Page 24 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 48

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of God position. Essentially an atheistic retelling of the
the poem stresses human rather than divine intervention:
“There is no angel there./ The boy must free himself/ And seize
the knife,/ Bind up his father,/ Throw the altar down./ There
is no covenant./ The sacrifice we make/ Is for a portion promised
us/ By no one but ourselves.” That the poem speaks for
Nissenson is clear from the author’s own statement: “We made
the covenant with ourselves and there is nothing else but that.”13
At the story’s end, Yigael (“redemption”) listens outside a syn­
agogue while an old man recites from the Book of Lamenta­
tions. Yigael is deeply moved and “astonished by the tears that
welled up in his eyes.” Nissenson’s tale suggests that what was
lost with the destruction of the Temple; a God whose presence
was in the sanctuary, a connection between God and the Jewish
people, and a covenantal sense of history as meaningful, is per­
manently lost. This fact is, moreover, profoundly disturbing as
the reactions of both Yitshaak in “The Blessing,” and Yigael
reveal. The death of God is no cause for celebration. In
Rubenstein’s words “The sad few who acknowledge the truth
(of the ‘death of God’) will not rejoice in it.”14
Nissenson’s last two novels,
My Own Ground
(1976) and
Tree of Life
(1985) emphasize loss of faith in God and evil’s re­
lentless assault.
My Own Ground
ostensibly deals with Jewish life
in early twentieth-century New York, while exploring the var­
ious paths taken by Jews in modernity; mysticism, atheism, so­
cialism, and secularism. There is as well the figure of Rabbi
Isaacs, who represents the heretical mysticism of Sabbatai Zvi
in contending that the only way to redeem evil is from within.
Told in the nineteen sixties as a memoir by a sixty-year-old
Jacob Brody, the novel is a “mythic prefiguration of the Hol­
ocaust” which employs the biblical paradigm of Jacob’s wrestling
with the angel. Jake Brody, the novel’s central character literally
wrestles with evil in the form of Schifka the pimp. The latter,
an embodiment of Esau, symbolizes the rampant spread of evil
13. Arthur Kurzweil, “An Atheist and his Demonic God: An Interview With
Hugh Nissenson,” in
36 (Winter, 1978-79), p. 19.
14. Richard L. Rubenstein,
Power Struggle: An Autobiographical Confession
(Lanham, MD: University Press o f America, 1986), p. 3.