Preparatory to discussing Cormac McCarthy’s new fiction, a duology comprising The Passenger and Stella Maris, with Greg Wolfe via Zoom on January 25th, I’d like to offer a few ways into the books. The surname of the main characters, siblings Alicia and Bobby, is Western. Novelists do not name characters carelessly. Bobby and Alicia are the children, born in the late 1940s and early 1950s respectively, of a physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project which built the first atomic bombs.
When Carol died, I thought it’s not my time. Carol was my shadchanit, Jewish matchmaker. On a Saturday night in July 1989, I went with Carol and Bob, her husband, along with two other new friends, also a husband and wife, to the Beaucatcher Cinema to see “When Harry Met Sally.” I had just moved to Asheville.
I remember the American Poetry Review, March, 1977, page 26, cows and bald hills of Tennessee and rabbis of Brooklyn, their foreheads “wrinkled” as their “gigantic lips moved / through the five books of ecstasy, grief, and anger.” That’s from “Psalms,” one of twelve poems by Gerald Stern, whose photo on the cover showed his own gigantic, Jewish lips.
Roger Kamenetz has published nine volumes of poetry. Each builds on his prior work, often revisiting, reconsidering, and reimagining previous poems in the Jewish tradition of midrash. As one critic observes, Kamenetz “recovers Jewishness as a field for discourse, not sentimentalized imagery. In direct and imaginative address, he puts the question of Jewishness under discussion with large parts of honesty and humor.”
You slept with my best friend?, I screamed then threw the phone at my bedroom wall. Mother and father were downstairs. A few days later, when she was out, my girlfriend of nearly three years, I entered her house (I had a key), went into her closet, found the expensive dress I had bought for her at a trendy clothing store on South Street in Philly with my tips, and tore it to pieces.
The process of translating from one language to another is often called an art. The late Italian medievalist and novelist Umberto Eco, aware of translation’s inherent difficulties, called it, “the art of failure.” Every attempt is inexact and partial, getting some things spot on, whiffing at others. Translators are continually forced to compromise, choosing the least flawed option while rendering the original in the target language and—devotees of the King James version aside—no one translation proves definitive, once and for all.
Once I lived in Jerusalem. Two years in the late 1970s. I went to the Kotel, the Western Wall, many times to pray. Face of flesh to face of stone, I felt heart. I felt soul. My heart, my soul, my my: too small, too confined to one human body set apart to characterize what I experienced there in prayer.
I look up from Cherry Hill. Between the rhododendrons and camellias on the steep hill that drops from the road down to my yard, I catch a glimpse of a woman walking by my house. A neighbor? I can’t see clearly enough to know. Is she walking with someone else? I can’t see. Is she wearing earbuds, talking on the phone? I want to know: what sparked her emphatic oh my god?
What am I doing in the Blue Ridge Mountains? What am I doing turning to Jerusalem? What am I doing with all this history, this Jewish history? This poetry, this Jewish poetry? Body, heart, mind, soul: each looking in a different direction for home.
What’s your name, they asked. “Rick.” I had just arrived in Israel. July,1976. One of seventy volunteers from the U.S., I was settling into the Mercaz Klitah, Absorption Center, in Kiryat Shimona. One of Israel’s development towns in the north, situated at the foot of the Naphtali Mountains and close to the border with Lebanon, Kiryat Shimona was then a working class city. What’s your Hebrew name? As far as I knew, I didn’t have a Hebrew name.
We were hungry, so we left home, a place of famine, for a flourishing place to the south. Oh, the cucumbers! The onions! The melons, garlic, and leeks! We were at home there for hundreds of years. Eventually, we were enslaved there. Then we were freed. After 210 years, we wandered home.
“With training,” teaches Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, “it’s possible to become aware of the space in-between—the space in-between our thoughts, our moods, our perceptions, and our breaths.” There, emptiness. Not terrifying. Rather, liberating: “a fleeting moment of naked awareness, a split-second opening that introduces us to our original mind…
I picked a hell of a time to try to write about a Russian author. As I type this, the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine has been going on for a few days. I was going to write about a man named Vladimir Soloukhin, in particular about his fascinating book Searching for Icons in Russia. But I don’t have the heart to write what I had been planning to write.
I have only lately been more conscious of reading compilations. Since the beginning of my formal, post-secondary study of literature, I have relied on the compilation. Education in any culture has always done this, because the compilation (or the anthology or florilegium—these two mean the same, a collection or bouquet of flowers) is the natural genre of tradition.
I, too, have a shofar, a ram’s horn, that I cannot sound. Well, sometimes I can get one rather tortured tekiah (one of four traditional sounds) out of it, but don’t choose me to blow shofar on demand as part of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services.
The hospice nurse spoke softly. It could be today or tomorrow. Was he the angel of death? The gentle angel of death? He was, after all, the one who met my father when he arrived at the in-patient hospice for his final two days in this world.
Agnon’s Days of Awe is not fiction, though it is a pastiche of different kinds of narrative in the manner of the Talmud. What is it, then? Despite having read Agnon’s Days of Awe around Rosh Hashanah every year for the past five years, it’s hard for me to say. It’s like a machzor, the prayerbook for the High Holy Days, if a prayer book were an anthology of…fiction.
On the drive back from New Jersey to North Carolina two days after my father’s passing, I remember: Leon Wieseltier’s Kaddish. I’ve owned it for twenty years. It’s one of those books that, when I purchased it, I felt I needed to read. I was the director of a small Center for Jewish Studies. And I was a poet, a Jewish poet. I needed the knowledge.
To my friend, I said I don’t believe in the soul. That surprised me: I had never said that before. I don’t know if I’d ever even thought it before. I do know that I felt relieved when I said it, unburdened. Relieved of what? Unburdened of what?
To the American citizens who marched in Charlottesville, to the American citizens who defaced the Jewish cemetery in Grand Rapids, to the American citizen who hopes to see me in an oven, I say this: I’m trying to hold it all, hope and fear, present and past, apple and fire, light and gleaming dark, exile and home.