A Cur­able Romantic

  • Review
By – September 19, 2011
In this com­ic nov­el, char­ac­ters exam­ine Freudi­an analy­sis and debate the mer­its of Esperan­to and the move­ment for a uni­ver­sal lan­guage. Skibell’s quirky humor and sweep­ing imag­i­na­tion trans­form weighty top­ics into flights of fan­cy. A fic­tion­al­ized, self­ag­gran­diz­ing Freud treats the famous patient Emma Eck­stein, whom he believes embod­ies a dyb­buk. Sex­u­al long­ing, cocaine snort­ing, and delu­sions of grandeur pre­oc­cu­py a bum­bling Freud and his friends. Skibell’s fre­quent ref­er­ences to the gentlemen’s pincenez spec­ta­cles under­score the author’s mock­ery of that intel­lec­tu­al milieu. The set­ting shifts from 1890 Vien­na and Paris to the 1940 War­saw ghet­to and the Gates of Heav­en.

As I Was Going Down Emek Refaim

By Joseph Skibell

I began work on A Cur­able Roman­tic in Jerusalem. I’d been invit­ed to teach a course in fic­tion writ­ing at Bar-Ilan, and the pro­gram had rent­ed a beau­ti­ful, sun-washed apart­ment for me in Tal­pi­ot, not far from S.Y. Agnon’s old house. 

I worked at a lit­tle table in the kitchen with the patio door open and the gold­en Judean sun­light slant­i­ng in. The work went remark­ably well, and I attrib­uted this to the spir­it of Agnon, still hov­er­ing, pal­pa­bly, in the neigh­bor­hood. 

In the after­noons, I’d stroll down Emek Refaim, and it seemed mar­velous to me that in Jerusalem the mere act of walk­ing down a boule­vard could simul­ta­ne­ous­ly be a phys­i­cal, a social, a polit­i­cal, a his­tor­i­cal, a spir­i­tu­al, and a reli­gious act. 

But of course, this had its dis­ad­van­tages. 

It was ear­ly fall, 2003. The sec­ond Intifa­da was going on, and the city was fair­ly desert­ed. I had din­ner one night with a jour­nal­ist named Noga. Our meal went long, and she was run­ning late for her next appoint­ment. The city was under high alert, but she let me out on Emek Refaim, half a mile or so from my apart­ment, before dash­ing off with a string of apolo­gies trilled through the open pas­sen­ger win­dow of her car. 

It was ear­ly, not yet nine, and the evening was pleas­ant and cool. I spot­ted a sign for Café Hil­lel and thought about going there for a cup of tea. 

Almost imme­di­ate­ly, I saw two men, with flash­lights and secu­ri­ty vests, light­ing up lit­er­al­ly every nook and cran­ny, every cor­ner, every pud­dle of shad­ow on the street. 

Idiot,” I said to myself, go home. The city’s under high alert.” 

And so I went home, and less than two hours lat­er, a blast sound­ed, the walls of my apart­ment shook. A sin­gle siren, and then a choir of sirens con­vulsed the night air with their ter­ri­ble wail­ing. A sui­cide bomber had blown him­self up inside the Café Hil­lel. Over 50 peo­ple were wound­ed and sev­en killed. 


It’s a pecu­liar­i­ty of us Jews, “ Dr. Sam­mel­sohn, the pro­tag­o­nist of my nov­el, says, that we tend to drag our his­to­ry along behind us, clat­ter­ing and clank­ing like tin cans tied to the tail of a fright­ened dog, and the more we attempt to out­run it, the loud­er and more fright­en­ing it becomes.” 

I con­sid­er imag­i­na­tion the high­est — indeed, the holi­est — form of per­cep­tion, and I’m den­i­grat­ing nei­ther Jews nor the imag­i­na­tion when I say that we are an imag­i­na­tive peo­ple. The mon­u­ments we’ve giv­en to the world — our Col­i­se­um, our Taj Mahal, our Ver­sailles, our Chartres — are works of the imag­i­na­tion: a trio of world-trans­form­ing books — the Bible, the Tal­mud, the Zohar — and a num­ber of odd con­cepts, includ­ing: the holi­ness of time, the sin­gu­lar­i­ty of God, the divine right­ness of jus­tice, char­i­ty as a form of right­eous­ness. 

Take a step clos­er and you real­ize that these books are, in Hen­ry James’ phrase, loose, bag­gy mon­sters.” They’re the moth­er of all loose, bag­gy mon­sters. They’re the loos­est, bag­gi­est mon­sters there are. The Epic of Gil­gamesh, the Code of Ham­mura­bi, the Mahab­hara­ta, the Aeni­ad, the Ili­ad, the Odyssey are ele­gant Tweets by com­par­i­son. 

And these odd con­cepts — as I am holy, you shall be holy,” love your neigh­bor as your­self,” be a king­dom of priests” and a light unto the nations” — are the sort of thing a light­ly toast­ed group of transper­son­al psy­chol­o­gists might cook up one night in a hot tub at Esalen. 

And yet, these most­ly unread, and in parts unread­able books, along with the sweet hip­pie-like notions that derive from them have, over the last few mil­len­nia, kept much of the world up at night. They turned out large and aggres­sive crowds for book burn­ings, mas­sacres, pogroms, expul­sions, a world war, and late­ly a string of sui­cide bomb­ings. 

It’s a Jew­ish mis­for­tune that we appear as the vil­lain in oth­er people’s holy books. And it’s strange because, although the Egypt­ian” plays a sim­i­lar role in our holy books, mod­ern Egyp­tians don’t seem to bear the weight of this arche­typ­al pro­jec­tion. But from Shakespeare’s Shy­lock to Marlowe’s Barabas, from the Grimms’ Jew in the Thorn­bush” to the suits” in a Spike Lee film, the Jew is part myth, part dream, part sym­bol, part metaphor, part demon, part night­mare. Each time I walked down Emek Refaim, I felt all this. I felt the light­ness of being a dreamy luft­men­sch and the dark weight of being some­one else’s bogey­man. Vio­lence occurs at the inter­sec­tion between oppos­ing descrip­tions of real­i­ty, like these, and that’s what I’ve tried to cap­ture in A Cur­able Roman­tic—the some­times vio­lent ten­sions thrum­ming in the Jew­ish soul…between faith and rea­son, between fathers and sons, between the demands of the past and the call of the future, between the con­vul­sive sweep of his­to­ry and the sim­ple human need for love, between the imag­i­nar­i­ness of Jew­ish life and the real­i­ties of Jew­ish existence.

Discussion Questions