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.

Read Part I of Dis­cov­er­ing the Pinch” Here

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.

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