Yesterday, Joshua Cohen told us how to write a book like Coney Island. His new novel, Witz, is now available.
This second blogpost is about two experiences with two “cemeteries.” The first made it into my novel, Witz.
Years ago I was living in Prague — I was 21 — not quite earning a living writing articles for a Jewish newspaper about Jews in Eastern Europe. Problem was, there weren’t any Jews in Eastern Europe, besides: Russians who moved west to defraud with import-export; Hasidic emissaries from New Jersey and Brooklyn; and old people (Holocaust survivors). I was writing about the Holocaust, about the Holocaust’s legacy, approximately six decades later but for an insatiably interested public. I told an editor I needed new business cards. She suggested a new title, “Dead Jews Correspondent.”
I covered the memorials and monuments, the synagogues rebuilt after the fall of communism with money from Long Island, democratically elected governments that destroyed cemeteries — clearing land for hockey stadiums and hospitals.
One day a man I’d interviewed for an article about Holocaust survivors and healthcare — a very kind and understandably strange man who survived Theresienstadt and Auschwitz and who offered me tea and his granddaughter’s email address — died. I went the next afternoon to his funeral; then, on the way out of the cemetery, stopped by the grave of Franz Kafka. Why not? This is what you do when you’re at the New Jewish Cemetery at Želivského.
I stood facing the grave and read the inscription — the headstone is not the original; the original is rumored to have been stolen and sold to the West by Czechoslovak communist functionaries and remains lost to this day — I noted the plaque that memorialized Kafka’s three sisters (Gabriela, Valerie, Otilie), who died in the camps. I can’t remember any thoughts — I’ve never had a thought in a cemetery.
After a moment an Asian tourist approached the grave and stood alongside me snapping photos. Then without saying a word he handed me something plastic and white.
He said, in English, “For head.”
He was making me wear a yarmulke.
He touched his head, touched my head.
I’d already taken my yarmulke off, stuffed it in a pocket.
I felt like explaining that I was a Cohen — of the caste of priests, who must keep pure for future service in the rebuilt Temple. Forget not wearing a yarmulke, my biggest transgression was being in a cemetery at all. I was being defiled, technically speaking. I wanted to yell at him, “I am being defiled, technically speaking!”
I went home.
The next week I wrote a section of Witz that treats Kafka’s grave to a Kafkan fiction. A man tries to gain entrance to the cemetery that holds the grave but is prevented, at every opportunity delayed and rebuffed. I called the section “The Grave.” At the end I say the stones that mourners place atop headstones — to mark their visit, to memorialize concern — are, in effect, the yarmulkes of headstones.
Last year, back in the States, I took a bikeride on the boardwalk, from Brighton Beach to Seagate.
On the pier at Coney, a huddled group. They stood at the edge, about to empty ashes into the water.
Afterward a few hung around.
I asked a man what happened and he said his friend — the man in the urn — killed himself two weeks ago.
I didn’t ask for details but Marco said, “He was a lifeguard. He loved swimming and movies.”
He said, “The ocean is the biggest cemetery in the world.”
As I turned to leave he repeated, “Biggest cemetery in the world, biggest cemetery in the world.”
All life comes from water. And if you don’t believe science you at least believe that water was created before Man — wasn’t actually created but divided: the waters above separated from the waters below…. What was most depressing about living in Europe — in Europe’s east — was being so far from an ocean. But I disagree with Marco. Europe is the biggest cemetery in the world.
Joshua Cohen’s most recent novel, Witz, is now available. He will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning. Visit his official website here.
Joshua Cohen was born in 1980 in Atlantic City. His books include the novels Moving Kings, Book of Numbers, Witz, A Heaven of Others, and Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto; the short-fiction collection Four New Messages, and the nonfiction collection Attention: Dispatches from a Land of Distraction. Cohen was awarded Israel’s 2013 Matanel Prize for Jewish Writers, and in 2017 was named one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists. He lives in New York City.