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Summer in the Street of the Prophets?Novels by David Shahar by Leonard Borenstein
Summer in the Street of the Prophets?Novels by David Shahar

Volume 3 , Issue 2

Summer In The Street Of The Prophets and Voyage to Ur Of The Chaldees , novels one and two of The Palace Of The Shattered Vessels By David Shahar. Translation by Dalya Bilu. Weidenfeld and Nicolson, Co. Reviewed by Leonard Borenstein

Finishing the second of these two novels, (which are bound together in one volume), I sensed that the most natural thing to do was to turn back to the very beginning and start to read them over again. And when I did, I was struck by the fact that the very first word in the book is ?light.? Instantly, I thought: The Zohar, the kabbalistic Book of Splendor. For these novels, particularly upon second reading, are a commentary upon and elucidation of Jewish mysticism. The frontpiece to the novels sets the tone in its statement ?For the Elevations of the Soul of Eviatar.?

On first reading, I was so fascinated by the author's style, his multiple characterizations, the setting (Jerusalem in the 1930's) and the plot, that I read these books the way novels are usually read: for the sheer enjoyment. It was not until I had almost completed reading them that it occurred to me that these books contained significance and meaning that I had not initially recognized. Indeed, the last name of Gabriel Jonathan Luria, one of the novel's most important characters, introduced at the very start, and around whom so much of the action revolves, is the name of the great Kabbalistic master of the sixteenth century, Rabbi Isaac Luria, known in Jewish history as HaAri, which means The Lion. And yes, a lion also appears on page one of this remarkable book, in the person of the King of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, (one of whose titles is The Lion of Judah). He is seen entering the Ethiopian consulate (which has a lion on its facade) at the same instant that the narrator as a young boy is drawing water from the well of the house where he lives. He sees Luria, of whom he's heard so much, and Selassie, one after the other, so that the entire event -- the men, the stones of the well and the light on the water in the rising pail -- becomes imprinted on his mind forever.

A few pages later, direct connection to the Lurianic system of Kabbalah is made even more explicitly, with the image of vessels in danger of shattering because they are incapable of holding the rain water that is falling in such abundance that year. The vessels comprise the cistern holding the supply of water underneath the stone pavement of the yard of the house where the boy and his family live and, where Luria, (now back from Paris) and Luria's mother, also reside.

The theme of light is picked up a little further along, but so naturally and unobtrusively that, though Mr. Shahar is working with Kabbalistic images, he avoids spinning a mechanically spun allegory. The grown man, Gabriel, takes the boy (as far as I can tell unnamed throughout both novels) out into the night, but he must bring him right back in because, ?The night sky shocked and filled [him] with a muffled dread.? Luria brings him in again because, ?He understood... [he] was not yet old enough to live in both the world of the day and the world of the night.? But some time later the boy asks to be taken out again because he resents the fact that, as he sees it, Luria ? had hidden from me until now the other world of whose exisence I knew nothing and in which he continued to live after I had gone to sleep ? Thus, the mysterious Luria reveals the many layers of reality to the boy, not only here, but also throughout the works -- not only to the boy, but also to others as well.

The fascination of these novels lies not only with the author's development of characters, but also with his style; he makes much of the story unfold through the use of memory and association. A great deal of what we see and hear comes to us through the narrator's memory. But this, often subtly, turns into the voice of the omniscient author, whose very gentle tone leads us deeper into the lives of the people whose story he is telling. Using this technique, Shahar is able to portray events as happening in the present, even though they might have happened long ago, decades apart. It also allows the reader to share Mr. Shahar's way of seeing the interconnectedness of so much in these novels and, by extension, in the world. It is uncanny how he makes us feel that nothing is random. In the world of this story there are no accidents; everything has its place in a complex pattern. Events are interconnected. But this reality is merely a hint of the ulitmate, more hidden inner meaning. This is surely one of the reasons why the book should be read more than once. The pattern cannot be completely grasped the first time around but, as with much great art, needs more than a single exposure to be fully apprehended.

The entire panorama, though seemingly narrow, is actually very wide. Most of what happens occurs in the small neighborhood around The Street of the Prophets just outside the Old City of Jerusalem in the mid nineteen thirties. Geographically, it moves to Europe as we follow Luria into France, first as a medical student then as a dropout. We also follow Yisroel (Srulik) Shoshan, his former classmate, from small yeshiva boy in Jerusalem to world famous Protestant theologian in the Netherlands, and later in Noyon, a suburb of Paris. When the two of them meet there, in a quite astonishing ?coincidence? (though not really a coincidence, for how many times have we been moved to say when we meet someone in the most unlikely place, ?Isn't it a small world??) we have one of the high points of the first novel.

We not only move out in space, but also weave back and forth through time. Here is how one of the characters views the influence of the Torah on Luria and how it develops in the man over a long period of time:

Early in the first novel, the boy (as yet never having seen Luria) is in the neighborhood drug store. The pharmacist speaks emphatically about Luria, ?...when we were children we studied Torah together in the cheder, and the Torah, that strong drug, is at the root of all his troubles...? Then turning to Luria's mother: ?Mrs. Luria, do you know what is at the root of all your son's troubles? The Torah! Yes, yes, it was the Torah that poisoned his mind.?

Three hundred and fifty pages later in the second novel, just after we have learned how secretive Luria is about how he spends his free time, we come to this:

?Once and only once had he attempted to give his mother a proper answer to her questions about the nature of his occupation -- Even before he opened his mouth to answer her, as soon as she saw the weary frown on the face of her son, the familiar gesture of the hand covering the closed eyes, Mrs. Gentilla Luria know that her worst fears were about to come true. And when the words ?Bible? and ?Torah? reached her ears, together with a few remarks about our need to understand today precisely the things most remote from us -- in other words the whole bloody and disgusting business of the laws of the priests and the sacrifices, which demanded a new, fresh insight more directly related to the sources than all the ancient commentary -- when these words penetrated the dread gripping her heart, it was already clear to her beyond the shadow of a doubt that all the daydreaming idleness of her senile old father had been transmitted to her only son.?

It is certainly quite provocative that Shahar has Luria, though a mystic, essentially a secular Jew, single out the subject of the sacrifices as that part of Torah which needs ?a fresh insight? in our time. For it is this very aspect of Torah most Jews today would be happy never to have to hear about again. (It remains to be seen if this idea is picked up somewhere in the four novels that follow this one in the series, and if and how it is developed.)

Mrs. Luria's reaction is in perfect keeping with her character, but she goes a step further by connecting her son to her ?senile old father.? Now this man, though a minor character, makes a very strong impression on the reader the few times we meet him. He is one of the ?Jerusalem dreamers? of these novels, of which there are many. By trade he is a carpenter, not an ordinary one but the best one around. Though he receives commission after commission, even one to make an elaborate Ark of the Law for the synagogue, he never gets paid adequately for any of his work. Because of this, he leads a life of desperate poverty. The rich Jews who want him to make things for them find reason after reason to do everything but pay him so that at a certain point ?he did not even have a farthing to buy candles for the Sabbath.? To get some money, he reluctantly agrees to carve a cross for the Russian Monastery on the Mount of Olives. He keeps the work secret, but as he is carrying the cross on his back down his personal via Dolorosa to deliver it, he is discovered. His neighbors' swift reaction is to burn down his house and workshop the very next day, forcing him to take his family and flee the quarter. The experience affects his daughter to such an extent that much later in life, when looking at her ?dreamer? son, she thinks of her father with bitterness.

It is a truism that artists cannot but depict their own age, though the works they create might be set in an earlier period. These are novels which attempt to span the vast chasm of modernity and mysticism, secularism and religion, and Christian and Jewish theology. They are major, provocative works, and while some may regard them as a sort of Jewish Satanic Verses, they are, nonethelesss, Jewish and profound. One eagerly awaits the conclusion of Shahar's series in the hope that we may come to know our own enormously complex age a little better by the time we have completed the last novel.

The Dictionary That Reveals the Hebrew Source of English, by Isaac Elchanan Mozeson. Shapolsky Books (136 W22 NYC 10011) 8 1/2 X 11 1/2, 320 pages. Hardcover. $29.95, ISBN 0‑933503‑44‑x. Reviewed by Richard D. Wilkins

This misechta sized tome emphatically illustrates the author's (and the Torah's) thesis that English -- and every other language -- ultimately derives from Biblical Hebrew.

Language scholars have long recognized the essential unity of at least ?Yaphetic? or Indo‑European speech, even as they continue to cling to the theory that the languages and races of Shem and Ham evolved separately from them. Hebrew itself was relegated to but a minor role in the Semitic branch of languages, supposedly another child of a proto‑Semitic language (that exists without a shred of hard evidence). Mozeson brings ?Mother Hebrew? back to center stage in a comprehensive tour de force, the product of a decade of research.

As the subtitle indicates, the focus here is on Hebrew as the ShoResh/SouRCe of English. At entries like DiReC[tion], however, we find that Russian doroga and DRK variations in a dozen language groups relate to Hebrew DeReKh (way, road). Written for the layman, the reader is introduced to basic comparative language concepts like root letter substitutions (elm from elan, tree), permutations (etym[ology] from emet, truth) and additions (E[n]gl[ish] and a[n]gle are from ekool, crooked). The reader gains an appreciation for the flexible pronunciation of Hebrew letters (the vov covers the U,V, and W of English), annuances in Biblical texts.

Prior to the appendices and extensive English and Hebrew indices which lead one to a vast number of words in English and Biblical Hebrew, this unique dictionary's main section pairs off thousands of words that are not supposed to sound and mean this much alike. Many of these are as clear as ALBINO from labhan (white) and SCALE from shakel (to weigh, source of the shekel as well as the schilling). Each English entry is accompanied by the most relevant Hebrew term, with root letters and letter changes indicated. Besides all the related English, Hebrew and foreign words, we are provided with the Indo‑European root (if available), other historical information and a Biblical citation. Previously unrealized synonyms and antonyms crystalize before us as we see the organicism of language unfold.

As one proceeds through the volume the cumulative effect is overwhelming. Although it's a reference book, it can be browsed or consulted by rabbis writing sermons or laymen who simply love words. The Word proves that the holy language was balled up (bilbul or bable at Bable) and given to all the nations, but for Jews this tribute to Hebrew will be a source of special pride. This large and important reference work may forever change the way we look at the world, and it might well engender much follow‑up research and publication for generations ahead.



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