; but he was still in the forest and that was sufficient. The nephew’s nephew’s nephew, however, couldn’t even find his way into the forest, never mind light the fire or say the prayer; but he remembered the story of the forest, the fire, and the prayer, and that sufficed. But my generation has only the story of having forgotten the story, and that frankly isn’t enough. Still, I sometimes encounter some joker at a party whose tasteless shtik recalls the routines of the old badkhonim, the jesters who entertained at Jewish weddings with their bawdy repertoires; or a drooling lunatic on a subway platform might spew a stream of vitriol that could have been formulated by a dybbuk; or a child of a friend utters some gnomic wisdom beyond his years, as if his soul had endured many gilgulim, or reincarnations. In this way chords are struck; a vestige of the knowledge erased by the Angel of Forgetfulness at our birth (by his famous fillip under our nose) obtains. “We cannot renew our former strength,” said the illustrious rabbinic storyteller Nachman of Bratslav, “but we do retain an imprint of those former times, and that in itself is very great.” In the Beginning, according to the sixteenth century kabbalist Isaac Luria, God had to withdraw Himself from the universe in order to make room for creation, but the vessels in which He deposited His Light could not contain their volatile contents and cracked open. For centuries it was the mission of the Jews to retrieve — through study, good works, and prayer — the sparks of holiness scattered from those broken vessels and return them to their source, thus repairing the rift between heaven and earth and making the universe whole again. This was the Jewish MO for several centuries, until along came the Holocaust, an implosion as seismic in its destructiveness as the explosion that allowed for our creation. Since then the sparks have not been so easy to recover. Before, they were hidden in plain sight, the way a father hides the afikomen for his children at Passover; now those sparks are buried so deep under the ruins of a lost culture that their recovery requires a major excavation. The whole tradition must be uprooted — branch, trunk, root, and seed — in order to yield the least gem-sized spark, which must in turn be fanned like crazy in the hope of starting a new conflagration. Then, if you’re lucky, a demon or angel might leap out of the flame.
Over the course of several diary entries Franz Kafka, the high priest of hopelessness, began a story about a slovenly rabbi living in the squalid Prague ghetto, who is attempting to create a man from a lump of clay. But after setting the stage for an eruption of magic in that dilapidated secular atmosphere, Kafka never completed the story. Meanwhile the old ghetto was razed to the ground in the name of progress, and later on all the displaced Jews were sent to the gas chambers. Which was maybe why the story, having no real world model to draw upon for its context, was doomed from the outset. Still, for those of us helplessly drawn to the archetypes of an outworn tradition, who believe they retain some transformative power, Kafka’s uncompleted story remains a challenge: You want to describe how the rabbi rolls up his sleeves like a washerwoman and plunges his hands into the wet clay, while the curious neighbors in his reeking courtyard look on. This is of course outrageous effrontery, the idea that you can trespass where Kafka himself feared to tread. The old mystics issued caveats against such presumption: the apprentice kabbalist should be at least 40, married, and with a respectable paunch as a ballast against pursuits that might carry him away. There are many fables about the consequences of being carried away. But say that you actually succeed through much rigor in animating your literary golem. Fueled by your faith in his power, he may still resist your control; he may lay waste to your best-laid plans, kick your narrative container to pieces, and escape into a modernity that absorbs him to the point of invisibility. What’s left to you is either to content yourself with chronicling your failure, with telling the story of forgetting — or to give chase, throwing nets over the monster to drag him back into your tale, which he will break out of again world without end.
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. He teaches at Skidmore College in upstate New York.
- Reading List: Steve Stern
- Finding a Tradition of His Own: A Southern Outsider by Beth Kissileff
Stern’s fiction, with its deep grounding in Yiddish folklore, has prompted critics such as Cynthia Ozick to hail him as a successor to Isaac Bashevis Singer. He has won five Pushcart Prizes, an O’Henry Award, a Pushcart Writers’ Choice Award and a National Jewish Book Award. For thirty years, Stern taught at Skidmore College, the majority of those years as Writer-in-Residence. He has also been a Fulbright lecturer at Bar Elan University in Tel Aviv, the Moss Chair of Creative Writing at the University of Memphis, and Lecturer in Jewish Studies for the Prague Summer Seminars. Stern splits his time between Brooklyn and Balston Spa, New York.