Blessing on Moon

Blessing on Moon

by Joseph Skibell

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When Chaim Skibelski is killed along with the other Jewish citizens of a small Polish town, his story is just beginning. Now a ghost, Chaim wanders the countryside, often accompanied by his rabbi, who has turned into a crow. He visits his home, now occupied by a Polish family whose dying daughter is the only one who can see him. He meets a talkative head that belongs


When Chaim Skibelski is killed along with the other Jewish citizens of a small Polish town, his story is just beginning. Now a ghost, Chaim wanders the countryside, often accompanied by his rabbi, who has turned into a crow. He visits his home, now occupied by a Polish family whose dying daughter is the only one who can see him. He meets a talkative head that belongs to the soldier who may have shot him. He visits a grand hotel that caters to the dead with mysterious comforts--and helps two eccentric holy men search for the fallen moon. This afterlife is a remarkable journey, a long way from a peaceful eternity...and this stunning novel is one of the most highly praised and honored literary efforts of the year.

Editorial Reviews

Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
Written as an attempt "to recover the silence of a family history," the breathless quiet imposed when 18 members of his immediate family "disappeared, violently, from the face of the earth" during the Holocaust, Joseph Skibell's extraordinary debut novel imagines the surreal postmortem adventures of murdered Jewish businessman Chaim Skibelski as he endures Joblike afflictions and wanders the cratered moonscape of postwar Europe in anticipation of the World to Come.

Skibell's magical story begins with an all-too-familiar ending (and ends with a surprising new beginning): The Jews of a Polish shtetl are rounded up by soldiers and marched into the forest, where they are shot and crudely buried in a mass grave. But lying among the bodies of his neighbors, Chaim Skibelski is seized with the giddy, ecstatic realization that he has somehow survived the pit. With nightfall he wriggles from the tangled embrace of his coreligionists and returns to the village, where the Catholic peasants have already laid claim to the abandoned property of the recently departed. When Chaim's attempts to prevent a family of peasants from moving into his former house on Noniewicza Street produce only a hissing of oaths and a flurry of superstitious crossing, he knows at last that he is truly dead. But if he is dead, why is he not in the World to Come? A black crow who has patiently observed this exchange from a nearby tree caws out a consolation — "Be grateful.... Rejoice in your portion" — and in this shrill cry Chaim immediately recognizes the village rabbi,miraculouslytransformed into a crow like the persecuted Schwartz in Bernard Malamud's short story "The Jewbird."

For a time Chaim and the Rebbe bed down in the vacant nursery, while Chaim musters the bile to assume the requisite duties of a poltergeist. His wounds mysteriously begin to bleed, and Chaim rattles throughout the house splashing every lintel and doorpost to remind its new occupants, the Serafinskis, of the price of their good fortune. Then one night the Rebbe flies off without explanation, leaving Chaim to watch in amazement as the orange disk of the moon falls from the sky.

Chaim awakens the next morning to the sound of screaming: Ola, the Serafinski's sensitive, tubercular daughter, is near enough to death herself to perceive his gruesome handiwork and suffers a relapse from the horror of it. In spite of the loss of his own daughters, or perhaps because of it, Chaim tenderly looks after the dying girl. He calms her with a story that pops into his head like a fairy tale out of the Mayseh book, a tale of two pious Jews who sail to the moon in a leaky boat and find an irresistible hoard of silver waiting for them. But once they load the treasure aboard their tiny vessel, the boat begins to sink beneath the weight and pulls the moon down with it. Comforted, Ola welcomes death as she would a lover and is spirited away in a chariot of fire by the Virgin Mary and her chubby "nebbish" of a son while the long-suffering Chaim remains, confounded, denied the comforts of the World to Come.

As if on cue, the Rebbe chooses this moment to return, announcing simply, "We leave immediately." Chaim stows a few precious mementos in a knapsack, and they set out for the forest to wake the dead. With a flutter of feathers and an incantatory squawk, the Rebbe summons the murdered villagers from their tomb, hideous in their advanced state of decomposition and reeking a moldy, humid stench. This mad procession shuffles southward as the crow flies, leaving a river of blood in their wake. Disgusted by his companions, Chaim strays from the congregation and is accosted by a decapitated German soldier who tries to exact Chaim's forgiveness for his sins, first by a show of force and then, failing that, through a pathetic display of self-pity.

"Little head," I say, "when you killed me you took everything. My home, my wife, my children. Must you have my forgiveness as well?"

Chaim rejoins his macabre entourage, pushing doggedly ahead until a glittering hotel is glimpsed on the opposite bank of a river. At first it seems that the Rebbe has indeed delivered them to paradise in the World to Come. But even after passing through the healing waters of the river and receiving the effusive welcome of the hotel management, there are some ill at ease with the German efficiency of the place. One skeptical Yiddisher grouches, "if there is a Paradise, do you think they'd let Jews into it?" By the time Chaim discovers the truth of this offhand remark it is too late. Once again he finds himself alone; not even his winged Rebbe remains to croak out Kaddish for him.

In the final, curiously touching section of the book, Skibell's hallucinatory parable within a parable comes full circle. Like a lost child in a märchen by Hoffmann, Chaim follows a luminous trail of pebbles to a hut in the forest, where he comes face to face with the meddlesome pair of Hasids responsible for the moon's disappearance — and whose very existence he accidentally dreamed into being 50 years earlier. Through them the Rebbe's grand design is at last revealed, and in the new beginning of Skibell's conclusion, the true promise of the World to Come is fulfilled.

Patrick Giles
His journey illuminates the horror of history through the energy and wisdom of fantasy and myth; scene after scene is rich with emotion, humor and invention.
The New York Times Book Review
Washington Post Book World
Startlingly original...recalls the dark, hallucinatory world of Jerzy Kosinski's The Painted Bird, while at the same time surpassing it.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A major talent is revealed in this debut novel, a work that combines the hallucinatory quality of D.M Thomas's The White Hotel, the enigma of a Talmudic fable, the charm of a Yiddish folk tale and the lyric surrealism of a Chagall painting.

When elderly Chaim Skibelski climbs out of a mass grave in which the bodies of all the Jewish inhabitants of a Polish village have been thrown by German soldiers, at first he does not understand that he is dead. Lightly, with a sense of wonderment rather than anger, he narrates his return to his own home, where a Polish family are already ensconced, and his discovery that the rebbe has been reincarnated as a crow. The only person who can see Chaim is the terminally ill daughter of the Polish family; Chaim cares for her tenderly, and when she dies, Jesus and Mary bring her to heaven. Eventually, the rebbe opens the mass grave and the dead Jewstheir mutilated, decomposing bodies filled with maggots and corroded by lime (the stark realism of their stench coexists with the surreal fantasy of the scene)follow Chaim and the rebbe through the forest. They come to an opulent hotel where they are welcomed, given beautiful clothes and fine meals. Chaim is reunited with his (dead) wife, children and grandchildren, a bittersweet moment because he realizes that only two members of his family, his sons in America, have escaped the Holocaust. Then, in a stunning scene bristling with irony, the Final Solution is again reenacted. During all this time, the moon has been absent from the sky; the Poles maintain that "the Yids took it," and, indeed, two Hasids have inadvertently pulled the shining orb from the heavens. In the final act of healing with which this novel ends, the traditional Hebrew blessing on the moon brings a kind of closure to the horror.

Skibell's masterful skill in maintaining the thin line between fantasy and reality and between sorrow and bitterness, his deft interjection of gallows humor and poetic passages of gossamer delicacy, allows him to spin a story that beguiles even as it breaks your heart.

Library Journal
Chaim Skibelski is dead. Or is he? In the opening pages, he is shot and pushed into a pit along with his fellow Jews in a village in Poland. Chaim, accompanied by his rabbi in the form of a crow, escapes to wander among the living, unable to join the World To Come. His journey is divided into three parts. In the first, he revisits his old home, finding that a Polish family has taken over his business and personal effects. Here he meets Ola, a dying girl who can see him though her family can't. In the second part, he meets up with his old village and his family in a luxurious hotel that appears too good to be true. Finally, Chaim encounters Zalman and Kalman to complete a task involving the moon, the rabbi, and Skibelski himself. It is with this last step that the protagonist might finally find the peace that death should bring. Utterly different and surreal, this first novel takes an original approach to the Holocaust and leaves a lasting impression. For all literary collections.

--Robin Nesbitt, Columbus Metropolitan Library, Ohio

The New Yorker
As magical as it is macabre.
The Boston Globe
Skibell has turned the full light of his extraordinary talent and vision on one of history's darkest moments and taught us to see it again.
Kirkus Reviews
An unusual first novel, about the fate of the Polish Jews during WW II, that engagingly blends doctrinal wisdom with magical- realist surrealism.

The protagonist and narrator, 60-year-old Chaim Skibelski (identified as the author's great-grandfather) is, as his remarkable story begins, dead—shot by German soldiers and dumped into a mass grave along with dozens of his kinsmen and townspeople. Yet Chaim's torn and still-bleeding body remains above ground, invisible to others, paradoxically capable of thinking and feeling, getting drunk, committing poltergeist-like mischief, and conversing with wolves, among other newfound abilities. On his continually interrupted pilgrimage toward "the World to Come," Chaim is accompanied (then, unaccountably, deserted) by his village rabbi, whose shape has shifted into that of a talking crow; reunites with his two wives, several children, and various old friends; debates (in the most awkward and over-attenuated sequence here) man's obligation to his fellow man with the decapitated head of a German soldier; and crosses a river to arrive at the luxurious Hotel Amfortas—which appears to be a beneficent purgatory, until Chaim discovers what is actually being baked in the hotel's underground ovens. Finally, he joins a group of scholars who have hidden out during the war and are employing mathematics, astrophysics, and the precepts of the Kabbalah in an effort to restore to its empty place in the sky the disappeared, "landlocked" moon. Their labor is accomplished, and in a lovely visionary conclusion, Chaim's abused and weary body is laid to rest.

This is, on balance, a haunting novel, intensely imagined, and—if less successfully plotted andplaced—redeemed by Skibell's gifts for vivid imagery (sleeping "bodies lie twisted, like shipwrecks, in the sheets, as though a great sea had tossed them there") and robust gallows humor ("If there is a Paradise, do you actually think they'd let Jews into it?"). A fine debut, manifestly infused with deep familial and cultural feeling, and a significant contribution to the ongoing literature of the Holocaust.

Product Details

Penguin Group (USA)
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.26(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.78(d)

Read an Excerpt

Irun from the garage to the main apartment, tears stinging my good eye. Blind with grief, I rush up the stairs to Ola's room.

"Ola! Ola! I must talk to you at once," I shout, bursting through her door.

"Pani Chaim," she says, turning, with a wide smile. "Look at me."

Something about her leaves me, for a moment, unable to speak. She is changed, that is certain, although I can't quite tell how. I stop in my tracks, nearly dropping the framed family portrait. I think to put it on the dresser and then hold it instead, tucked beneath my arm.

"Ola, but what has happened?"

She rushes to me, clasping my hands to her chest.

"I died," she says, merrily.

"You did what?" I find her impossible to understand.

"I'm dead," she repeats.

"You died? Ola? But no! When?"

"Minutes ago," she laughs, covering her mouth with her fingers. "Isn't it wonderful?"

With a lightness I have never seen, she pulls on new traveling clothes: a high-waisted skirt, a silk blouse with buttons to the side, a smart tweed frock.

"I no longer need my glasses," she says. And it's true. She moves easily about the room without them, finding her brushes and her combs, which she packs into a small valise.

"Your mother," I say. "Shouldn't someone tell your mother?"

"What happens now?" she asks, all dressed, as if for a sea voyage.

"Ola," I say, but I'm unable to think clearly. Can this really be my Ola, my worn little tubercular Ola, who stands before me with such bright and gleaming eyes? She, too, seems years older than when I saw her last. Was it really only a night ago? How many years has she been living in my house?

"But you said you had something to ask me," she giggles.

As I start to speak, a great rumbling fills the air, clipping my words, interrupting them completely. We rush to the window, Ola and I, towards the source of this monstrous sound. A thundering billow of clouds rises darkly from behind the ancient monastery, blocking the sun. As it does, the clouds are shot through with a light that is astonishingly bright, yet we are able to look at it directly, stare at it even, with out its burning our eyes. Somewhere, there is music, a jubilant choir of voices. I feel queasy in the pit of my stomach. From the center of the clouds, a blue chariot bursts forth, guided by four fiery horses, each with a lion's head and wings that span the sky. A small bearded man with a rounded tummy and long curling payes sits besides his doting mother.

"Oh, look!" Ola shouts, tears in her eyes. "It's Jesus and Mary!" She no longer shelters her thin body against my bulkier frame, but hangs out the window, gawking.

"Surely not!" I exclaim. That fat mama's boy with the scraggly beard and the blotchy red face? This nebbish is their god?

"But who else could it be, Pani Chaim?"

The stern-looking woman motions benevolently to Ola, beckoning to her with strong arms wrapped in flowing silken sleeves. The son tries his best to control the horses or whatever they are, but they leap and snort and prance against the floor of clouds.

Ola leaves my gripping hands and balances on the window sill. She steadies herself, grasping the edge of the fading blue shutters. Her shoe becomes tangled in the curtain and she nearly falls.

"Easy, easy," the woman calls to her.

Looking down, Ola raises a finger, as if to say, "I'll be fine in a minute, give me a minute."

"Ola, stop this," I whisper. "This is madness."

But she lifts both her arms and closes her eyes and ascends through the sky towards the fiery chariot. Her long skirt billows out and I blush to see her underthings.

"Ola," I shout after her. "Your bag!"

I lift the small valise she had only moments before packed so carefully, containing her few possessions, and the compass and the telescope.

"I don't think I'll be needing it," she calls back with a hapless shrug.

I watch as the bearded man offers her his chubby hand and guides her into the chariot, where she is received with warm kisses from the matronly woman. The three are seated and turn, one last time, to wave at me.

"Goodbye! Goodbye, Pani Chaim!" Ola cups two hands around her mouth to shout this farewell, then she sits back, squirming happily in her seat.

"Shalom Aleichem, Reb Chaim!" the matron calls to me.

With difficulty, the man with the scant beard turns the leonine horses towards the monastery, clutching at his yarmulke to keep it from flying off. Small, winged babies pull at the light-filled clouds, closing them like a curtain. The chariot and its angelic retinue disappear behind the monastery roof and are soon gone beyond our wooded horizon. The sky returns to its normal light. The music disappears. From the west, dark clouds roll in and a heavy rain begins.

I look down at my hands and see that, like a fool, I'm still clutching onto my family portrait. I had forgotten all about it. With a handkerchief, I wipe a bit of motor oil from its glass. Behind me, suddenly, there is a shrieking. I turn to find Ola's mother wailing over the waxen corpse that lies like a stick figure in her bed. The woman beats her enormous breasts, pulls at her coarse grey hair. Tears build up behind the golden rims of her eyeglasses, which she eventually must remove, allowing the dammed waters to flood across her apple cheeks in little curling streams.

"My baby!" she wails. "My Ola!"

I notice that she is wearing Ester's good Sabbath dress and the small cameo I bought for her on a business trip one year to Lodz. I peer into her face, trying to discern from it how much time has passed, but its features are too distorted in their agony for that.

A chorus of hands reach out to the Mama from behind, rubbing her shoulders, patting her head. These belong to her family, but she shakes them off fiercely. More relatives crowd into the room, nearly thirty of them. They stand close to the bed, in a thickening knot, like a group waiting for a tram.

"Get them out!" the Mama shrieks. "Out! I can't breathe!" She throws her heavy body onto the thin corpse of her daughter.

"There, there," Big Andrzej consoles his wife, punching her lightly on the arm. "Your Ola is with her Jesus now."

From A BLESSING ON THE MOON by Joseph Skibell. Copyright © 1997 by the author. Reprinted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, a division of Workman Publishing.

What People are Saying About This

J.M. Coetze,
A story that blends horror with mad humor and heart-stirring pathos. A work of striking originality.

Meet the Author

Joseph Skibell is the author of two previous novels, A Blessing on the Moon and The English Disease. He has received a Halls Fiction Fellowship, a Michener Fellowship, and a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, among other awards. He teaches at Emory University and is the director of the Richard Ellmann Lectures in Modern Literature.

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