Page 25 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 48

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in the world, seducing and eventually destroying Hannele, Rab­
bi Isaac’s daughter. Here, as in “The Prisoner,” Nissenson em­
ploys scenes of violent and degrading sex as emblematic of the
Jewish fate during the Holocaust. The sexual metaphor stands
for the spread of radical evil. Nissenson attests that the novel
“broke my heart” to write because it “marks the end of my
belief in the redemptive process.”
The novel illustrates two additional features of Nissenson’s
contemporary Jewish mythology. Mrs. Tauber, Jake’s landlady,
is an earth-mother figure. In a dream, Jake sees her suckling
her new born infant. The woman then begins devouring the
infant. This scene, rendered with great sensitivity and suggest­
ing primal human feelings, is a literary portrayal of moist moth­
er earth which bears, suckles, and devours us. Waking, a sobbing
Jake is soothed by Mrs. Tauber’s kiss. The kiss, attests
Nissenson, is at least equal to the devouring. Later, Jake marries
and has a family thereby revealing that his faith is in human
community. Nissenson’s novel is an uncanny literary parallel
to Rubenstein’s death of God position. Rubenstein asserts that,
precisely because the universe is “holy nothingness” and earth
awaits to devour us, all that humans have left is community
in the form of family and communal rituals.15
The Tree of Life
explores the impact of evil and genocide on
the non-Jewish community. Written in the form of a journal,
and illustrated with original paintings, the book tells the story
of Thomas Keene, a Harvard educated preacher who ceased
to believe when his wife died. His personal history is juxtaposed
with the story of mutual hostility between white settlers and
the Native American Indians who lived in the area. The novel
tells as well of the approaching War of 1812. Among the cast
of characters is John Chapman, a fictional Johnny Appleseed
and Swedenbourg mystic. Tom, the Protestant counterpart to
Jake Brody, contends: “I believe in sin. But not God. There
is no savior.” Tommy Lyons, an Indian and Keene’s double,
is pleased when he discovers that his guardian spirit is “our
mother, the earth.” Thomas Keene, for his part, believes that
15. Rubenstein, writing in
After Auschwitz,
makes clear his view that it is com­
munity and ritual which sustain humanity. “We are,” he observes, “alone
in a silent, unfeeling cosmos.” Judaism “is the way we Jews share our lives
in an unfeeling and silent cosmos. It is the flickering candle we have lighted
in the dark to enlighten and to warm us” (p. 225).