"Gilgul" by Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi Originally published in the August 15 & 22, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.
Well, I finished “Gilgul” over a week ago now, but haven’t really had a lot of time to write about it. Well, that’s not entirely true. It’s been busy, but the main problem is that I didn’t really care to find time to write about this story. I didn’t love it. I didn’t hate it. Basically, I ended up being completely indifferent to it, and that’s just about the worst frame of mind to be in when trying to write a brief post about one of these short stories.
That right there isn’t very encouraging, and I guess that I would encourage anyone looking for something to read to stop at “Gilgul.” Nevertheless, as I said, I didn’t hate this story. In fact, as I read it, I was quite intrigued and anxious to see how it came together. The problem, for me, is that it came together in such a “meh” way that the whole story lost whatever steam it had. But . . .
“Gilgul” begins by taking us back four years before the principal narrative. Ravitch was in Jaffa where his friend — perhaps for kicks, perhaps because Ravitch seemed lost — took him to see Gerda the witch. Ravitch considered it ridiculous, but he still told Gerda he didn’t want her to tell him when he would die. In the four years since, Ravitch has lived in New York and written a book (so what if Gerda told him he would write a book?). Ravitch had been on vacation in Greece, but on impulse he packed up and flew to Tel Aviv, “a city he was not fond of. Why had he chosen Tel Aviv? Why had he even come to Israel? No answer. His habitual lucidity seemed to have deserted him. The past four years had not been good ones.” He doesn’t care about Tel Aviv or Israel and, long ago, abandoned his Jewish traditions and whatever he had that resembled faith.
It comes as no surprise when this depressed man makes a call:
“This is Ravitch. Do you remember me? We met four years ago. I was with Mira.” Gerda remembered. “I want to see you again,” he continued rapidly. “Actually, I must see you. This time alone.”
Naturally, Gerda complies. And when Ravitch settles down in front of her to hear what she has to say, we get a bit of Gerda’s play:
“What I am about to tell you,” she began tentatively, “what I shall tell you, you are, of course, free to believe or disbelieve. It will make no difference to me.”
“But I came deliberately to hear what you have to say,” Ravitch protested. “After all, it was I who sought you out, who chose to come.”
“Perhaps,” she said with a passing smile.
Oh, that passing smile! As I said, I was interested in the story. However, at about this time, I started getting annoyed at its rather conventional set up. The lost soul who finally breaks down a few walls of skepticism to seek wisdom from a mysterious source is a bit tired. It got so much more annoying when Gerda asked Ravitch if he knew what gilgul was. Here is his ridiculous response:
“Given that I have been speaking fluent Hebrew to you since we first met, I find it odd that you should ask. Of course I know. Gilgul is the transmigration of souls. Reincarnation. Metempsychosis. Related etymologically to galgal — ‘wheel’ — and galgel — ‘to roll’ — neither of them inappropriate, as a matter of fact. If you mean do I know anything about it, well, yes. The soul, after death, can be reborn in the body of another human, an animal, or some other creature — once, repeatedly, or infinitely, according to the quality of the life one has lived. It’s a give-me-another-chance doctrine, so to speak, ancient, ubiquitous, simultaneously comforting and frustrating. Pythagoreans, Hindus, Buddhists, and Kabbalists all believed in it and spun their own complex variations on the basic theme. I have read some of the Kabbalistic material. Do you want more details?”
Okay, Gerda laughs and says, “Stop, Ravitch, before you overwhelm me with your legendary erudition! No more, I beg you.” I, on the other hand, was simply wondering how on earth this very unnatural passage found its way here. I wanted to say, “Stop, Yosef, before you overwhelm me with your annoying erudition.”
I didn’t, myself, stop, and I got interested again as Gerda told Ravitch about one of her prior clients who had a malady that forced him to uproot himself every few months and move somewhere else when all he really wanted to do was settle down. Sadly, the story never really transcended “typical” for me. Even the images at the end —
Nearby he saw the ruins of an elaborate sandcastle that must have been built the day before. He noticed a few pieces of charred wood and a small pile of tiny scalloped shells that someone had collected and then abandoned.
— felt blatant and, perhaps worse, rote to me.
I really didn’t find much of interest in this “Gilgul.” More interesting, to me, was learning a bit about Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi who, The New Yorker says, “taught at Havard and was the Salo Wittmayer Baron Professor of Jewish History at Columbia from 1980 to 2008. He died in 2009.” This leads me to doubt my impression of “Gilgul” and accept that I’m reading this on another plane from what was intended. Surely there is more going on here, though I’m not sure what.