Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi: “Gilgul”

Click here to read the abstract of the story on The New Yorker webpage (this week’s story is available only for subscribers).  Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi’s “Gilgul” was originally published in the August 15 & 22, 2011 issue of The New Yorker.

Click for a larger image.

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.

21 thoughts on “Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi: “Gilgul””

  1. Hi Trevor,
    You’re not alone, Kiddo; don’t sweat it. I have five partially (mostly and somely) finished pieces on my desktop just waiting for the quiet moment when progress can be made.(That’s just the reviews; stories are beginning to pie up too.) Soon, I hope. Keep the faith: I’m still watching and waiting patiently, friend.
    Regards,
    kjml

  2. Trevor says:

    Thanks for the encouragement, Kevin! I’m actually getting along swimmingly with my reading, but I’m very far behind in my write ups. Hope to catch up, too.

  3. Betsy says:

    I am looking forward to what you think of this story, Trevor. I am wondering if you are waiting for your paper copy, which would make it so much easier to contemplate. This story is a rich box of paradoxes, filled with mystery and intellectual inquiry. It somehow requires of its reader relaxation – which is certainly not afforded by struggling with the on-line version. It also requires re-reading, I think, in order to let all of its ideas percolate.

    In my case, there is also the hesitation born of not wanting to get things really wrong, except that writing, in the best sense, is an honest attempt to sort things out.

    And then there is the fact of the story’s taboo topic: religion.

    All these things aside, the story feels rich to me, and it seems to speak not just to Jews but to any modern person of any tradition. I look forward to what you think.

    Yerushalmi himself is interesting. Originally trained as a rabbi who also earned a PhD in history, he became a well respected and prolific writer of Jewish history and historiography. He also was the chair of his department at Columbia. These are not the usual credentials of a short story writer! Historians are not usually known for their love of writing fiction!

    What to me is the immense success of this short story is how Yerushalmi uses fiction, paradox and mystery to encapsulate his beliefs. Apparently, Yerushalmi has written (in “Zakhor: Jewish Hstory and Jewish Memory” and elsewhere) – that story, myth and literature may prove as important to Judaism as the history to which he devoted his life. The question with which his story ends (What is to become of me?) is thus not just the question asked by the main character, but is also Yerushalmi’s personal question about what will become of his ideas, and in the end, his question for Judaism itself.

    In retrospect, this story seems to propose that a divorce from one’s traditional religion, because it seems unscientific or superstitious, or because it is simply lost in the rush of modern life, can plunge a person (or a whole population) into emptiness. What the story is not is a rational argument. It is a story, filled with life, strange ideas, odd verbal associations, and oddness.

    To the common reader, it is the story itself that is of interest. The story embodies a series of opposites that provide mystery and tension. The main character’s name, for instance, is Ravitch, a name that suggests both the words ravaged and ravished. Ravaged, as in empty, destroyed, looted, or ruined. Ravished, as in transported or overcome by delight or transcendent awareness. Also contained in the name is the sound “vitch” – or witch. So Ravitch himself is a bundle of contradictions.

    Ravitch says he is “scooped out” by his divorce and by the death of his father. His mother, his grandmother, his father – all seem lost. Clearly, he associates the loss of his childhood religion to be a part of that loss.

    Ravitch pursues medical help for his depression, but even after the round of pills, he remains empty.

    The opposite to modern medicine is Gerda, a strange woman to whom Ravitch had been introduced in Jaffa, a woman who had told him she could foretell the manner of his death. Now, years later, he seeks her out again. Gerda’s character is wonderfully mysterious – is she Scheherazade or she a tawdry fake?

    (Also, how does her character relate to the Hasidic rebbes who have the power to see a person’s life and future but never directly reveal what they know. Does her offer make her a charlatan, or is she testing him? That she is a woman playing the role of the rebbe is also mysterious. She herself says that people call her a witch.)

    Ravitch’s meeting with Gerda is different this time. She listens to his story and she replies with a story. A man comes to her with a deep rest-lessness. (One is reminded of a man who does not celebrate the Sabbath.) He cannot settle anywhere, but is driven from place to place. Unlike someone who derives pleasure from such wandering, he is deeply unhappy. Gerda’s reply to this man is strange. She tells him about a Spanish doctor from hundreds of years before who, forced out of Spain, has begun to wander toward Jerusalem, but only gets as far as Rhodes. She tells her “restless” client to make a document search to prove that the doctor was real. Once he finds that to be so, Gerda then tells him to find the man’s grave, and on that site, say the Kaddish, a prayer of mourning which, paradoxically, is also the praise of God. Doing so appears to be the first step in the relief of his restlessness, as he settles in Israel.

    After hearing this story, Ravitch himself feels restless, wondering if he can trust Gerda, wanting much more from her than she is willing to give, wondering what the story that she told him means.

    He seeks comfort in a family ritual: he goes back to the hotel and orders a vodka, vodka having been his father’s favorite drink. Performing this “empty” ritual, Ravitch is awakened to a memory of his father, a time when his father was possessed for a few weeks by a philosophical question.

    If the messiah would appear on the day that when every Jew should celebrate the sabbath, why would anyone refuse to celebrate the sabbath? What is there to lose?

    Ravitch notices that his fathe’s question resembles Pascal’s. He has been awakened to his father’s life by this memory. Perhaps his recovery has begun.

    Early the next morning, still restless, Ravitch goes down to the beach and watches the water. He sees a small child delight in it – but to him, it feels empty. He wonders what is to become of him. (There is a little of Job here.)

    What gives this story its mystery and its fascination, however, is the idea introduced by the title: “Gilgul”. Gerda asks Ravitch if he has heard of gilgul. He answers, and she replies that he’s answered her question, “at least on a certain level.” Gilgul (which at the very least is involves the reincarnation of souls), is surely a concept very distant from the practice of history, and yet it seems that the coexistence of these two ideas is what Yerushalmi is struggling with.

    What the other levels of gilgul are appear to require quite a bit of study. A little bit of reading in Wikipedia tells me that belief in gilgul is also a belief in the “rectification” of souls – through the practice of both ritual and the conscious effort to live a life in accordance to traditional beliefs about what is right and what is wrong, and doing so through the practice of 613 mitzvot.

    So what is gilgul to be to Ravitch? Is there a soul attempting to play itself out in him? If so, what would be the practice he would make to allow its release? Perhaps it is the misunderstood Masoch of his recent book, perhaps it is his father, perhaps someone else. One wonders how Yerushalmi viewed the Spanish Jews of the 1500′s that he studied so closely -in what way were they his own gilgul?

    Tensions within tensions. You have the tension between the fact of history and the strange power of story and myth. You have the schism in Judaism occasioned by the birth of charismatic Hasidism within it. You have science and superstition. You have the secular man and his sense of emptiness. You have the sea, its beauty, its immensity, and its silence.

    Yerushalmi has certainly pulled a fast one on us. This must be some of his best writing, and yet he is not here to talk to us about it. It feels as if there are many more roads to take from this story.

  4. Aaron says:

    This story’s about religious, sure enough, Betsy, but it’s also about faith — in that you have it, and I don’t. I think we need to ask a writer to do more than simply re-ask the great and ponderous questions of our time, and instead of taking Ravitch’s losses to heart, she fills him up with the mystic pap of a “witch,” who he confesses is actually more Circe than Scheherazade. I get far more critical about the linguistic and structural deficiencies of the story here (http://wp.me/p1IL3C-1G), so I’ll just sum things up with the lazy ending, in which our protagonist decides to ignore everything he’s heard up until this point and to ask the unanswering sea for advice. Why bother with Gerda? Why bother mentioning the superstitious stories of his grandmother and the history lessons from his father if he’s going to set them aside? If he’s lost, then he’s lost: why should we care?

  5. Jon says:

    A agree with Aaron–the story has some beautiful passages, but overall feels like a first draft. Some frustrations: there were a few clunky constructions that don’t fit the tone of the overall story (“You sure know some weird people”), the good witch is carefully described but the main character feels too much like a cipher, and the ending does in fact feel like a cop-out…

  6. Betsy says:

    A couple of points, Aaron! First, my faith in this story is in the story itself and the writer’s experiment. More of us should try it – putting some of our most deeply held questions into a fictional form, even if it’s the first time. Especially if it’s the first time. I find Yerushalmi’s experiment interesting.

    I’ll agree, though, nothing like religion to divide the troops like a hot knife through butter.

    Second, Gerda is absolutely necessary to the writer’s point, whether or not Ravitch takes the point, which is, I think, that it is deeply valuable to bring the figures of our past into not just our rational language, but also our emotional and kinesthetic experience. She provides the man from Bucharest a connection to some one who apparently has a deep meaning for him. Ravitch does not have to repeat the man’s pilgrimage for the story to have importance. After all, the ritual vodka may be Ravitch’s trip to Rhodes.

    Jon, I absolutely agree with you on that clunky wording (“You sure know some weird people.”) How do you edit a piece of writing whose author is not still alive?

    Finally, as to endings, I have just finished “Great House”, and I would comment that its ending also leaves many ideas discussed and a lot of plot much up in the air. And, curiously, I thought I heard echoes of gilgul in Krauss, although that’s a different discussion.

  7. Trevor says:

    I am looking forward to what you think of this story, Trevor.

    Well, my thoughts are posted above, Betsy. Sad to say, I didn’t get nearly as much out of it as you did.

    I spent some time thinking about this question you posed (which I read only after I had posted my thoughts above): “So what is gilgul to be to Ravitch? Is there a soul attempting to play itself out in him?” Ultimately, I found that while the questions in this story — this one in particular, for me — were interesting but that the story did little other than pose them against the rather typical framework of a man who has lost/abandoned an aspect of his past, due to any number of reasons. In that context, the questions become as mundane and conventional as the framework.

    At any rate, I found the set up and many of the techniques overly familiar and even over done in the limited space of this short story, and that niggled me the whole time and certainly affected my ability to dig much deeper.

    I certainly agree with you that Yerushalmi’s willingness to put all of this down in fictional form is praiseworthy. As I mentioned in my post, I was much more interested in his past than in this story.

    I’d also like to briefly tack on a bit about what you say about Krauss’s book Great House. Strangely, my reaction to this story was very much my reaction to Great House. I certainly don’t mind when the plot doesn’t conclude anything and where part of the point is that things are up in the air, but in each case I felt that the writer still failed to pull through. In other words, they began to put together something meaningful but stopped there, thinking that posing the questions would be enough. But posing the questions isn’t enough in either case because these are questions most of us have posed again and again in our lives. Leaving them unanswered is one thing, particularly if part of the project is showing the complexity and the impossibility of answering. But I felt “Gilgul” and Great House stopped just when they should have started digging in.

    Ah well! I must say that I’ve been a bit fatigued by the last couple of stories in The New Yorker, so it’s all possibly my own faulty response.

  8. Aaron says:

    Betsy, I’m not against putting our deeply held questions and thoughts into fiction — I just think that Kundaris, Hesse, etc. have done so already, with far more class and technique, as they should have. They were practiced, proficient writers of fiction, as opposed to Yerushalmi, who was a professor and comes across as such.

    Given the points you raise, I wanted to recommend you read the following: Amy Waldman’s “The Submission,” which was adapted into a short story in this month’s Atlantic (you can read it for free, here: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2011/09/the-submission/8607/?single_page=true) and which also just came out in novel form (which I have not yet read). Like Yerushalmi’s, it’s dealing with a lost protagonist who is coming to terms with faith, albeit without the mysticism, and in a more relatable context to me — it’s 9/11 fiction, set in New York City (where I live).

    I talk about it more back at my site, but it’s one of the best things I’ve read all year, and to me, it does more to clarify what I meant when I expressed my dislike for this short story than my own words did. Hope you’ll read it and talk about it; I’m curious as to what you think.

  9. Betsy says:

    Trevor, having just read “Great House”, I see your point where you say: “But I felt “Gilgul” and “Great House” stopped just when they should have started digging in.”

    In Yerushalmi’s case, that is part of the danger of what he attempted, in that the historian’s habit is to look deeply into what is rather than into what is possible. But for Krauss, the experienced fiction writer, the problem you pose is more serious – that she has stopped just when the elaborate set-up is finished. I am actually re-reading “Great House”, partly because of the slippery plot points that so many of your commenters mentioned. I’d like this second reading to give me enough cohesion to have warranted the second reading…

    Well, Trevor, I take your ever so polite point about reading into a story. I just liked it. What can I say. Mysticism, especially mysticism that’s new to me, is fascinating. I gather that’s not so for everyone. I could do with a new topic, though.

    Aaron, thanks for the tip about the (free!) Waldman story. It also printed out quite well. I enjoyed it very much, just as I enjoyed the Pen/O.Henry Prize stories you recommended a while back. What Waldman has done is imagine the possible – that a Muslim architect could win the contract to design the 9/11 memorial. I thought she deftly handled many of the problems inherent in the situation, and I particularly believed in the possible reality of Sean, the main character. I thought she treated him with respect, for one thing, and I thought she kept him true to what he might actually be like. Whether she treated the characers with too much restraint — that’s a question. It’s an explosive topic. Any closer to the line might have made it impossible to read. Sean’s tug on the head scarf was just enough to frighten me, and in fact, Sean’s mother’s line to him is perfect: “It’s the Muslims who are supposed to mistreat women.”

    I only realized after reading this effective story that it is an excerpt. Of course, part of its effectiveness is its topicality. I thought, too, that Waldman captured, somehow, the fatigue we feel for the tightwire the past ten years have been. By now, we would like to believe in all of us having just enough restraint to allow for just enough resolution for just enough change to begin in just enough time to make just enough of a difference.

  10. Trevor says:

    Well, Trevor, I take your ever so polite point about reading into a story. I just liked it. What can I say.

    I feel that way about many stories and books :) .

  11. Jomo says:

    I read the story yesterday and was blown completely away by it. This is what most fiction only struggles to be: evocative, mysterious and profound. Like Mann or Conrad, the author opens a window into a world that only he, the author, has experienced. As a reader, you have to fill in the blanks if you want to, or just be swept along. It’s what’s not said, not stated that gives the story its power. I especially liked the way it ended. And that last word, “indifferent” was perfect.

  12. Betsy says:

    Jomo, that’s interesting: “Like Mann or Conrad, the author opens a window into a world that only he, the author, has experienced.”

  13. Craig says:

    ‘Metempsychosis’, ‘Circe’, the potato and wandering might have alerted you, mookse and gripes, that “the surely something more” going on here is an allusion to your name-bestower, James Joyce, and Ulysses as a means of setting Gilgul in a wider, less hermetically Semitic context.

    Yet it might also go to show how attending to one’s undefended first reactions can be more valuable than attempts to leave no interpretation unturned.

    Like you, I found the ending prosaic, though powerful, especially the “Yam” (“Sea”) declaration by the little girl as she pours out her pail of water at her mother’s feet. It resonated oddly and now, having read a bit of Yerushalmi’s non-fiction work about the instability/unreliability of memory, Jewish ‘exilic’ memory in particular, the uncertain associations, my ‘misremembering’ in response to it may be a clue to the effect Yerushalmi works toward.

    At passover seder the ten plagues are reenacted — dipping a finger in our wine glasses we flick wine drops on our plates (and, inadvertently, the tablecloth) as we name each one.

    The first — ‘blood’ — is “Dam”! (I thought it was perhaps “Yam”!) Nope. But the Exodus story does soon offer a parallel miracle, the result of the plagues, the parting of the red “Yam” (“Sea”). Ohhh…

    On the strand, the circularity of history (a Joycian theme) poses the problem of permanent exile.

    Which is this, for the reader, for Ravitch? An opening, a plague? Is either one or both or yet another the right association here, is there a right remembering?

  14. Ken says:

    I thought there was something interestingly perverse about the “letdown” ending. Granted, we expect and want some big epiphany just as Ravitch wants more out of Gerda. I rather like the fact that Yerushalmi denies us this as if to say “I’m a writer not a prophet.” And yet….we sort of want prophets when a story seems set up to be prophetic. I found it compelling but would agree about clumsiness in many parts. An odd experience, dissatisfying and yet I admire the perversity of the ending. It reminded me of another Jewish work-The Coen Bros. Film “A Serious Man” with its inexplicable hurricane out of nowhere abruptly ending the film.

  15. Michael says:

    Very late to the party, and perhaps it is very likely my comments will go unread. But I was moved by the comments, and over the last few weeks have come to “know” some of the regulars here, to the extent that I felt an urge to post for the very first time.

    I have enjoyed reading about the various frustrations and antipathies directed at this short story.

    A short story with a point of view not indifferent to the growing secularism in today’s society, but instead perhaps dismayed by it, as indicated by the little girl at story’s end, deliberately pouring the sea onto, I believe, her mother’s feet, themselves on unstable footing (the sand).

    Not easy to cross, that sea. Some epiphanies require rough travel, meanderings through the psyche, as opposed to physical travels by the oddly, perpetually transient.

    The narrator wants to believe, wants to return to the comforts (and ignore the irrationalities) of religion. Wants to return to a childhood filled with the scent of burnt parings.

    But in the end he’s still mostly a lost soul — seeing the sea, stepping into the sea — and we’re left wondering if he’ll be swept away by it, forgoing submission to a culture ever under fire from a truly global and growing secularism — or if he’ll find a way back to, at the very least, the shifting sands of a newly found, if fragile sense of self-identity, a small defiance affirming traditions of the past, traditions that could provide a solid framework for a happier, less gloomy future for the protagonist.

  16. Betsy says:

    Michael, it’s such a pleasure to think and write about other people’s writing, isn’t it? It’s also oddly satisfying to see how differently people react(given some thoughtfulness)to different writers. It seems obvious now that Melville is not everyone’s cup of tea, but sometimes we are so surprised to find that someone else just can’t stand some new piece of writing. Good surprise, that. Makes one’s own efforts at thinking more one’s own. And, obviously, disagreement broadens the viewpoint. I enjoyed your wording: “unstable footing” to describe our situation in these present times, and also the rest of your post.

  17. Peter says:

    Gilgul – A Jewish Case Study?

    All,

    So many thanks for the only extended discussion of this story I have found. Both the story and your comments resonated very deeply with me. Sorry I only found this so late. So I was a student of Yosef Yerushalmi at Harvard in 1966-67, the first year he began teaching Jewish history after Columbia. I spent an entire year studying with him, and he helped me personally and professionally. I know his published work quite well, although I am not an historian or an academic. I hope the following will shed some light on some aspects of the story you may have overlooked. I was very interested and taken with Betsy’s comments. Sometimes it counts to have the back story of the story, and to have some of the lived experience out of which this story finally emerged.

    These are some of my thoughts on Gilgul. Many, many thanks for the rich discussion and back and forth. I’ll hang out here now that I know you exist, and hope some of you will eventually reply.

    Peter

    –essence of the past and future generations – Hagaddah – as if you had come out of Egypt yourself. “This is not about you; this is for you.” About you: a history; for you: a collective memory.
    Yerushalmi: the temptation of collective inherited memory – Lamarckianism. Also, I believe that Yerushalmi felt that he had missed the lived experience of growing up and becoming in Israel. His Gilgul is an attempt to come to terms with that hole in his being. Gilgul is, of course, about a reprieve, the possibliity of another life – gilgul neshamot – “Gilgul is the transmigration of souls.” an afterlife, the return of the soul in another form – and it is the imagined other life which he hoped he would be granted.
    In its stead, he did the next best thing, and married Ophra, an Israeli pianist, a great-granddaughter of the rabbi of Warsaw – whose home in Haifa they would return to every year. I learned that he sought, as I did, a refuge from History in Israel – that he rarely visited Jerusalem, because it was too fraught with History. He perhaps found he could become what I look for in Israel, an ahistoric experience of the present, the perfec t refuge from time. Israel was also a refuge from the American Jewish experience.
    Witchcraft and sorcery and its relationship to psychoanalysis and the unconscious – in the story, Gerda mentions her “modern” witchcraft as the last resort for a cure: “It may surprise you that I am known to a number of psychiatrists around the world, a small number, to be sure. But there have been occasions when they have tried all their own brands of sorcery on a patient, without success. Then, when they have given up, they have sent him to me.”
    The dialogue between Ravitch and Gerda is the way that Yerushalmi, like Dickens, splits two sides of an equation, two contrasting pulls or aspects of his desire: his “legendary erudition” which, in Ravitch’s case, can spin out the complete etymology and all the references to the afterlife in any tradition, Jewish, Kabbalist or otherwise. Gerda restrains him and points him in another direction about the beiief in an afterlife, since he “knows” what it is about, but not in the way she knows about it. Her knowledge is of another kind, and it is that which Ravitch, deeply unfulfilled by his own success as a scholar, has come to her to seek, and experience directly. Gerda’s sexuality comes across in his notes on her dress and appearance. But what Yerushalmi, in Gerda’s guise offers is a case study such as Yerushalmi was so familiar with from Freud’s own, and, which bears comparing, at least in its outward aspects, if not to the unknown unconscious lapses, and idiosyncratic moments, which make up the story and the text – to the typology of the case study and what it proposes.
    Like a Freudian case study, there is an exposition, but also a didactic purpose in writing it at all. Why had Freud chosen to write his case studies, such as the Wolf Man, etc. if not to illustrate the power or truth of some principle of psychoanalysis? Had Yosef written this as a kind of proof-text of what Freud could not, since, as Yosef had so well studied and documented in his Freud’s Moses – a study of Freud’s relationship to Judaism – if only he, Freud, had had the deep scholarly underpinnings of Jewish tradition and history, perhaps his Moses would have been a vastly different animal, perhaps more believable.
    So part of the motivation to story writing and fiction is a kind of despair with history. His deep conflict, made so evident and striking in his Zachor, between his professional work as an historian, the uses of scientific documentation, and his understanding that the truth uncovered by the Jewish historian and scholar, and in fact, the entire edifice of a Jewish renaissance in scholarship at seats of learning throughout the US, would not serve to reinvigorate, unify or bring about another gilgul of the Jewish people as a whole. That perhaps this was still in the hands of memory and specifically, the collective memories which Jews shared and was embedded in their liturgy, song, poetry, and, yes, in their stories they told of their sufferings, wanderings and triumphs. Historiography – and specifically Jewish historiography and scientific scholarship – was such a recent invention, (18th century and Wissenschaft des Judentums) that its ability to galvanize and reinvigorate a largely unread and directionless, ahistorical polity could not be counted on. It would always lose out to the power of memory.
    Then, if not the “what really happened” of memory and the inescapable realities of the specifics of suffering and human cruelty which he found everywhere in sniffing out anti-Semitism in all its forms in European history – what about the truth of a supreme fiction, written by the scholar himself? One that would permit him to explore a what-if? about himself – his deeply personal and emotional reactions to the material of his own life and experience? What if he could find a multiplier for his life, to become more than just that one life, one career, and that took him down one road by saying no to the road of a congregational rabbi, and yet leaving other possibilities of vocation and deep attraction unexplored, other roads not taken? Fiction as a gilgul.“It’s a give-me-another-chance doctrine.” What was Freud’s Moses, if not Yerushalmi’s analytic case study of Freud himself, attempted by many other writers he surveys before plunging into his own attempt to bring his deep knowledge of the historian and the Jewish scholar to bear on a topic where others had faltered? So after a hugely successful psychoanalytic study, which went where no one before could have gone, and which leveraged his historian’s craft to uncover another side of Sigmund’s relationship to his father Jakob and to Judaism, Yosef turns inward. He writes a story in 2004 and then shares it only with his wife and son – passionately reads it to Ophra, and then buries it. Perhaps it was too personal, certainly not to be published under his own name, not his métier, a private affair, perhaps even a love letter. To whom? In it he explores the possibility of a new kind of neurosis, found only in Jews, something which history had done to Jews.
    Using as an underpinning, the Lamarckian theory of inheritance of experienced memories, which Yerushalmi analyzes in detail in Freud’s Moses, he writes a story which illustrates the effects of that “inherited” gene of wanderlust. In Freud’s Moses, Yerushalmi found the Lamarckian temptation to be central to Freud’s theory of repressed memories transmitted genetically, despite what Freud knew about Darwinian evolution and natural selection, and despite of his rejection of Jung’s theories which depend on Lamarckism. There is, I believe, a very short jump from, on the one hand, the collective memory of a people – embodied in an explicit, written and oral history, the social and institutional transmission via a culture, its practitioners as scholars and historians, and in its physical and documentary evidence – to, on the other hand, how memories are passed down from generation to generation – a collective unconscious, repressed memories, which return and surface when triggered by some historical event or related memory. I believe that Gilgul is an exploration of this latter possibility in the only format which Yerushalmi could possibly use to explore the hidden, emotional underside of the historical truth, and the uncanny relationship of a people to its history.
    So a man from New York – Ravitch – comes to a fortune teller – Gerda – sent by Mira, his Israeli relation to cure his inner restlessness. Gerda tells him the story of another man – this one from Bucharest who came to her to seek professional help, sent by a psychoanalyst in Manchester, with a case of “uncanny geographical restlessness…a man who could not bear to live in one place for more than a short time.” One hears immediately the case of the wandering Jew. But what if the Wandering Jew is not only a cultural archetype, but an actual neurosis which no respectable psychoanalyst can treat, let alone diagnose?
    What if the wandering Jew is now crossed with the souls of the dead which have no repose and continually wander until something is done to atone for their death?
    “I said to him, ‘This story is, in a real sense, your own. When Dr. Benveniste died, his soul found no rest. Since that time, it has wandered, as you are wandering, born and reborn in every generation. Now it is you who carry it within you. Its restlessness is the source of your own. You will never find peace until you help it find peace.”
    What if this Jewish historian’s task has been , among others, his whole life, through his craft and his charisma, to help the Jewish people find peace with their own history? How to do that? The prescription Gerda gives him follows the path of a rational animal motivated by his own neurosis, which he seeks to cure. Through scholarship, in part, he will begin to exorcise the demon, and come to terms with his neurosis. First is to understand the historical personage of Isaac Benveniste by the way of the scholar, seeking out librarians and archivists. The next step is to visit Benveniste’s grave in the old Jewish cemetery in Rhodes, and recite Kaddish and “pray, in your own words, that Benveniste’s soul should cease its wanderings, that this should be its final gilgul, and that you, too, should at last find peace.” The man does so, and finds inner peace, curing his neurosis.
    After the story within the frame story, Ravitch asks Gerda about what it means for him: “This entire story you told, was it a parable for me? Do I also carry someone else’s soul – is that what you mean? Gerda turned to him. ‘No,’ she said. ‘The story was meant for you, but it is not about you. And now I must really go.’”
    Ravitch’s religious sensibility wells up, remembering Leviticus 19:31: “Do not turn to mediums or spiritists; do not seek them out to be defiled by them. I am the LORD your God.” His guilt in participating in this “treatment” initially rejects the ideas she espouses.
    Another reaction forms later, when Ravitch analyses her further and finds something therapeutic in the story itself, even if it were completely invented out of whole cloth. It could still work its charm, despite its lack of credibility: “Still, her fantasies could be useful, even therapeutic, for those who accepted such things. The tale of Dr. Benveniste might have been an illusion, a hallucination, but its impact on the Jew from Bucharest was real enough.”
    Yet here, Ravitch rejects this explanation as an all too sterile reductionism, “the glib psychological demolition he encountered so often at New York gatherings, everything neatly explained, nothing understood.” What follows is Ravitch alone, trying to make sense of his encounter with this woman who has shaken his belief in rational behavior and understanding, and what beliefs he has shed and forgotten of his own youth. He feels abandoned by Gerda, and latches onto “one crucial remark. The story was meant for you, but it is not about you.” The rest of the story is pure lyrical description, leaving him pondering his own existence and the beauty and indifference of the sea on the beach at Tel-Aviv. “What will become of me? he asked quietly. What must I do?”
    Since its publication and the notes from Ophra Yerushalmi, we know that, while the story is heavily autobiographical – Yosef really did have such an encounter in Israel – I feel that the story is in some sense a love letter of regret to Gerda, whoever she was, and to Israel, where he found deep peace and wonder. She is the intended recipient of the story, and it is she who provided him with this crisis of conscience he felt at some point with his own life. The larger recipient whom she embodies, is the Land of Israel, the possession. He had chosen his life, for all it possessed and all it became for him, and could not change its course. He witnessed the beauty and power of another life, another place and another possibility that he desired deeply at some level for himself and could not have. So the story was born to make amends, and say good-bye in as intimate and beautiful way as he would have wanted. I hope she is alive and able to read the story. It was meant for her, but it is not about her.

  18. Trevor says:

    Peter, I haven’t had a chance to read your in-depth comment above, but I want to welcome you and your comment!

  19. Betsy says:

    Peter, welcome. Your personal relationship with Yerushalmi is interesting. I particularly noticed: “What if this Jewish historian’s task has been , among others, his whole life, through his craft and his charisma, to help the Jewish people find peace with their own history?” But if I read you correctly, one of the things the story is doing for Yerushalmi, at the same time, mourning the life he did not lead. So very interesting. At a certain age, that must be a question for most of us. Frost’s question, too. I hope other stories catch your interest as well.

  20. Carole Vopat says:

    Thank all of you very much for helping me finds ways to think about and feel the story. Peter, you especially have deep insight. I will make this blog one of my stops. Can someone tell me what you do? Is it to discuss the stories in the New Yorker? BTW I am a professor of Literature and Holocaust Studies “with letters after my name.”

  21. Trevor says:

    Welcome, Carole. I run the site, and my posts generally revolve around three things: (1) my reviews of books, (2) thoughts on the fiction offerings from The New Yorker (which I’ve been behind on this year, and (3) light tracking of literary awards.

    So those are my posts, but what happens in the comments is totally up to anyone who comments, and that’s where much of the payoff is : ).

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