Gavriel Sav­it is an author and actor whose work in both fields has tak­en him on trav­els across the world. With the release of his debut nov­el, Anna and the Swal­low Man, this week he joins the Vis­it­ing Scribe series as a guest con­trib­u­tor to The ProsenPeo­ple.

And He said, You will not be able to see my face, for the human will not see me and live.’” (Exo­dus 33:20)

Study­ing a face:
Step­ping back to look at a face
leaves a lit­tle space
in the way
like a win­dow.
But to see—
It’s the only way to see.” (Stephen Sond­heim, Sun­day in the Park with George)

I can take any emp­ty space and call it a bare stage.” (Peter Brook, The Emp­ty Space)

I had the most pecu­liar expe­ri­ence the oth­er day. 

I was down in Texas with my fiancée for about half a week, in loose con­junc­tion with a lan­guage con­fer­ence there. We most­ly used the trip as an excuse for the con­sump­tion of smoked meat, local beer, and love­ly, idle con­ver­sa­tion. We were trav­el­ing, though, and — from my per­spec­tive at least — cer­tain rit­u­als are absolute­ly non­nego­tiable when trav­el­ing. Pri­ma­ry among these is the local book­shop visit.

Any book­shop is a haven to me — like a con­sulate or embassy, away from home — but my favorite sort to vis­it while trav­el­ing is the sec­ond-hand; they man­age to be famil­iar and com­fort­ing (the smell of aging bind­ings is a heady thing) while pro­vid­ing a unique view of the loca­tion in which they’re sit­u­at­ed. The books peo­ple choose to resell, the books peo­ple had in the first place — these are each of them clues toward the even­tu­al grokking of a local culture. 

And so we stum­bled into a love­ly lit­tle local Texas book­store. My fiancée and I split off and went about the busi­ness of vis­it­ing our old friends. 

In gen­er­al, I like to start off perus­ing the first edi­tions and rare books in their plate-glass cab­i­nets, smirk­ing at the posters, flip­ping through the table dis­plays, a lit­tle palate teas­er before I make my way over to the real goals of my visit: 

Folk­lore & Mythol­o­gy (usu­al­ly one or two things here to pique the inter­est); Mag­ic and the Occult (more often than not con­sumed in wacky mid-sev­en­ties coun­ter­cul­ture non­sense or twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry self-pub­lished con­spir­a­cy the­o­ries, but on occa­sion with a seri­ous, schol­ar­ly text in the mix); and final­ly, the crown jew­el of any used book­store — Judaica and Jew­ish Studies.

Only in this book­store, there was no such section.

Now, I know what you’re think­ing: it must’ve been one of those alter­na­tive­ly orga­nized places — you know, a shop that thinks it’s cute to start at the ulti­mate left hand side of their shelv­ing and put every­thing down in order of its orig­i­nal pub­li­ca­tion, left to right, so you have no choice but to sur­rep­ti­tious­ly Google what the pre­cise pub­li­ca­tion year of Isaac Bashe­vis Singer’s Satan in Goray was — or some­thing like that. 

But no. Their orga­ni­za­tion was total­ly stan­dard. And in fact, here was East­ern Phi­los­o­phy, here Bud­dhism, here Hin­duism, here Christianity. 

I was unset­tled. I checked, thor­ough­ly, on the end-caps, on the oppo­site side of each book­shelf, but it was true — there were sim­ply no Jew­ish books in the bookshop.

This was bizarre. This was incom­pre­hen­si­ble. This was like an uncan­ny dream of the child­hood home in which noth­ing is famil­iar. Where there are Jews (and believe it or not, there are quite a few in Texas), there are Jew­ish books, and, with the mag­net­ic attrac­tion of the agnos­ti­cal­ly sec­u­lar among us, drawn back to shul on Erev Yom Kip­pur, these Jew­ish books can be count­ed upon to find their way back to the sec­ond-hand bookstore.

Ulti­mate­ly, there are sev­er­al very good pos­si­ble expla­na­tions for the lack of Jew­ish books in this indi­vid­ual book­shop. It could be that this par­tic­u­lar cor­ner of Texas lacked the crit­i­cal mass of Jews nec­es­sary to sup­port any real trade in sec­ond-hand Jew­ish books, or it could be pos­si­ble that the Jews in this local­i­ty dis­pose of their unwant­ed books of Jew­ish inter­est to some local syn­a­gogue or day school library. There are plen­ty of rea­son­able, non-anti­se­mit­ic rea­sons a book­store would lack a Jew­ish books section.

But over the next sev­er­al days, I found myself still think­ing about it. As far away as Boston, Mass­a­chu­setts, an absurd, unfair, pecu­liar thought kept dog­ging me: Why couldn’t they at least have left an emp­ty shelf?

And after hav­ing come back to this ques­tion sev­er­al times, I came to this conclusion: 

An emp­ty shelf in the Reli­gion sec­tion might have turned this Tex­an book­store from one of the least Jew­ish places I’ve ever encoun­tered into one of the most.

This may be dif­fi­cult to under­stand; over the next few days in this space, I’m going to try and expand what I mean by that, but in brief, let me explain like this:

This week I pub­lish a book called Anna and the Swal­low Man which is in some ways sig­nif­i­cant­ly and inten­tion­al­ly ambigu­ous. At the book’s end, the read­er is left with cer­tain fer­tile uncer­tain­ties that I hope will pro­voke a par­tic­u­lar kind of expe­ri­ence — some­thing unsta­ble, some­thing spec­u­la­tive, some­thing that allows the poten­tial of all sorts of beau­ti­ful, con­tra­dic­to­ry, simul­ta­ne­ous pos­si­bil­i­ties that might oth­er­wise have to have been dis­card­ed as irrational. 

For me, there’s a sort of pro­found mys­ti­cal expe­ri­ence to be found in this uncer­tain space. Whether or not I man­aged to evoke it in my book is for read­ers to decide, but I will say this: that uneasy, mag­i­cal space of uncer­tain­ty is cen­tral to my feel­ings about mag­ic, reli­gion, and art, which — you should par­don the expres­sion — are a sort of holy trin­i­ty for me.

And that, I think, could scarce­ly be more Jewish. 

Gavriel Sav­it is an actor and author from Ann Arbor, MI, and a grad­u­ate of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michigan’s pres­ti­gious Musi­cal The­atre pro­gram. He is the author of Anna and the Swal­low Man (Knopf, 2016) and an emerg­ing voice in Jew­ish literature.

Relat­ed Content:

Gavriel Sav­it holds a BFA in musi­cal the­ater from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan in Ann Arbor, where he grew up. As an actor and singer, Gavriel has per­formed in three con­ti­nents, from New York to Brus­sels to Tokyo. He is also the author of Anna and the Swal­low Man, which The New York Times called a splen­did debut.”