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. His most recent novel, The Pinch, is now available. He teaches at Skidmore College in upstate New York. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council’s Visiting Scribe series.
I grew up in the South during a plague of amnesia, circa 1947. Due to a recent historical trauma of cosmic proportions, no one was able to look back, and various lingering planetary threats made looking forward a dicey proposition as well. Thus, the present was a barren and hopeless affair, and the places consecrated to giving it meaning no less desolate. The synagogue in the Southern city where I was reared was as antiseptic as a Methodist church, the rabbi droning conventional wisdom in ecclesiastical robes, the choir singing vapid hymns in their loft, the congregation more or less chloroformed. There was a stale mythology of tired household tales, stories of giants and floods worn threadbare by centuries of rote narrative that inoculated the listener against authentic magic. When I was old enough to leave, I set out in search of mystery and romance, but ended by living the life of my generation, medicating myself along with my brethren against the claustrophobia of our time. Eventually I returned home empty-handed, where, in the absence of what I’d been seeking, I began to write stories that invoked my own idea of mystery and romance. The problem was that, with an imagination confined (and defined) by the infertile present, my stories tended to revolve around characters searching for mystery and romance and finding none. Because the characters were in need of some nod toward identity, however superficial, I sometimes tagged them with Jewish names, and was surprised to find that the names more or less fit. One of my characters, Lazar Malkin by name, dissatisfied with his experience on earth, nevertheless perversely refused to die. Exasperated by his obstinacy, the Angel of Death (a stock persona from the tired tales I’d been weaned on) hauled him off to heaven alive. This seemed to me an original notion: a fresh idea had sprouted in my otherwise desert environment; my sapling of a narrative had born fruit. But when I tried to pluck the fruit, a funny thing happened. When I tugged, the sapling itself came out of the ground, dragging with it a root system larger than a giant sequoia’s. The eruption from underground seemed to displace everything else on earth, overwhelming the narrow isthmus of the present with a timeless dimension. And attached to those prodigious roots was another world shaken loose by the great deracination. The roots were in fact an inverted tree that my persistent tugging had pulled upright again, and from its branches hung many versions of the story I thought I’d invented: There was the Hasidic tale of Rabbi ben Levi, another stubborn old man, who deceives Malach Hamovess, the Angel of Death, into admitting him into paradise alive; and Elijah the Prophet who ascends to heaven in a fiery chariot, only to return to earth in various disguises to meddle in the affairs of men; and Enoch, who “walked with God, and was not,” who was translated while yet alive into the archangel Metatron. Turns out I wasn’t so original after all. Accidentally I had tapped into a vast network of living myths that, once unearthed, began to dog me like creatures out of Pandora’s Box, or (to put it in a more Jewish context) from under the Foundation Stone of the Temple that King David lifted against God’s decree.
The Tree had its geographical locus on North Main Street, a blighted downtown district in my hometown of Memphis. And with the Tree’s resurrection — having as it did a genealogical as well as a mythical significance — the denizens of the once vital North Main Street ghetto community reappeared; the dead came back again. Mr. Sebranig the shoemaker came back, and Mr. Sacharin the fishmonger, Dubrovner the butcher in his bloody apron and the Widow Teitelbaum, who peddled bootleg whiskey from under the counter of her vest-pocket delicatessen. I saw my grandfather and grandmother, her puckered mouth ringed clownishly with borscht, whose wizened face I would recall as a hedge against premature ejaculation. Now her features echoed a whole culture with its traditions and superstitions, all the baggage she’d brought along with her from the Old Country, sometimes referred to as the Other Side. This included the demons and imps called sheydim and mazikim, wandering souls called dybbuks and hidden saints or lamed vov tzaddikim. There was the golem, the soulless monster the old sorcerer rabbis had fashioned out of clay, and Lilith, Adam’s first wife turned succubus, who stole babies from their cradles and visited sleeping men to embarrass them with nocturnal emissions. And there were summer nights in the Pinch, which was the name of that North Main Street ghetto, when the apartments above the shops were infernal and the whole neighborhood would sleep outside in the park under the Tree — from whose branches these mythical creatures would descend.
Check back on Wednesday for Part II of “Discovering the Pinch.”
- 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.