Tag Archives: Jewish memory

Dazzling epic about memory that integrates fiction with memoir is deeply original and ambitious

Returning, by Yael Shahar. Kasva Press. 504 pages. Hardcover $28.95; Trade paperback $19.95

Returning is an extraordinary and challenging book on many levels. It attempts to make the intangible as close to tangible as possible. It engages readers in a kind of time travel that has nothing to do with science fiction. It might remind some of paranormal romance, but the stakes are much higher.

What genre does is belong to? Author Yael Shahar once thought of calling it “fiction memoir,” but that does not capture enough of its essence.

The workings of dreams are central to the book’s technique and meaning, but what if you dream someone else’s dreams? What if someone else dreams yours and remembers yourmemories? Shahar’s artistry is to make these “what-ifs” credible and meaningful; in fact, inevitable and necessary. She imbeds these actualized possibilities in a theological — or, at least, a biblical — context.

The primary character is an older man named Alex. He is a tormented, guilt-ridden soul who has lived in Israel for many decades following his escape from slave labor at Auschwitz-Birkenau. A Greek Jew from Salonika (“Saloniki” throughout this book), Alex, whose given name is Ovadya (servant of God), was part of a sonderkommando crew, mostly Jewish, who were worked to exhaustion day after day hauling away the bones and ashes of incinerated Jews and other doomed prisoners.

All of his adult life, Alex has been trying, without much success, to resist the constant pressures of memories that take him back to his sonderkommando experience, a trauma that he’d like to forget. As an unwilling witness and assistant to the obliteration of his people, Alex is a man with a diseased soul. Part of him knows that he must face his past and accept responsibility for actions taken and not taken.

He seeks the help of Rabbi Ish-Shalom (“man of peace”), a person of remarkable learning, wisdom, and sensitivity. The rabbi becomes a spiritual coach who leads Alex on the path of self-knowledge, atonement, and redemption.

Yael Shahar credit Rahel Jaskow

But this is not a feel-good journey; it is filled with harrowing confrontations with Alex’s younger self. The rabbi insists, through a series of questions and refutations of Alex’s answers, that there are times when the giving of one’s own life may be the moral choice.

Alex’s resistance to his job of making room for the next victims to be pushed into the gas chambers would not have saved those lives, but that defense is slowly taken away during his conversations with the rabbi.

As Alex releases his memories, first by writing them down and later by speaking them aloud, he undergoes renewal and revelation that properly elevate his sense of self. He can take back his given name because he earns his right to it.

Yael Shahar as a character in her book is an intermediary between Alex and Rabbi Ish-Shalom. She brings them together. In a literal sense, with her name given as author of the book, she is telling Alex’s story — including his dialogue with the rabbi. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the Washington Independent Review of Books, click here: Returning

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Melting pot Boston in mid-twentieth century explored from Jewish perspective

Review by Philip K. Jason

My Mother’s Son, by David Hirshberg. Fig Tree Books. 368 pages. Hardcover  $23.95.

This is one beautiful book. It portrays a pivotal period in U. S. history flavored by the scrambling lives of European immigrants, their acculturated children, and their more fully Americanized grandchildren. Its action springs from family and historical events of 1952-1953, though it manages to cover decades both before and after. The narrator, not yet thirteen as the story begins, is looking back from near the twentieth century’s end. His name is Joel. At one point he is told that he wasn’t named for anyone in particular, but for the Jews as a whole.

The shadow of the Holocaust haunts Joel’s family, and for very good reasons that are made clear in the stretches of family history and family memory that run through the book. The Korean War is threatening to become the next world war.  The polio epidemic is on everyone’s mind. On the local level, Boston’s beloved Braves, a baseball team with which so many identify, may be preparing to relocate to Milwaukee. The seeds are being planted in Boston for the future presidency of a still very young and inexperienced Massachusetts politician – a man whose Catholic identity inspires the immigrant population and points to the character of the city.  

There are signs that the keyholders of political and other kinds of power may be changing. Representing this change is Joel’s powerful grandfather – a man whose business, ostensibly furniture, interfaces with various criminal activities. Even Joel and his brother Steven are involved.

Aside from marvelously recreating the time and place action, Hirshberg does a fine job of balancing the understanding and sensibilities of the young Joel against the much older and wiser version of himself that is telling the story. The story itself grows out of the bits and pieces of the past – and the application of the past to current events – that have been the bread and butter of the radio show that has been Joel’s occupation and occupational therapy for almost fifty years, drawing a large audience.

Devices that deepen the novel with additional key perspectives include most notably entries in his Aunt Rose’s diary. Rose is the most enigmatic character in the novel. Her attempts to come to terms with the Holocaust, with her years of travel as a circus performer, her transit to the United States, and her relationship to her husband Jacob– whose long preparation for death is a chilling strand of this complex, vividly detailed, yet  richly satisfying novel.

Conversations between family kingpin “Papa” Mischal (Rose’s father) and his lieutenants Murph Feldman and Moses O’Neil (whose names are symbols of the immigrant melting pot) explore the motives behind the shady dealings out of which Boston’s family, community, and political lives are constructed. It’s payback time for repressed or humiliated minorities.

Hirshberg

And these underhanded enterprises are presented in colorful prose vignettes that suggest a kind of innocence to the era while admitting to its harsh edges.

Although the early 1950s period is the core of the book and the fulcrum of Joel’s meticulously painted coming-of-age self-portrait, Hirshberg understands the need for readers to discover the steps that lead to the grandfatherly Joel whose voice has dazzled his listeners for so many decades. He allows us summary glances at Joel’s high school and college years, his military service, and his lifelong situation of needing to wrestle with important and transformational secrets about identity and the many faces of love.

It may seem curious that Hirshberg, after concluding his narrative, adds a glossary of foreign language terms – the list reinforcing the polyglot nature of Boston at the middle of the twentieth century. This spray of German, Hebrew, Irish, Italian, and Yiddish – plus a dash of Latin – suggests how the various ethnic groups interacted with one another, and in an unexpected manner, it enriches the cultural broth.

The glossary is also a reminder, if one is needed, that this is a very Jewish book – Jewish in the American way of successive generations being influenced by and reshaping a vanishing but not quite extinguished past. It is a world of Hebrew School lessons, Yiddish phrases being maintained and even penetrating the dominant non-Jewish community, and ethnic foods and – of course – memories. There are stories hidden until they must be revealed. There are other stories repeated and reshaped, perhaps with no expiration date.

I have not addressed the title of the book because to do so carries the likelihood of giving away something important too soon. I say this, dear reader, to entice you to this beautifully prepared feast of wisdom and discovery.

This essay appears in the May 2018 issues of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Greater Naples), L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Counties), and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee).

 

 

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