How a seemingly ordinary individual can play an extraordinary role
Review by Philip K. Jason
The Old Stories, by David Selcer. Biblio Publishing. 234 pages. Trade paperback $12.95.
It’s hard to separate the strands of memoir, history, biography, and imagination in David Selcer’s provocative, informative, and deeply moving book. Perhaps the genre doesn’t matter that much. It’s a feast of information and revelation, past and present, satisfaction and regret.
As the Nineteen Century came to a close in the town of Kherson within the Ukrainian province of Greater Russia, a young boy – not at all a scholar – toiled with his lessons at the Great Choral Synagogue. He hated his studies, but enjoyed paging through the stories of Sholem Aleichem, the great Jewish storyteller whose Yiddish tales offered humor and profundity. At nine, Chaim Zelitzer could not absorb the great teachings of the Torah and the Talmud. He had a practical turn of mind. At a young age, his was happy enough to please his father and uncle by becoming a skilled metal worker. But he stumbled through his Bar Mitzvah preparation.
Chaim did honor the traditional goal of the Tzadik: of becoming a righteous man.
His older brother, Shmuel, was on his way to becoming a famous cantor.
Russia’s defeat in the Russo-Japanese War (1905) prompted the teenage sailor (Chaim) to “go AWOL” to Manchuria.
He made his way to the United States via Canada (where the immigration process changed the name to Selcer), and a fortunate arranged marriage provided the opportunity to raise a family, and, with his wife, run a business. His children were often embarrassed by his accent, his foreign ways, and a certain coarseness of manner.
No one expected that this man, in his middle years, would become a hero of sorts. Without explanation, soon after the close of WWII, Chaim (now long known as Hyman), became involved for about eighteen months as a worker for the entities that would soon help bring forth the State of Israel. This man, who never had a birth certificate, somehow, with his sophisticated and well-connected Ohio friend Herschel Bloom, worked for the cooperating Jewish organizations that would change the history of the Middle East.
They were part of Aliya Bet, the secret organization that created a secret Jewish fleet for the purpose of facilitating Jewish immigration to Palestine, a crucial step toward undermining the power of the British Mandate for Palestine, which favored other political outcomes for the remains of the former Ottoman empire.
This part of the story is told, long after Hyman’s death, by Bloom, who is questioned relentlessly by Hyman’s younger son, Lester. Lester had been a resentful son growing up in the shadow of his older brother Ben. Just like Chaim had grown up in the shadow of Shmuel. Lester never could please his father; never received praise, encouragement, or even useful answers to his questions. His understanding of his father is modified through hearing Bloom’s narrative of courage and commitment.
This brief stretch of time within the overall narrative includes a romantic subplot in Hyman’s relationship with an attractive woman, Leila, he meets on Kfar Giladi, a kibbutz that absorbed many newcomers to nascent Israel.
Mr. Selcer’s prose has an abundance of descriptive power. He is able to put his complexly-drawn characters into vivid, realistic settings across the decades of his fable-like tale. The author is also able to set forth the historical issues and events with clarity and precision. Moving as well is his handling of the various characters emotional ups and downs.
Is Lester, who is the novel’s primary first-person narrator, actually David Selcer in disguise? It sometimes seems that way. But no: David Selcer is the son of Lester and thus the inventor of the needed fictional answers to the narrative’s questions that would otherwise go unanswered.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
A former Ohioan, David Selcer now lives in Sarasota, Florida with his wife, where he decides employment cases for federal agencies as a Federal Agency Decision Writer. Always a buckeye, the Buckeye Barrister (lead character in Selcer’s 4-part mystery series) is an avid OSU fan. Another of his books is the historical novel Lincoln’s Hat and the Tea Movement’s Anger.
This review first appeared in the May-June 2020 issues Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Greater Naples), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation Lee and Charlotte Counties, and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee). It was also expected to run in my Florida Weekly “Florida Writers” column, but that column, if not dead, is on hiatus.