Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Recovery of Writings Past

While searching online today for something I had written a couple of years ago, I inadvertently found an essay/book review of Simone Zelitch's work, Louisa that I had entirely forgotten about. I read it with shameless glee, sobered only by two terrible details: the rabbi I refer to as metaphysical has since been revealed to be a sexual predator, and the host of the sumptuous breakfast at the King David Hotel was revealed to have been a crook, his generosity funded by white collar crime. Still, finding this essay now is a gift. In the midst of an unusually stressful time in my personal life as well as that of the Jewish people, reading about my magical midnight foray in Jerusalem on a summer night in 1998 provided a much-welcome window into a simpler time. The timing also seems unusually apt as I just published my novella, The Jerusalem Lover, yesterday morning. This essay brings me back to that era before 9/11, which provides one of the frames for The Jerusalem Lover. We were careless. We were clueless. I linger in the memory of that moment and share it with you, here:

At four in the morning, a solemn breeze wafted through the ancient Hurva synagogue, raising the tarpaulin-like roof, ruffling the hair and garments of the hundreds who were gathered inside, sitting cross-legged on the cold, stone floor. It was Shavuot night, 1998, the setting was Jerusalem, and I was on the third leg of my night-long tikkun, the traditional learning marathon held on the first night of the holiday that commemorates the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people.

The evening had begun at a friend's house in Baka and moved on to Yakar, the spirited, soulful synagogue located in the Old Katamon neighborhood. Now I had come to the Hurva, located in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, to hear the metaphysical rabbi, Mordechai Gafni.

As Gafni spoke, the sun rose over the ancient city of Jerusalem As the sky lightened at five, I rose and left the Hurva, making my way through winding streets until I met the members of my davening group, N'shei Ha-Kotel, the Women of the Wall. Gathering together, we commenced our recitation of shacharit, the morning prayers.

While we davened, streams of Jews poured onto the Kotel plaza, black-hat and bohemian alike. This parade of people had come from every corner of Jerusalem–and beyond–in commemoration of the pilgrimages made in the time of the ancient Temple.
As the hour approached seven, I made my way out of the Old City and towards the King David Hotel. It was on the hotel's capacious lawn that I concluded mytikkun leil Shavuot–tired yet exhilarated–at a reception thrown by family friends, feasting on traditional holiday fare: cheesecake, blintzes, rice pudding with raisins, pie, custard and all manner of dairy treats.

There is an otherworldly magic to staying up all night, studying Jewish texts. There is a surprising sense of revelation to studying–once again, the Ten Commandments, and finding new insights and commentaries. And there is the profound beauty of the Book of Ruth, which tells the story of the righteous Moabite woman Ruth, one of history's best known Jews-by-choice, great-grandmother of King David and ancestor of the Messiah.
Widowed as a young woman, Ruth "cleaves" to Naomi, her Jewish mother-in-law, pledging complete loyalty to her tradition and people. Though Naomi urges her to return to her Moabite kinsmen, Ruth refuses, stating her now-immortal vow:

Entreat me not to leave you, and do not tell me to return from following after you; for where you go, I will go, and where you lodge, I will lodge; your people will be my people, and your God my God. Where you die, I will die, and there I will be buried.

These oft-quoted words have inspired humankind over the course of centuries. Evidently, they took up residence within the literary imagination of Simone Zelitch. The result is her remarkable novel, Louisa , which offers a modern retelling of the story of Ruth, set in post-World War II Palestine, with ample flashbacks to Szeged and Budapest, Hungary.

Louisa offers us the story of the relationship between Nora and Louisa, a latter-day Naomi and Ruth. Louisa is a young German Christian woman who falls in love with Gabor Gratz, an inscrutable and restless young Jewish composer. Finding herself pregnant by him, they marry, at the insistence of Gabor's mother, Nora. The pregnancy does not survive; neither does Gabor. As the Jews are hunted throughout Budapest, Nora seeks refuge in the cellar of Louisa's home and there waits out the end of the war before being transported to Palestine.

The problem is, Louisa refuses to leave her bitter and grief-stricken mother-in-law and gains passage with Nora to Palestine. Landing at a kibbutz, she endures hatred and suspicion (some refugees swear they saw her working as a Nazi guard at a concentration camp), works in the fruit orchard, studies Hebrew and begins studying for conversion with the kibbutz rabbi.

She also does some covert work, tracking down Nora's beloved cousin Bela (now known as Jonah), with whom Nora grew up in Hungary. Bela immigrated to Palestine prior to the war and had tried to convince Nora to do likewise. His mother and sister were killed in the course of the war. Arabs murdered Leah, his young French-Israeli wife, outside of their kibbutz.

Bela/Jonah represents the Boaz character in the Ruth story, the older kinsman of Naomi whom Ruth marries to carry on the family legacy. Claiming to work in the orchards well beyond the harvesting season, Louisa finds Bela/Jonah, works for him and eventually falls in love with him. They marry, bear a child named Tamar who carries on Bela's bloodline and Louisa keeps her pledge to Nora to redeem Gabor's death by having children, bringing new life into the Jewish people.

Zelitch's Nora is hardly an endearing character. She is bitter, similar to the biblical Naomi who asked that her name be changed to Mara, bitter one. She is frequently unkind to Louisa. She misses out on love and its fulfillment. She makes Louisa all the more heroic.

Yet Zelitch allows us to see Louisa's devotion to her mother-in-law in a different vein. Louisa somehow intuits that becoming a Jew and going to Palestine are her destiny. She means the words "Your people are my people" quite literally. Her motivating force is not altruism, but a realist grasp of her fate.

The skillful weaving of the Ruth and Naomi theme into Louisa is a testament to Zelitch's keen understanding of the text. The work is a literary tour de force, jumping continents, cultures and chronological boundaries. It raises the interesting question of the Messiah's ancestry and the process ofteshuva, repentance. It asks us to accept the German-Christian Louisa's conversion and active role in perpetuating a Jewish bloodline, as an act of tikkun(restoration) for the sins of her kinsmen during the Shoah.

Louisa and Shavuot share many themes: the power of forgiveness and good deeds, and their potential for repairing the world. The Book of Ruth, however, has an additional twist, for it hints at an instruction manual for repairing the world. The instruction manual of course, is Jewish Law, which is the axis upon which the Ruth narrative turns. One of the many fascinating aspects of the Book of Ruth is we get to see the Torah's laws in action. 

One example of this is when Boaz observes the laws of Tzedekah and instructs his workers to let ample grain fall through their hands so that the poor (in this case Ruth) may glean in the fields. In these instances and others it becomes apparent that what appears to be coincidence is really God's handiwork in the form of Jewish law. Which makes Louisa and the Book of Ruth perfect reading on Shavuot; a holiday which celebrates the giving of the Torah and looks forward to a world redeemed. 

Reprinted with permission from the AVI CHAI Bookshelf, where birthright israel alumni can order free books and periodicals.

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