What if you could bring together a group consisting of some of your favorite and most admired writers, and then have each one write whatever he or she wished, without any pressure from the literary marketplace or any editorial gain-saying? Black Clock 1 sets out to accomplish many things, one of them being to envision the myriad ways this scenario might play out.
Wearing Not My Veil
Modernhaus Projekt-H, 1933 (Unbuilt)
Rules For Flagellants
The Eternal Helen
Rain On Concrete
Samuel R. Delany
Charting The Sensual And Cerebral Worlds, Or A Samuel R. Delany Pantheon
Dark Afterthoughts On Fiction And The Self
And The Word Was
And The Word Was—
by Bruce Bauman
I lived alone. In New Delhi. Before going there I lived my whole life, thirty-nine years, in New York City. Please, no Second-Avenue New-Deli Borsht-Belt and famed Holy-Cow bagel- chip jokes. I’ve heard them all.
I did not choose Delhi because I was a Pepsi Generation Hippie turned Dyspepsia Generation Yuppie, who long ago got stoned and laid to the ragas of Ravi Shankar and yearned for the gloried conquests of youth; no, his music bored me to stupefaction; I did not choose Delhi because I was a mid-life crisis New Ager with a self-indulgent belief that Guru Gotchyabancakounta would end my emptiness and divine me with internal peace; no, because I must’ve set a record when I was, ever so politely, asked by the enlightened Desiree Prana (born Rene Kerstein of Roslyn, Long Island) never to come back to her yoga class because I disruptively murmured “shitfuck” every time I couldn’t contort my body into Gumbyesque position; I did not choose Delhi because I craved Indian food and hung out in the dingy restaurants on 6th Street; nope, I literally couldn’t stomach Indian food—even the odor of curry upset my digestive system; I did not choose Delhi because I was infatuated by the literature, art or movies; I knew almost nothing of the Indian arts; I did not choose India because I wanted to conquer the languages of Hindi, Urdu, Tamil, or the hundreds of languages and dialects spoken by over one billion people. No, I wanted to be deaf to the world around me. I did not choose Delhi because of my lustful desire to experiment with the innumerable sexual entanglements of the Kama Sutra; I almost never expected to have sex again after I left New York; nor did I choose Delhi because of my mystical belief in the reincarnations of Hinduism.
I chose Delhi because it was foreign and far away. Because I knew almost no one, and no one well at all. And no one knew me. But most of all, I chose Delhi because I no longer believed in god.
When Adolf Hitler won the nobel Peace Prize fifty years ago in 1946, my mother, father, sisters and i listened with rapture to the ceremonies on the radio and then watched them on the weekend newsreels like everyone else who lived in Munich. My father, a policeman, never seemed happier as we celebrated this bold man of peace, the Fuhrer who saved europe from world war and solved the problem of the Jews.
Levi Furstenblum from his 1951 novella Chambers of Commerce
I was born Chaim Neil Downs. (Hi, I’m not every man but I do neil down.) My parents must’ve had an inkling they blew the baby-naming bit because, from the beginning, they called me Neil. My mother said I never acted or looked like a Chaim, or like either my mother or father, for that matter. I was a genetic freak reaching back through my European ancestors to a pair of Cossack and Aryan interlopers, for I have wavy blond hair, blue eyes and fair skin. And I married a blond haired, green eyed, alabaster skinned shiksa with the three names of Sarah Brockton Roberts. And, we had a blond haired and blue eyed son: Barry Castor Downs. As is the Jewish tradition, we named him for my father Ben, who died from a combination of life-exhaustion and cancer a year before his grandson’s birth. But from the beginning, my son was no Barry, always Castor.
The day he was born was the happiest of my life. Better than becoming a doctor, losing my virgin- ity, smoking pot or doing downs or meeting Sarah, making love to Sarah, falling in love with Sarah.
To us, Castor, a breach baby, grew more special with each passing day. To him and only him, I gave my unconditional love. Only Castor—amidst the smells of pain and death squashed under the odors of toxic cleansers; the pillars of lies that the diseased must tell themselves and which we pretenders to knowledge of sickness and death reinforce; the blasphemy of blackened eyes and broken hearts of beat-up wives; the shriveled arms and deteriorating insides of street- walking junkies; the uninsured poor who came in for a cold and left with the surety they had TB; the loneliness addicts who came to me as a last resort to cure the incurable ills of life, among the simple sadnesses of everyday existence in the emergency room where I worked at St. Jack’s Hospital in downtown Manhattan—only my son gave me faith in the future of humanity. In god.
I am, therefore God cannot be. the death camps existed, therefore god cannot be. God as creator, thus his existence, as are all of our existences, was an error. we are either a mistake of a god gone mad or a universe that randomly stumbled into life.
Levi Furstenblum, Mystical Mistakes (175)
After my first weeks I felt at home in Delhi with its stench, poverty, pitiless disgust in the eyes of the privileged, hunger in the belly of the outlawed but very much alive untouchable class, and everyone’s necessary blindness to unimaginable cruelty, chaos and energy. A city on the verge of complete and total collapse of the social order suited my unstable inner self. A city where mansions are surrounded by fifteen- foot-high stone and cement walls and dirt patches with glass shards hidden like mortars and barbed wire and gun-toting assassins, and where tents house uncountable numbers of ruptured bodies hugging the walls on the lawns of those mansions. Where Disneyesque elephants, pick-pocketing monkeys, skeletal cows and their feces parade freely among the population. Where there’s as much dust and pol- lution per square inch than anywhere else on earth, where the air is filled with a symphony of honking horns and indecipherable voices. Where gorgeous coal-eyed, sari-garbed woman blithely strut barefoot through cyber cafes. Where sumptuous dinners can be infested with parasites for which no scientist has found a name. Where a raucous dream of salvation presages no fear of the unknown future. Where disease floats in the air like kites without strings over the Ganges, and where the mosquito bite kills as easily as the thrust knife. Where the winter sunrise feels like inner peace must come and the summer midday heat assures release in death and eventual nothingness. Where thousands have come to conquer and all have left defeated. It is here I felt at home. In India my sorrows were met with a nod and no false pity from anyone, because I had let my son die.
Ab-, ent, -los, un- ver-
-less, un ,ab-, trans-
Prefixes and suffixes. words, yet not words. Bleeding with meaning. Part of the larger whole. we are as like prefixes and suffixes, part of the whole. Alone and incomplete unless we become one with the whole.
From the unpublished works of Levi Furstenblum
Soon after arriving in Delhi, I started doing some work filling for the military doctor at the American Embassy. From the ambassador I learned where to find the writer and Holocaust survivor, the reclusive Levi Furstenblum. I’d been taken with his books for years. He was perhaps the only person in Delhi, no, in the entire world I now wanted to meet. I was given the number of the aged Rabbi Judah who oversaw the lone Jewish temple in all of Delhi. I called and he told me in broken English, “Yes, sometimes, please Levi attends services.”
Although I told Judah that I was not religious, had never been religious, and that all I wanted was to meet Furstenblum, in his high pitched Indian-English accent and enthusiastic voice he coyly pleaded with me to come on the following Friday night. Their congregation was so tiny that he needed every man just to get the required ten men for a minyan. I said I would come soon, but maybe not that Friday.
I found the courage a few Fridays later. I arrived a little early and mistakenly opened the blue gate to the Jewish Cemetery adjacent to the temple—I froze. The smell of curry and incense and wood burning over open pits in the back of the cemetery hit me from a small tent-village of Indian squatters with naked infants and stray dogs and a huge color TV perched on a bench playing a Hindi “beach blanket”- style movie. The adults stared at me. I sensed their apprehension. Was I the Jew cop come to chase them away for sacrilegiously defaming the dead? Although Hindus burn their dead and cemeteries are rare in Delhi, they respected all forms of honoring the dead.
A burst of hot wind swirled dust and garbage into the air and a tin can smashed into the headstone of a Rachel Mulemet (aged ten, daughter of Moshe and Ruth), and I was thrown into a dust-storm of dream memory of Castor and our arguments about his finishing Hebrew school. Sensing my guilt, like any normal child he gave me hell. This was after his grand- mother—my mother—had died, and he would look at me sulkily. “I am only doing this for Mommoms ’cause she’s watching me and I promised.”
“I know,” I would answer, my voice curt, exhausted from hours in the ER, “that’s the best of reasons.”
He would stop and twirl the curls of his hair with his small hands. “I know that you and Ma don’t care because you never go to temple.”
My precocious genius had cornered me. He seemed all too ready to assume my mother’s mantle of chief guiltmonger. “Toss the football when you’re done?” I would offer as he trudged to his room. He ignored me, but later would come out of his room carrying the mini rubber football, and we would go to the long, narrow hallway and throw the ball for hours. He struggled mightily. Unlike physics, which came so effortlessly to him while most of us stared at equations in perplexity, making a nimble catch or swiping an errant throw remained elusively mystifying to him. Still, he tried and tried. A raving sports nut since three, I played down his inability. And Sarah became pissed at me for his feeling of inadequacy. I blamed his friends, society, anybody but me.
An Indian father and son playing soccer kicked the ball toward me and I tossed it back. The boy hopped over the headstone of Rachel buried in the polluted graveyard. Was Rachel as sweet as my son? Was she so tired and innocent and worldly at ten? Had her disease made her wise? Did she melt her father’s heart when she whispered, “Daddy, let’s play”? Did she look so forlorn, feeling time so precious, when her parents argued in front of her? Did she arch her eyes like her mom when she was disappointed in her father? Did her parents stay awake when she fell ill with the simplest cold? Like Castor, did she move too fast through life? And did her father become insane when friends explained her death, “It is destiny, god’s will.” I’d rant to myself, trying to remain polite and in control: “Fuck destiny. Any god that could do this to my child, fuck him too.” Yet still they gave Rachel a Jewish burial as we had buried Castor, blessed by a rabbi, in the ground now beside his grandmother—I shut the gate with my dry eyes closed, for I had shed all of my tears.
The fundamental question is not whether God is dead, that out of pity for mankind he suicided himself as nietzsche fervently believed, as to enable us to accept and endure the eternal recurrence to overcome our weakness, instead of embracing the nihilism dominating the culture around him. nietzsche’s question and answer were those of an optimist. Dostoevsky, with his ferocious and lovely pessimistic russian heart, posed the question, which informs all of his work, and which must first be answered: what happens when there is no god? unfortunately, we found out—Hitler, stalin, Dachau, Auschwitz, treblinka, the russian Gulags, Hiroshima and nagasaki and the nuclear explosions and mass murders to come. For they will surely come.
Levi Furstenblum, Mystical Mistakes
My son had not died of a terminal disease, been run over by a drunk driver, taken an overdose of drugs or been slain by his own hand.
No, on a seemingly ordinary Thursday in mid- May, an hour before going to Hebrew School, three and a half hours before I was to leave the ER to meet him for a night of pizza and watching the Knicks playoff game because Sarah was attending an opening at her gallery, he and thousands of other students rushed or ambled or dawdled into the spring daylight after another day at Stuyvesant High School. Waiting outside were Rusty Kickham, Mitch Tabaldi, Bobby Skirpan and Linda Graper. How well I have come to know those names repeated in my head like an evil mantra. They screamed at their fellow students, “Niggers, Jews and spics—prepare to die!. . . fuck the chinks!” as four hundred bullets rocketed from their automatic weapons. When silence resumed on West Street twenty-one people lay dead, thirty-three wounded, and my son Castor lay atop the body of Mary Sweedlow, his unrequited fantasy of lust, with two bullets lodged in his failing body.
At 3.39 in the afternoon—I know because every TV station in America reported the exact time—we received a call that there had been another psychotic group of teenagers who lost their minds and blew half their former classmates to bits. This time it was no rural school in Arkansas or Colorado, but in Manhattan. All the hospitals in the area would be receiving the wounded. My mind did a hop, skip and jump, almost as if I knew and must repress any idea that the school might be Stuyvesant. That my son might be one of the wounded.
I was head of the ER. I called on every available doctor, intern and resident in the hospital. Ordered more nurses. More plasma and blood. Stationed all the extra beds. We were ready. Within minutes the ambulances screeched in with the paramedics in states of panic like I’d never seen. I directed who to do what to whom. Blood leaked from the children’s shredded bodies. For this brutality there was no preparation. Parents clamored in the waiting room wanting TO KNOW! And then, as one of the stretch- ers barreled in, I saw Castor. I went to his side and held his hand.
It’s astounding how much pressure and pain the body and emotions can absorb. Suddenly time slowed: I didn’t, couldn’t react. I touched his arm pretending to find his fading pulse. I told one of the residents to prep him. I didn’t tell anyone he was my son. I moved on to the other children and two teachers who lay moaning for their lives. I detailed who and what should be done. This was my job. I had trained all my professional life for the Big Emergency.
Quietly I asked one of the volunteers to call my wife and tell her to get to the hospital right away.
I chose to operate on Castor, for if he died then I would blame only myself. I prayed, to the god of Abraham and Isaac and all gods, to spare my son’s life. Castor was conscious and I whispered in his ear, “I love you,” and he whispered back in his last seconds of consciousness, “Where’s mom? Can I see her?” and then, as I removed the bullet from his spine. . . I did not curse. I did not cry. I inhaled, exhaled, clenched my teeth, held my tears and moved to the next child and then the next. Two more children died that day in my emergency room. After nine hours I could no longer go on. I asked a nurse to bring in Sarah, who arrived hours too late. I went into my office, stared at her red eyes and beaten face. From each of us came no words. Only silence. Then I broke down.
The day that Dachau officially became an independent domain was a great day for Germany and a greater day for all of europe, but the greatest of all was to Hitler—the best friend the Jews ever had.
Soon the Jews began building homes and new chemical factories and experimental facilities for new medicines and medical treatments. some German doctors visited, even assisted in the experiments and were immensely impressed with what the Jews were doing inside the medical offices they built in Dachau. they promised huge rewards from these experiments in the future.
We saw the films of the new community of the men in their beards and women in their long, black dresses going to pray and then to work. the less religious moneymakers and traders built up their new city-state. the Jews were finally ending their stateless wandering around europe. Because of the brilliance of the Fuhrer, they were all finally together in one place . . . .
. . . and so too the economies of the countries of europe flourished. using these new resources, everyone began to thrive. unemployment went down. inflation went down. Because of the master plan, the Fuhrer’s final solution to save the Jews, to solve the Jewish problem, which had plagued europe for centuries, was in place for lasting peace in europe. For this accomplishment, the Fuhrer happily accepted the nobel Peace Prize from the nobel Prize-winning norwegian writer, Knut Hamsun. A photo of Hamsun,
With his bearish smile, welcoming the Fuhrer to Oslo hung on my wall.
And then came the greatest shock to all of us.
Suddenly, even inside our home in Munich, we began to smell horrid fumes sweeping in from over the border, which was only ten miles away. At first, we ignored it. eichmann and Himmler investigated and claimed it was the Jews’ right to do within their lands whatever they chose. they were experimenting with new technologies of power, a new gas, Zyklon B, which would make them a self-sufficient energy state and financially stable. My father seemed worried. During his radio broadcast, the Fuhrer reassured us all was well. “trust me,” he said, “the Jews will act honorably and to live up to their part of the bargain.”
Then came the dirty dishonor of what they had done to themselves. Of how they betrayed the Fuhrer’s hope for the Jews. My father, who was one of the policemen chosen to investigate, told us before we saw the unimaginable photographs of the devastation, came home a shattered man. He couldn’t understand why six million (six million!) people
would kill themselves in mass suicide. And to starve themselves like that! if they needed help, we would have given bread. soup.
But killing themselves with such monstrous gas— we couldn’t understand. i was a teenager and did not comprehend why they chose to meet their god. i cried and cried at the madness and my father’s sadness. He spoke to me of what he’d seen and happened for many months. so hurt he was, he never talked to me of it again.
He could never comprehend such mass societal insanity. such calculated taking of life. so like the
Jews to be so orderly and quiet, he said. still it is not comprehensible. no one, not the most intellectual of men or wisest of philosophers or the most spiritual priests and reverends could explain it.
Simply, even after all these years, i have one explanation: the Jews were to blame. no one else. they killed themselves by their own hands of their own free will. we did all that we could to save them. it was their choice to meet their god, who did not stop or save them.
Levi Furstenblum, Chambers of Commerce
A few weeks later,Rabbi Judah called me.“Iwant to tell you please, Levi is coming this week.”
Next to the cemetery alongside a long blue wall creaked a rusty iron gate, which opened into the temple grounds. An aged, petite, kindly woman with one front tooth greeted me. She pointed toward the temple building. A plaque on the wall detailed the history and noted the many benefactors who contributed to the building, constructed in 1954. The woman took my hand and led me to the back of the courtyard, where the Rabbi had his office next to a library and seminar room.
The rabbi, who appeared to be in his seventies but was barely five–three and Indian in every pos- sible way except for the yarmulke on his head, grinned, pleased with himself because I had come. Each person usually increased the congregation by ten, perhaps twenty percent; there were no more than a dozen per- manent Jewish families left in Delhi. This was a larger crowd than usual. Rabbi Judah introduced us all: the black assistant ambassador from Angola and his kids, a Russian émigré couple, the son and granddaughter of the rabbi, two young men from the US on business, a South African investment banker, two couples from the Israeli Embassy, plus regular “Indian” members of the congregation. Two curious German tourists sat in the back row. A French journalist married to an American journalist, both based in Delhi. Two Indian couples with their children. Three Indian Jewish teen- agers without their parents. And Levi Furstenblum, whom the rabbi introduced to no one.
I recognized him immediately. Now eighty- two years old, gripping a wooden handled cane. The brutally fierce and formidable face, of too much hell-brought wisdom, that stared out from the back cover photo of his books, remained unchanged by the passage of time, and a life that never again fell sway to the leisurely vicissitudes of hope. A straight but fleshy nose, with nostrils that twitched from smelling too much pain and death. His bald head was topped by a hastily placed yarmulke; he wore gold-framed, green- tinted glasses all during the evening ceremony. He was larger-framed than I imagined and roughly my height—5’ 10”—but, unlike me, large boned. He wore a brown sport coat and open-collared wrinkled shirt. I expected kindness and forgiveness from him, but he emanated magisterial anger. Almost a menace. He did not sing or pray during the service, only sat or stood in complete silence. Not even mumbling, “Amen.”
When it came time for the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, the Rabbi counted the house. For once and only once I was glad women didn’t count in the needed ten Jewish men for the minyan. It didn’t matter; there were more than ten of us. I sank in my chair. I did not want to make the choice of standing, signaling that I was in mourning. One of the American businessmen stood and I hesitated, stayed seated. My hands gripped the sides of my chair. No way could I find it in my heart to pray, for the soul of my son, to a god in whom I did not believe.
After singing the last song, “Dayenu”—an unintended comic highlight with so many accents and differing Hebrew pronunciations—Rabbi Judah said the Kiddush prayer for the wine and then the crowd mingled. Rabbi Judah tugged at the edges of my sport jacket, led me away, and introduced me to Furstenblum as “Dr. Neil Downs, who very much wants to meet you.” Levi stayed seated, not even reaching to shake my hand. He looked and spoke to me with an “Oh no, not another fool come to seek banal wisdom and an autographed book” weariness.
“A nice Jewish doctor?” With his still evident Germanic-Jewish accent, though he had spent his early life in Prague, and the needle of his satirical question, he took all advantages away from me, which deprived me of any seriousness. “And your wife?” Ever perceptive, he spotted the wedding band, which I had never taken off. “A shiksa?”
“Of course.” “That’s why she’s not here?” “We’re separated.” “Children?” “Not anymore.” “When?” “May.” “And you didn’t stand for Kaddish?” There was more curiosity in his voice than remorse. “I couldn’t.”
Suddenly, he wet his lips with his tongue. He heaved a sigh. “I must go.” He stood up, pressing with both hands against the knob of his cane. “You want me to tell you how I have lived. You want me to tell you a lie and this I cannot do.” He took off his glasses and held them in both hands as he gripped the knob of his cane. He waited so I could see the pure coldness in the eyes of the man who wrote the words which had caused so much controversy: “No one who survived the death camps, not the German or the Gypsy or the Homosexual or the Communist or the Jew, was left with one ounce of humanity—all those with humanity perished—only those of us with the most vicious inhuman instincts survived. All those survivors who announce their profound wisdom or remorse or forgiveness. . . are liars.” That courageous bluntness is how he survived, first the small camp of Terezin outside Prague and then Auschwitz. How he survived the deaths of all of his loved ones. How he lived for another fifty years after the camps. I could never imagine being inside his head, living with his demons.
He waited. I felt like he was scrutinizing me. “Mr. Downs, you are a doctor, you know more than I do about saving lives. I only know about death. I never saved any life but my own.”
Epistasis is the biological term, which science best defines as that nothing is simple and everything depends on everything else. it is an essential precept that humankind must accept as a philosophical truth. we must accept and acknowledge our interconnectedness, without demeaning, simplifying or undervaluing our differences and individuality. we must live in the space, which maintains our uniqueness and our oneness in a cosmological epistasis.
From the unpublished works
I began working more frequently at the embassy. One morning I arrived and Levi sat waiting with the scheduled patients in sitting on the cush- ioned sofa, peeking out from behind the Times of India, eyes unseeable behind dark glasses. I went straight to him. His presence forbade any grand or even formal welcoming. “I have to take care of these people first.”
“I can wait. I have my newspapers,” which he rustled in the air. It took over an hour before I got to him. He had fallen in his apartment and bruised himself; he was worried that his bones were deteriorating faster now. Life in a wheelchair did not suit him. I accompanied him into the examining room; he scoffed when I asked if he needed help changing into his gown. I left the room. When I returned, Levi almost snarled. He looked quite miserable. The sleeves on the gown flowed around the chafed skin of his arms. Taking his blood pressure I saw the tattooed numbers. “Another gift I couldn’t return,” he said. My eyes, against my will, flashed away. Without rancor Levi said, “You haven’t seen this before?”
“A long time ago. One of my Hebrew School teachers—but he always wore long sleeved shirts, even in the hot weather.”
“Too bad for him.” I offered to call Privat Hospital where Levi could get MRIs of each knee and a bone density test; then we would meet again.
He agreed. He asked for pain pills. “The pain is more formidable than ever and I am no masochist.” Tylenol with Codeine was not strong enough, made him sweat and gave him constipation. I wrote scrips for Darvocet and Vicodin. He nodded as I warned him to get the drugs from specific hospitals or pharma- cies because many pharmacies—some knowingly and some not—gave out dummies, placebos, or even dangerous versions of the drugs. He nodded and his hand shook slightly; but he noticed my nerves. “Are you having problems with India? You seem perhaps more tormented than before.”
“Worse than before?”
“Pale and that unmistakable ache of incom- pleteness.” There was the note of the mystic in Levi’s insight, but he was right. “I can see it.”
“I’ve been talking to my wife and making plans for my son’s unveiling.” The unveiling is a Jewish cere-mony which signifies the end of the mourning period.
“When next we meet, after discussing my business,” he tapped his knees with his cane, “we will talk of your dilemmas.”
Ab-, ent-, -los, un-, ver-
absence, hiatus, distancing.
-less, un-, ab, trans-,
without, absence, away, beyond.
Lying under, beneath
these are the grunts and groans of yearning. With more grunts and groans begin words. some languages sing of the loss. Others drop and add with clinical detachment. Others only syllabify and emphasize. All are insufficient to the task of defining the first smells. the unknown echoes becoming familiar voices. the infiltration of colors becoming emotion. virgin forms emerging as the tactile chords of love. the sounds becoming words. All becoming language. the child’s world, like the universe as inexplicable gaseous mist becoming the hard, knowable and secure markers of the mystery hidden in the meaning of words, which still ache of incompleteness. sound of something missing. Do not fill the void. the yearning from the womb. For the mother and father. For the mate. For the child. For the unanswerable. For certainty. For the ache of emptiness which is filled by the search for the silent gods.
From the unpublished works
It was many weeks before I next heard from Levi. I called to see how he was doing and to tell him that I was going home for the unveiling on New Year’s Eve. I accepted an invitation to dinner at his home on Christmas Eve, which coincided with the second night of Chanukah. He lived on the ground floor of the two-story house which he owned. He rented out the top floor.
Levi appeared relaxed when he greeted me. Dressed casually in slacks and a cashmere buttondown pale-blue sweater over a collared shirt, he wore untinted glasses that did not make his presence any less forbidding. Walking with the aid of his cane, he showed me around the interior and patio of the mod- est home. Books in English, German and Hebrew lined the walls of nearly every room, with the rare books stored inside a glass case. I saw none of his own books, publications, or personal photographs anywhere. He became almost effervescent when he showed off his small but impressive and deeply- rooted European art collection, which prominently featured a print from Otto Dix, a miniature woodcut from Munch, an original Kokoschka portrait and a signed and dedicated print from Anselm Kiefer. Classical and jazz records and CDs filed in alphabetical order filled a floor-to ceiling cabinet. The sound system played Samuel Barber’s chorale music. He led me to the entrance of his workroom, stopped and then almost delicately walked into a stark room with drawn curtains over the windows and the walls bare except for two framed prints from the Arbeiter Illustriete Zeitung newspaper which hung opposite his desk. The first was from July, 1934, titled “Heil Hitler” with bullet-filled corpses all around the zealot-eyed Fuhrer. The second from December 26, 1935, and titled in German, which Levi translated for me as “O Joyful, O Blessed, Miracle-Bringing Time,” pictured Nazis as angels wearing gas masks and circling above the terrorized/adoring people.
On another wall, a lone rusted 150-year-old key which hung on the wall behind a Plexiglas frame— the only surviving key to his former family home in the Jewish quarter of Prague.
I backed wordlessly away and surveyed the computer, printer and fax machine which sat on the mahogany desk. Papers were stacked neatly on the floor and on a second large table; cabinets filled with hundreds if not thousands of letters surrounded the room. He nudged me with his cane and led me to the den; to enter we had to walk down three small steps.
A 27-inch TV screen hooked up to a satellite dish dominated the room. While I took all this in, Levi watched and called out instructions to the cook.
When he invited me for dinner, he asked what I wanted to eat. I joked, “Potato pancakes and matzo ball soup.” Done deal. He regularly had boxes of Manishschevitz soup and potato pancake-mix flown in from New York along with other needed essentials. In the dining room adjacent to the den, I eyed an unlit Menorah on the middle shelf of the floor-to- ceiling breakfront. “Hannah lit the candles,” he said matter-of-factly.
“Was she religious?”
“Observant.” He poured me a glass of red wine. I took it and made a motion with my right hand as a toast. “L’chaim.” He nodded and sat in his favorite chair at the head of stained wooden dining room table with a pinkish marble border that looked like something the British might have left behind. He sipped his beer from a frosted mug. “Sit, please.”
“I saw Hannah’s grave in the cemetery.” I had wondered if he felt any reservations about burying her.
“Of course not,” he snorted through his nostrils, “would I burn her? Cremate her?” As tattoos were banned,sowascremationagainstJewishlaw;burning would be a victory for hate because it symbolized not the sacred crematoria of India but the craven cham- bers of Europe. “So, you leave New Year’s Eve?”
I nodded. “I leave soon after that for Israel.” Levi grinned and his yellowing teeth showed. “I am meeting my friend, the Rebe Schneerman”—not reverence but bemusement lilted from his voice as he pronounced this title of honor—“to whom I am ineluctably bound because we survived summer camp together. He is quite ill.” Adolph Schneerman, born into a wealthy and assimilated German-Jewish family of whom he alone survived Auschwitz, immigrated to Brooklyn where he became a noted Cabbalist and head of a renowned sect of Orthodox Jews. Where Levi emerged faithless, Schneerman leapt into total and absolute faith of the messiah’s eventual return. Schneerman made headlines in Israel and the Jewish community when he proclaimed that those in the camps deserved to die for past sins. He believed the same fate awaited the Palestinians. “You know of Schneerman?”
“Only headline stuff.”
“He has such a ferbissener kopf. Every day for two years he lamented, What did we do to deserve this?” Levi never felt obliged to answer that question. “And when he survives, he thinks somehow he is Yaweh’s special envoy. He wanted me to make a pilgrimage with him to Prague and Berlin, his home city, so we could pray together.” A rather unpleasant gurgle climbed from deep in his throat, which meant “not a chance.” He leaned his head forward, pressing his thin, dry lips together. “Have you been to Prague?” He so wanted me to tell news of Prague. He would have accepted stories of Prague ’68, although he would have preferred the Prague of Havel and the Velvet Revolution. The cleaned-up Prague, with only vague allusions to the Prague of his youth, with no recollections of the jackbooted stomps across the cobblestone, of the ravaged temples serving as Nazi headquarters. Those temples become memorials to 72,000 annihilated Jews. Prague with “Kafka cafes” whose owners have never read one word of The Trial. Prague of month-long grand music festivals and hipster hangouts called the Bohemian Bagel. I had no stories to tell.
“No. Been to Berlin. Didn’t like it.”
“Bah.” He sniffed his nose. “Prague—now that is, or was, a beautiful city.”
“Why don’t you go visit?”
“I am not an apologist. I will not be a smiling Jew used for absolution like in that insidious movie. I do not want any prizes or gifts sponsored by remorse- ful looking children, who then will go celebrate forgiveness.” Levi spit out his words with scorn. “In Israel, Schneerman and I will meet, reminisce, visit others, but I will not let him use me in any way to endorse his repugnant ideas. Not even one photo for his newspaper.”
He excused himself and gingerly, painstakingly it seemed, walked into the kitchen to check on the dinner. My eyes searched the house again and I realized Levi lived in India but he had never left the West, Prague, Auschwitz. He and the cook brought in the soup; he sat down and, while we waited for the soup to cool, began to discuss my “dilemmas.”
“So tell me, is there something else besides the unveiling?” His eyes seemed to open and swallow me up. “Yes?”
“I still can’t believe what happened.” I fidgeted in place, my hands and arms feeling like uncontrol- lable extremities. I grabbed the soup spoon and gripped it in my right hand. “I used to be religious in my fashion. I believed in god. In the future. In an ultimate reason. Now, every day, part of me wants to die. Which is better than a few months ago, when every day part of me wanted to kill.”
“Wanting to kill is the easy part.” He stuck his finger in his beer and stirred the ice cubes for a throat-tensing thirty seconds. “Who do you want to kill? Aren’t those children who murdered your son all dead?”
“Their parents. And I hate. . . hate myself for saying this—my wife.” I felt my head and ears become almost feverish.
“Your wife?” His voice quavered slightly with mild surprise; his eyes never wavered as they stared at me. I wished he’d worn his sunglasses. “Is that why she is not here?”
I gulped, hesitated, and blurted a truncated truth. “She was betraying me.”
He shook his head as if to say “I see,” but spoke more bluntly. “In your heart you would rather your wife had been killed than your child.” The accusation petrified me; he knew my inner secrets.
“Part of me. . . .” He interrupted my stammering. “Morder sind leicht einzusehen’ . . . ” I looked at him, clueless. Levi translated for me, “Minds of murders are easily understood.” Levi had cited this famous quote from Rilke’s Duino Elegies in his writings, twist- ing the phrase into another of his own controversial challenges to one’s heart and one’s language: “Minds of victims are not so easily understood.” Levi wrote how easily he came to understand the mind of the torturer, the rapist and the murderer during his internment. He became excited at the idea of killing his captors, branding them, having sex with their wives and daughters. After the war he became sick of hearing the preposterous notion that “we are all Jews.” “We are all Nazis” more accurately reflected human history. Understanding what it was like to be in the camps—that terror fell beyond the limitations of most people. The murderers certainly did not understand the victims. Levi suggested as punishment for all who had killed and tortured and watched and guarded and led the imprisoned to the chambers, whether they were Germans, Latvians, Lithuanians, Poles, Croats or Czechs, that they be interned for one year as he had been interned. No heat in winter, no change of clothes, no bathroom, no hot water, barely any water at all, no visiting with love ones, almost no food; being magnanimous, he’d allow them to forgo the torture and beatings. At the end of one year they should be released into society on a single condition: they could never procreate. If they had children they had to give them up for adoption. If their wives became pregnant, they could either choose to abort or could give the child up for adoption. Many thought he was being ironic.
“You cannot let your murderous desires paralyze you.” He dipped a piece of Indian brown bread into the steaming soup.
“Levi, I accept my inner Nazi.” Levi clenched his jaw. “Though I don’t know if I could kill in cold blood. But what I want. . . I simply want this never- ending indelible ache of loss to go away.”
“I possess no magic elixir,” he frowned sympa- thetically, “that would excise your ache or fill the void. Don’t worry about your ability to kill. You can.” He breathed heavily. He wiped his mouth with his cloth napkin.“You cannot let your own victimization make you a torturer.”
I nodded. “Listen carefully,” we both stopped sipping our
soup. “And I hope this makes sense to you. There have been two monumental exchanges of ideas between India and the West.” He waited. I wasn’t about to guess. “They gave us the zero, the idea of nothingness. They have used the zero as a cosmological concept for over two thousand years. In Hinduism, of which I know there are many strains, often it is believed that Sunya, the essence of nothingness is from where we come and, finally, the ultimate reward. Life is the absence of nothingness. In the Seventh Century, this universal truth became known to humankind after the Brahmaghupta defined it as a mathematical and algebraic concept.
“During the Aryan conquest we exported to the Indians the caste system, which had its basis in the banality of lightness of skin and hair color. The Indians began to engrain and justify the most hideous behavior, later selfishly reinforced by The British colonizers, as an essential part of the order of things to return to nothingness. Not like the tra- ditional Western cataclysmic oblivion myth—the word ‘messiah’ did not exist in Hindi or Sanskrit until the Christian missionaries brought it with the Bible. There are those, and I have spoken with them at length, who say I do not, cannot understand the Indian way. Perhaps they are right, but I perceive a salvation that became less transcendent over the centuries and quite Darwinian. The best ascend and finally reach eternal nothingness.
“In the West, the zero and nothing are the ultimate terror. The West has spent centuries trying to negate or transcend the zero and nothingness, which is not possible. For if nothing is possible, then god- lessness is not only possible, but probable. I accept this. There is no ultimate reason for existence—only chaos and what comes next is nothingness. Absolute nothing. I do not consider myself a nihilist. I have faith in nothingness. It is a wonderful feeling, in which I embrace the barbarian in myself, the cruelty in being a bourgeois European, American or Brahmin. I accept my being as part Nazi and part of European culture which has given the world the guillotine, the gas chamber and the atomic bomb. I don’t forgive. I never forgive. Those who say they forgive but don’t forget are liars. But I understand.”
I bowed my head, sullen and inadequate. “Even great men and women up close are often small people. He stared at me. “I don’t tell you to understand those boys who are killers, or the parents who may or may not be responsible. But understand your wife. You may not have tranquility, but you must have less hate, hate that is filling your void. Hate kills like no other emotion.”
For so long it puzzled me why John placed the most important naming in the new testament in the past, rather than the present tense. now i see that he, like Jesus, born a Jew, perhaps unconsciously, perhaps slyly, intimated that the natural progression from polytheism to monotheism is to a world beyond god. the command that “the word was god” placed god in time rather than being time or transcending time. this comes in stark contrast to John who commanded: “God is spirit.” I now interpret this, in effect, as meaning that a god who killed his son did not assure eternality but ended the dream of immortality beyond time while bequeathing the “spirit” to us. Our choice, our responsibility, is to allow that spirit to thrive in humanity and in time.
From the unpublished works
My trip home encompassed every possible emotion, mostly sad and difficult. But through the hell and pain Sarah and I reconciled; I found what I came to call my inner Levi; whenever hate began to eat at me, I called upon Levi’s voice to calm me. In time we returned to India together. Levi remained in Israel much longer than anticipated. Soon after he returned, he called. His tone dour, he didn’t want to gab. Schneerman had died. The trip sapped his patience and strength. He mentioned that he’d been back a week and still felt fatigued. He preferred not to come to the office so we made plans to meet at the International Center for lunch.
I arrived before him. The maitre d’ showed me to the table. When Levi arrived I watched his strug- gling steps, while his recalcitrant demeanor refused to acknowledge his pain. He sat, nodded and grumbled “hello” from behind his tinted glasses. Quickly he ordered a beer, and so did I.
His face remained devoid of excitement or relief when I told him the good news: he needn’t go to the U.S. for surgery; the head of the Lennox Hill Hip and Knee Replacement Department, Dr. Ranwat, came to Bombay’s Breach Candy Hospital once a year. His credentials were as good as you could find anywhere in the world. Levi remained stoic. Then I mentioned that Sarah was with me in Delhi and I wanted them to meet. Skepticism crawled on his closed, dry lips; he sniffed with his suspicious nose. “I don’t know how it’s going to work, if it is going work, somehow it must. I love her and we will try. I must try.”
His lips parted. He pushed himself up from his seat, came to my side of the table, cupped one hand on each of my temples and kissed me on the forehead. Before this, he’d never even shook my hand. I’d never seen him touch anyone. His smile turned almost sanguine. He returned to his seat and we toasted with our beers, “Mazel Tov.” He gulped his drink and ordered another. Now he wanted to talk. “You had a more fruitful trip than I.”
“I’m sorry about Schneerman.”
“Our friendship was one of irreconcilable dif- ferences and shared laments. We didn’t agree on much, but we agreed it is important to die correctly. I helped him die correctly.”
It didn’t seem appropriate to ask what he meant by that.
“Some of his followers wanted to ban me from his funeral. Until then I didn’t even want to go. The same foul jackasses who wanted to burn, not ban, my books.” The Israeli right-wing had eviscerated Levi for years.
“Is that why you stopped writing?” The era of good feeling over, he eyed me with his withering scowl. “Who says I did?” “Well—”
“You want more answers from your Jewish guru?” Sorry I asked, I shook my head. He clasped the beer in his arthritic left hand. He gulped it down and thumped the glass on the table. He reached and picked up a napkin. He gently wiped the condensa- tion off the glass. He took of his shaded eyeglasses and meticulously cleaned them with the damp nap- kin. Then he tossed that napkin on the table and picked up a clean napkin and dried the glasses before he put them back on and glared at me. “I stopped publishing. There is a difference.” He held his breath, burped into his fist.
“OK then,” and feeling a what-the-hell boldness I pushed for an answer, “why’d you stop publishing?”
“Not because of the reaction. I expect either silence or condemnation. Serious writing imperils or embraces the beyond. It is an act ignited by despair but signaling hope for a future. I no longer had hope for the transcendent beyond. Then I decided, at Hannah’s urging, that it was imperative I find a future. What I found is what I’ve written.”
“Will you publish it?” “Not in my lifetime.” “Any chance I can see it?” “You are an American?”
My eyes and neck did a double take, looking behind me as if someone else must have sneaked up behind me. “Uh, yeah. . . yes.”
He laughed. “Very good. You have a plastic face.”
“Thank you, I think.”
“You also have hope—a sentiment for which I have no interest. You Americans are hope fiends.” I half-smiled. “America has hope for what you can do in this life, which is superior to hoping for a better life in the next nonexistent world. The American Dream, which is now the world’s dream, presents itself as a dream of freedom. I found its essence to be the oppressive dream of the tangible, not the dream of what you cannot measure, feel, touch. That is why I left America. What is needed is not hope for what you can have but what you can give, for what is beyond measure, not beyond life.”
For all that had happened, I still believed in America, the idea of America, the hope of America.
“Neil, perhaps you are the right kind of American. What you and Sarah are attempting is the correct form of hope, if I may use that word.” He grinned showing his teeth, “I will allow myself to hope, that is, for you. . . .”
The Jews, we Jews, erred by claiming the Holocaust as a “Jewish tragedy.” By creating a Jewish state with memorials that call attention to, in effect affirm, Hitler’s claims that he would eliminate Jews from europe and that few non-Jews would care enough to stop him. no doubt the Holocaust, as evidenced by Hitler’s pronouncements in Mein Kampf that were proven all too true, issued a moral license for christians to kill Jews, as well as to kill other christians; but it did not enforce a contrary moral imperative for christians to save Jews. the nazis and their henchmen, and the Allies who didn’t bomb the chambers or railways, proved that all too clearly. what we should have emphasized is that the barbarism signified humanity killing humanity. All humanity. instead we have retained the gold star of otherness rather becoming part of the whole, which forced us to live and die outside the human epistasis, servants of the Jewish god, YHVH who deserted his people rather than become entwined in the connective tissue of the greater whole. we remain a word apart rather than a prefix or suffix affixed to the human word.
from Mystical Mistakes
In the following weeks Sarah and I soberly, persistently mended our broken love. I kept meaning to call Levi but somehow did not. When the Rabbi Judah called and invited us to a Passover diner, I considered accepting until he told me Levi had declined. I promised I’d call him right after the holiday.
On the first night of Passover I wished I had accepted, Levi or no Levi. The ineffable missing of my parents and family, my son, sent me into a tailspin of holiday despair. No matter where I was, I could never escape the yearning yet childishly sickening feelings that spurted from my gastric juices on the Jewish holidays—the semi-annual get-togethers of jealou- sies between siblings and cousins where I cherished being an only child as they squabbled over who would lead the Seder, which Haggadah to use, English or English-Hebrew, and who would ask the fabled Four Questions. My father, a religious blank page, always rolled his eyes as my uncles and cousins kvetched and quibbled; he wanted to say, “Let’s eat,” and my mother, no latent repository of spiritual sacredness but in search of family harmony, would stare at him to shut up and be patient. Why I missed that is beyond me, but I did. And so much I missed my son.
Sarah and I stayed home alone, since it was also the night before the Indian festival of Holi, and not a good night to be out on the streets. She cooked a din- ner of pasta with a mutton meat sauce. Good Jewish food. Feeling lost I sat on the couch, half-reading the new issue of JAMA, half-watching an American series about a bunch of calorie-deficient female lawyers and their neurotic male counterparts yammering over some inanity—helluva Passover show—when the phone rang.
“Mr. Downs, I am sorry to disturb you, and I am aware you are experiencing a less than happy time.” I recognized Rabbi Judah’s high-pitched, anguished speaking voice, which often left no room for commas or periods, so you could slow him down with a question. Only this time, I had no questions. Not four. Not even one.
After this century, the honest, most difficult leap of faith is to disbelieve in god, and to surrender to the mystery of having one life with no return, no salvation and no final judgement.
From the unpublished works
Earlier that evening Levi swallowed a few dozen Darvocets and Vicodins—the pills I had prescribed for him—washing them down with beer. Then he turned on the gas oven, lay down on the kitchen floor, stuck a pillow under his head and placed the 150- year-old rusted key from his family home in Prague on his chest. In his last act of the unbroken spirit, his last spit-in-the-face to his dead god, to his god-fearing torturers, to the legacy of Schneerman, like so many Holocaust survivors unwilling to let others make the decision, Levi chose the elegiac weekend of salvation and sacrifice to die correctly.
I promised Judah I’d be at the funeral on Sunday morning. Sarah overheard the conversation.
“Never get a break, do you?” “I should have known.” I turned off the TV. I couldn’t take the prattle. “I’ll miss him, but it’s what he wanted.” His was a death, if not a life, that I could understand.
On Sunday a huge crowd, five hundred people at the minimum, showed up at the cemetery on this Easter Sunday. Indian intellectuals, Moslems and Hindus, Communists and Capitalists. Physicists from the universities. Correspondents from the local and international press. The Israeli ambassador. Cultural attaches from at least thirty embassies. The owners of bookstores and restaurants that Levi frequented. Neighbors and strangers. For a crotchety old loner, he sure had plenty of friends. I couldn’t get near the casket. From one of the dozens of baskets of flowers I pulled two white roses. For what I hoped would be the last time, I sat by the grave of Rachel Mulemet and placed the roses on her headstone and bid her goodbye.
Long ago Levi advised Rabbi Judah on how to conduct the ceremony. Judah acknowledged that Levi wanted no prayers, no Shivah, no eulogy service at the Habitat Center. Judah didn’t listen; all were being arranged. He prayed in Hebrew and English and asked us to pray along. I couldn’t. Like Levi, I never mouthed “amen.”
To close, Judah did recite the lines Levi had chosen from the German-Jewish poet Heinrich Heine.
no one will sing a Mass
no one will say a Kaddish
there will be nothing said and nothing sung
On the anniversaries of my death.
The service ended and the mourners filed out. As I followed the crowd out of the cemetery, Rabbi Judah signaled to me. I followed him into a back room.
“Levi has left copies of this for some of his friends. He made special care to mention you.” He handed me a bound copy of his last works which, for now, were to remain “unpublished.” “Please, it is for you.” I opened them to a page that Levi had marked.
Where we once found god, we must now fill the empty soul of the living heart; we must find love without the smell of vengeance and hate; a poetry for the songs that have not yet been sung, a canvas for the visions that have not been seen, a language for words that have not been thought.
the word that was god is silent.
we are the word that is.
David Foster Wallace
The National Anthem