It’s true I went to a predominantly Jewish private school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. And, though not myself Jewish, I heard about Passsover and Seder and the Sabbath and went to various coming-of-age Bat/Bar Mitzvahs. I read Elie Wiesel and Anne Frank and Victor Frankel and Primo Levi and Bernard Malamud.
But it was not until this week that I read a novel that actually gave me more specific detailed insight into a Jewish way of thinking. I say “a way” because one author’s voice is of course only that one author’s and does not purport to speak for a people. Yet this one author opened up a mysterious world to me, a world with a certain God and a humanity with particular gifts and capacities that defy ‘reality.’
The novel delivers, for example, a direct teaching about the Torah: “Just as it is forbidden to slaughter a young animal on the same day as its mother, The Torah prohibits taking fledglings out of nest if the mother can see it.”
This kind of detail, as well as philosophy and faith, comes packaged in what is also a mystery novel and psychological thriller. The author was born in East Berlin in 1970 and grew up in a pro-communist anti-religious family. At 16, according to an article by Benny Ziffer in Israel News’ Haaretz, he became observant and changed his name to Benjamin Stein – Benjamin for “beloved one,” Stein for “stone.” He now lives in Munich and works as a computer consultant.
The Canvas, his first novel of 2010, published in America last week by Open Letter at the University of Rochester, is written by two narrators, in two threads (you have to turn the book over to read the two different streams.) Both are Orthodox Jews — one shakier than the other. Their stories revolve around the true famous 1995 scandal when Binjamin Wilkomirski wrote to great acclaim of his memories as a childhood Holocaust survivor – and was subsequently exposed by a journalist as an imposter. Both narrators , through their various studies and travails of memory and truth, reveal the need to construct, to some extent, one’s own identity. (“We do not know what is true, you say. We can only say what counts.”)
The prose is lucid, clear and full of beautiful passages translated by Brian Zumhagen from Queens, New York. Surprising and delicious are cameos by ee Cummings, Oscar Wilde and George Orwell (“Under the spreading chesnut tree/I sold you and you sold me.”)It is a riveting work on Jewish and secular thinking, one that contains a much welcome glossary of Jewish words and a window on an often, for me, hidden world. Who knew, for example, the possible power of “living water” and the mikvah – a bath taken for ‘purification and healing. “There are some matters, Eli always said, that you can only approach if you’re prepared to question everything – and even smash some things and leave them behind.”