“L’Chaim and Lamentations”
Author: Craig Darch
Publisher: NewSouth Books
Price: $ 24.95 (Hardcover)
As readers surely know, my mandate here is to discuss Alabama-related books, and for the last many months, during this bicentennial year especially, I have read a string of histories of early Alabama and Selma and Birmingham and Mobile Bay.
However, my mandate also extends to books by Alabama authors, and Craig Darch, who has taught at Auburn for over thirty years, qualifies as such an Alabama author.
These stories of Jewish life, set in tenements and in delis, in shtetls and in synagogues, made a wonderful and refreshing change of pace.
They took me back to the days of the Jewish literary renaissance in America, when work by Bellow, Malamud, Roth, I. B. Singer and Grace Paley were at the center of literary culture.
There are seven stories, all different, but all steeped in the borscht and kugel, the syntax and rhythms, the dialect and accents of Jewish life, in New York and in Poland.
The first one, “Sadie’s Prayer,” has an element we sometimes see in Jewish fiction, a kind of subtle Aesopian moral.
Two old, impoverished ladies, Sadie and Esther, are living in a cold, stark one-bedroom apartment in New York City.
Esther has complaints. Sadie is a slob, leaving crumbs everywhere from their morning Entenmann’s coffee cake. Such aggravation!
Esther’s breakfast used to be lox and bagels, not coffeecake. Now 89, depressed, Esther seems ready to die. She misses her husband and more comfortable days. We feel for her, putting up with Sadie’s sloppy, coarse behavior, until the end when we see Sadie brush crumbs onto the floor on purpose, knowing Esther will complain and clean them up later.
Sadie, a good and wise friend, knows complaining and cleaning up are keeping Esther alive.
In “Wasserman’s Ride Home” we see old Ira on the subway, confronted by an American Nazi, swastika tattoos on his neck, riding with his wife and son, both of whom he abuses. Wasserman flashes back to an earlier train ride, to Auschwitz. Evil and antisemitism have not disappeared from the earth. Wasserman feels again the helplessness he felt then, barely able to save himself and frustratingly unable to save anyone else.
Several of these stories involve assimilation in America, and how contemporary culture, not as violent a threat to Judaism as the Holocaust, erodes it nevertheless. In “Kaddish for Two,” a man, 32 years old, is being nagged by his mother: why hasn’t he married and given her grandchildren?
The modern reader already knows the answer that the young man gives.
His mother says, “…oy, how is such a thing possible? Somebody tell me. I can’t picture it.” His father answers: “Don’t try to picture it, Fanny. You don’t want to imagine such a thing.”
Ruta Singer is the central figure of “The Last Jew in Krotoszyn.” She is just that, and tends the Jewish graveyard. The story stays realistic, then the ghosts of all the dead rise up, sort of floating, as in a Marc Chagall painting, each from his grave, behaving just as they had when alive, to receive the old lady among them. They gossip, complain, plan the Sabbath meal. These people and therefore Judaism will never die.
The character Magda, a Christian girl who is being trained to take over the care of the cemetery, reflects: “It was just as Miss Singer had said. The line separating earth and the mysteries of the heavens is blurred, and both worlds exist side by side.”
Darch’s stories contain a good deal of melancholy, loneliness, and disease, but the volume closes with “Miss Bargman.” She’s an old woman, in physical pain; death is not far away, and her future holds little.
But rather than despair, she remembers her father’s advice: “A good Jew, Dora, chooses life. ...It’s written that when a Jew dies he has to account for all the good things God created that he refused to enjoy.” As narrow as Miss Bargman’s life is, the story ends with her planning to share some food with a stranger in the park and, having resolved to do this, “she raised her glass high into the air, took a deep breath, and toasted, ‘L’Chaim.’”
Don Noble is host of the Alabama Public Television literary interview show “Bookmark with Don Noble.” His most recent book is Belles’ Letters 2, a collection of short fiction by Alabama women.