Page 18 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 45

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10
JEWISH BOOK ANNUAL
ings from which, consciously or otherwise, her readers are
excluded.
Robert Alter has called Hugh Nissenson “the only genuinely
religious writer in the whole Jewish group.” Indeed, Nissenson
told the late Harold Ribalow that he is truly “obsessed with reli­
gious sensibility and atheistic sensibility,” and that the metaphysi­
cal Weltanschauung is of predominant interest to him. He is not
greatly intrigued with social questions but all the more with the
myth potential of whatever he depicts. Also, as he told Ribalow,
he wants to participate in the search of finding out “just what this
business of being Jewish is all about.”
To find out, Nissenson has placed his characters in a variety of
locales, including Israel, where most American-Jewish writers
have feared to tread. Two o f his stories in
Pile of Stones
(1965), his
best collection, have Warsaw as their setting, symbol of the past;
two others have their narratives unfold in Israel, symbol of the
Now; and two others take place in America, the emblem of the
Then and Now. Whatever Nissenson’s location, whatever the
time frame, his Jew is and remains a harried, alienated human
being. What distinguishes him further is his moral earnestness
and intensity and the fundamental decency and dignity he
displays in a world darkened by humiliation, danger and death.
In the background, addressed directly or otherwise, is the inscru­
table God whom Nissenson’s Jew must question, given the
absurdity of the world and its inhabitants.
It is a pity that in his one novel to date,
My Own Ground
(1976),
Nissenson showed limited aptitude for the longer genre. Yet for
him to explore successfully his “theological obsession,” he would
need more than the short story or the extended story he calls here
a novel. Reminiscent ofJoseph Roth’s
Hiob
(Job), the novel tells of
the tribulations of an Orthodox Jew whose only daughter takes
off with a pimp, suffers moral and physical debasement, and
though she befriends a political radical after an escape, returns
willingly to her pimp. In her shame, however, she kills herself.
Though her father had previously refused to wash a suicide’s
body for burial, he now washes his daughter’s. “The time has
come for us, at last, to break all our holy Laws, one by one,” he
says. The bereft father cites the Midrash: “Israel speaks to God:
When will you redeem us?” And He answers: “When you have
sunk to the lowest level, at that time will I redeem you. The time
has come. That level has been reached. Bring on the Messiah!”