Page 20 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 49

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12
JEWISH BOOK ANNUAL
BRATZLAV INFLUENCE
Tova Reich’s Master o f the Return is fashioned from much
the same painstaking research as
God’s Ear,
bu t with some im­
po rtan t differences. For if Fe tner’s stories are drawn from a
wide range o f hasidic literature , Reich’s novel owes much move
o f its texture , its ambience, if you will, to the tales o f Rabbi
Nahman o f Bratzlav. However, unlike Lerman, Reich tends to
identify specific references to Nahman in he r text, and then
to weave its mysteries into the fabric o f he r con temporary re ­
te lling . Fo r exam p le , j u s t as N ahm an m ade a d iff icu lt
eighteenth-century pilgrimage to Israel, his present-day disci­
ples plan equally dangerous pilgrimages to Uman (in the Soviet
Union), the sacred spot where Nahman is buried; and ju s t as
Reich’s characters re fe r to specific Nahman tales (e.g., “Tale
o f the Seven Beggars”), he r novel reduplicates their essential
rhythms.
Even more important, Reich’s novel is set in Israel, where
a motley assortment o f Rabbi N ahman’s disciples — known as
Dead Hasidim because no rebbe replaced Nahman — have set
up an Uman House in the Arab qua r te r o f Jerusalem . And
while it is true that many o f Reich’s sublimely comic hasidim
are expatriated Americans, she has an uncanny ability to evoke
the Israeli landscape, with its urban melange, its dusty hills and
parched wadis. Some exceptions aside (one thinks of, say, the
evocative, haun ting stories o f Hugh Nissensons’s early collec­
tions —
A Pile o f Stones
[1965] and
In the Reign of Peace
[1972];
o f the dazzingly provocative “Ju d e a ” section in Philip Roths’
The Counterlife
[1987]), Jewish-American writers have tended to
leave Israel to the Israelis.
In short, both the Hebrew language and Israeli literature re ­
main largely “foreign” entities to many Jewish-American writ­
ers. By contrast, Israeli novelists read their Jewish-American
coun terparts with interest, with profit, and, let me simply say
it, with a certain amoun t o f indignation. I f there is even a p a r­
ticle o f tru th in the gloomy assessments about the th inn ing re ­
sources o f the Jewish-American experience, about its increasing
inability to sustain imaginative fiction, one would think tha t the
situation would be very d ifferen t, and given writers like Tova
Reich, perhaps some day it will be.
Consider, for example, the whole business o f comic incon­