Licht Observed: Evan Fallenberg’s “Light Fell”

Haim Watzman

Joseph Licht, a religious Israeli with a devoted wife, five young sons, and a budding academic career attends a Torah class in Jerusalem given by a young rabbinic prodigy. The two men fall in love and conduct a passionate affair, leading Joseph to abandon his family and his religion—on the same day that his lover commits suicide. Two decades later, on his fiftieth birthday, Joseph invites his five grown sons to spend with him a Shabbat of celebration and reconciliation.

In Light Fell, Evan Fallenberg fluently takes on a tough subject—not just father-son relationships to the fifth power, not just father-son estrangement over many long years, but also father-son relationships sacrificed to love, and love of kind that breaks the most fundamental of his family’s implicit covenants and explicit taboos.

Joseph seeks to reconnect with his sons both to explain to them why he left them and to urge them to learn the lesson he learned. He had been living a lie, he tells them, and had no choice but to be true to himself. He sees that his sons, too, are avoiding, each in his own way, important decisions about who they are and what they must do with their lives, and he wants them, too, to know and follow the truth about themselves.

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The Humanity of Evil: Amir Gutfreund’s “Our Holocaust”

Haim Watzman

The title Amir Gutfreund chose for his novel Our Holocaust has a quadruple meaning. “Our Holocaust” is the Holocaust of the survivors who populate his story; it’s the Holocaust of Hans Underman, the German scholar who intrudes on the story; it’s the Holocaust of the narrator and his childhood friend, Efi, who appropriate the Holocaust of their parents’ generation for themselves; and it’s the Holocaust that human beings can suffer, or perpetrate, under circumstances beyond, and within, their control.

It’s an appropriate book to write about on Tisha B’Av, the anniversary of the destruction of the first and second Holy Temples. The Jewish prophets and sages understood that each of these awful catastrophes, which were accompanied by the slaughter and enslavement of their people, had a double meaning. These previous Holocausts were crimes committed against the Jewish people by other nations, but they were also evidence of the depravity of God’s chosen people, of their failure to adhere to the moral code of God’s law.

In today’s Holocaust discourse, that synthesis is often absent. Some see the Holocaust as an unparalleled crime committed by the Germans, a nation with a culture uniquely degenerate. Therefore, the Jews, as the particular victims of this crime, derive a special status from it. Others see the Holocaust as just another instance of man’s inhumanity to man. From that they deduce that the experience of the Holocaust ought not to have changed the Jewish nation’s perception of itself. But both these propositions are true. The Jews learn from the Holocaust that they can trust to the protection of no other nation but themselves; humanity—including the Jews—learns that no matter what cultural failings led the Germans into the hell they created, the crimes they committed were human crimes. Thus every human being, Jews included, have a duty to guard themselves, and their nations, against the possibility that they will sink into moral dissolution (one need not sink to the level of the Nazis to commit horrible deeds).

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Shrew Lit

Haim Watzman

At first glance, The Taming of the Shrew looks like the Shakespeare play most irrelevant to our times. I know, the butchery of Titus Andronicus is hard to swallow, but that play doesn’t end with a long speech about the virtues of hacking your enemies to pieces. Kate’s paean to wifely submission is certainly the most embarrassing classic English text that any actress today is ever called on to declaim.

No one knows why the Bard chose to write this play. He lived apart from his own wife, so he had no reason to seek revenge. But I have a theory. I have no documents or scholarly tradition to support it, but I can cite in my favor a writer’s intuition. Shakespeare was a writer, I’m a writer. QED Shakespeare and Watzman think alike.

In this play Shakespeare was protesting the female tyranny over literature. In his day, it was personified in Queen Elizabeth, which according to reliable sources such as the film Shakespeare in Love told him what plays to write and when. In our day, publishers cater to women because, they say, women purchase close to 70 percent of all books.

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The Sinews of Our Souls: C. K. Williams’ “Dissections”

“This unhealable self in myself who knows what I should know.” A man visiting an exhibition of exposed human tissue reflects despairingly on the disconnect between  his body and his soul, and between his soul and his self.

The poem is “Dissections,” the poet C. K. Williams. When it appeared in The Atlantic in November 2002 (read it, and hear the poet recite it, here), I pasted it up on my office door. Today I took it down, and had an opportunity to reread and reflect.

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