The New York Times
Like Never Beforeby Ehud Havazelet
David Birnbaum is a middle-aged man at the crossroads--of youth and old age, of Othodox Judaism and assimilation, of the well-worn past and an uncertain future. He is also at the dramatic center of this sensative, often funny chronicle of three generations of a
A stirring portrait exploring the intersections of three generations of an Othodox Jewish family.
David Birnbaum is a middle-aged man at the crossroads--of youth and old age, of Othodox Judaism and assimilation, of the well-worn past and an uncertain future. He is also at the dramatic center of this sensative, often funny chronicle of three generations of a family straining to hold together in the face of changing cultures and shifting fortunes.
Throughout this extraordinary book, David struggles with the mixed loyalties he has felt since childhood and that continue to haunt his present and future. Capturing the hopes and conflicts of a Jewish family, from its most assimilated to its most Orthodox members, Like Never Before exudes on every page a poignancy and truthfulness that will print themselves indelibly on readers' minds.
The New York Times
- Knopf Publishing Group
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- 1 ANCHOR
- Product dimensions:
- 5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.75(d)
Read an Excerpt
Friday nights, after the services and the meal, while the women of the house finished in the kitchen and settled down with books, Birnbaum and his son walked. They headed west, up the boulevard toward the city, or east, deeper into Queens. They marked their passage by landmarks--the Midway Pharmacy, which bulged onto the boulevard; the flat gray edifice of the county courthouse; the bank, which was a replica of Independence Hall in Philadelphia. They recited the neighborhoods they passed into--Rego Park, Corona, Kew Gardens. From odd vantage points they could see bridges--the Verrazano, the green lights of the Throgs Neck; on clear nights, very far off, the GW, or maybe it was the Triborough--they could never be certain.
Across Queens Boulevard they entered the shaded precinct of Forest Park, where the streets were softly lit by gas lamps and black, unmarred lawns lapped serene and elegant houses. Their conversation was muted, filled with a quiet and reluctant awe. Behind bay windows women held record-album covers as men poured wine. There was dancing, right in somebody's living room. Mahogany bookshelves, a special ladder on wheels just for books; on their walls paintings, objects from foreign cultures, even their plates angled for display. His father never said a word but the boy understood that these people had what should be theirs, at least a portion of it, but that never would be. And it was a measure of the world's perversity, the inherent unfairness of things, that this would always be so.
They walked down the boulevard into the Italian section, pastrestaurants and bowling alleys and bars, people cruising, draped from car windows to call someone's name. By the Trylon Theater, kids, not much older than David, boys in jeans and T-shirts, girls in short plaid skirts and leather jackets, out on their own, smoking cigarettes, kissing, touching each other in full view of whoever passed. Sometimes a bright glance sizing him up, a searing flash of invitation, then amused smiles all around at him stuck with his father.
David tried to hurry through these streets but his father liked to take them slowly. Before the brick-fronted clubs with their neon signs in looping script, men in knit shirts stood smoking, rubbing down cars, overseeing the street. David kept his eyes averted, aware of their Shabbos clothing, strayed from their own neighborhood, while his father distributed Good evenings, How are yous, as if he knew these men. As if they might say, Good evening to you, sir, why not stop and have a drink with us?, and he could smile and say, No, no, my son and I are out walking, perhaps another time.
They walked for hours, talking, not talking. Once they kept going, ended up in Whitestone, all the way to the water. In a park under the bridge they were the only people, the gray southern pylon towering over them like some ancient battlement, a fortress's looming wall. Far out on the black water lights bobbed, fishing boats or buoys, the boy couldn't be sure. After half an hour, the only ones in the park, Birnbaum said to his son, Did you see? That Friday they didn't get home till past midnight.
But their favorite spot was not far off, east on the boulevard, then south on Union Turnpike, a few blocks to the overpass. From here, they could see twenty-two roads, east, west, north, south. Four major highways converged at this spot, dumping cars onto service roads, trading traffic in a maze of interchanges and swooping ramps that circled high above their heads, doubled back, and fanned out into more highway. Close by was the IND subway yard, where trains done for the night would pull themselves across their own bridge with a faint metallic chatter the boy could make out, tracing the lit windows and the pink circle at the train's back until it came to rest in the yard and went dark. It was loud here, a whirring background tumble of noise, and the boy liked tuning his ears to one road then another, to the trains, the sound effect of a truck passing above them, spiraling, then disappearing in a stream of taillights toward the east. With their hands on the cold steel rail, they stood and watched, slowly turning their heads, feeling the distant flutter of traffic through the tips of their fingers. His father pointed things out. "Those trucks drive out to the Long Island farms at night," he would say. "The cabbies are lining up for La Guardia." "From here you could go anywhere, anywhere on earth."
The high school where his father taught had once reminded David of a castle. Older, looking back, he retained the memory, though he could hardly understand what had given him the idea. There were two scarred cement columns at the top of a wide staircase, and if you stood across the street and looked, a certain symmetry to the tall windows above the entrance, the gilt lettering on black glass to either side of the portal, in Hebrew and English, giving the school's name. It was a serious place--it even smelled serious, something deeper about its mustiness than in David's school, as if no one here ever opened a window--and no matter what time he arrived there were always groups of boys huddled over Talmuds in the harshly lit rooms. There was no playground, no gym. This was a school for scholars, for future rabbis, and even the students wore suits and hats. David remembered running through these halls. A secretary who had long since died or retired gave him odd, sweet, coffee-flavored candies. Now he was shy and resentful coming here, fingering the baseball cards in his pocket, hurrying through the first floor, where boys swayed over books, murmuring.
His father's class was on the second floor, down the hallway to the back. On the walls no posters, no maps, not even the little grids by the stairwells telling you where to go in case of emergency or fire. Between two classrooms, portraits of the founder and his father, a famous learned man from the Old Country. The founder was dignified and humorless. The founder's father was in a fur hat and faded striped coat, pictured from the waist up, smiling a smile somehow both kindly and insinuating. He had died protecting his school from the Germans. His eyes followed you wherever you went.
The impression he always got approaching his father's classroom was of books as an ocean, his father adrift among them, possibly going down. There were books on the sills, on the students' wooden desks, on a long table near the window, books piled open-face on each other, threatening to spill onto the floor. There were books on his father's desk, and beside it a worn wooden box, filled with more books. Sometimes David knocked, sometimes he walked straight in, so his father would look up and see him. Other times he stood at the door, playing a game he did not really enjoy, seeing how long it would be before his father, hunched over a smeary manuscript he was translating for some journal, would notice him. David felt uncomfortable standing there, as if he were spying on someone's privacy, and sometimes he was, his father shifting in his chair to pass gas, picking his nose--but, uncomfortable or not, he did it anyway. He watched his father's big head under its black yarmulke, watched his incomprehensible scrawl on the yellow writing paper, thought if he was an Arab terrorist or some crazed sniper like the man who shot Kennedy he could have picked him off twenty times by now. Still other times he just stood there and thought, This is his other world, when he's not home with us.
The response when it came, in any case, was always the same. His father would look up, startled, genuinely surprised to see him there, glad. He would check his watch. "Am I late?" he would say, knowing he was, enjoying the ritual, "Just one more second." And David would bring out his cards to check for Yankees or loiter halfway up the hall, embarrassed in more ways than he could acknowledge, at his father's absent-mindedness--two, three times every week he had to come get him for dinner--at his own unwanted role as messenger, at the shabby familiarity of these rooms and halls, at the way, whether he was ten minutes or two hours late, whether it was snowing outside or blazing hot, his father would look up from his books every time like a man shocked from dreaming, alarmed, happy, smiling to see him.
On the way out, students would nod at his father, occasionally--usually the younger ones--stop and ask a question about their work. There were night classes, and students stayed at least as long as evening prayers, some after that, for dinner. It was a world David was suspicious of, and scorned, but even here he would have liked an occasional wave or smile from one of these serious young men, would have felt then much eased in his faltering sense of worldliness and self-possession. Who wanted what they had? They didn't even seem American.
Older boys sat on the steps to argue, and they didn't rise, as David didn't for his teachers, as his father passed. They said good night in Yiddish or, not pausing in their conversations at all, simply raised their chins at his father, a bare acknowledgment in which David saw condescension, traces of contempt. It galled him that they knew his father in all his weaknesses--his dreamy-mindedness, his affection for puns, his penchant for flying off the handle and his killing remorse afterwards--they knew all these things as well as his own son did. He registered what he believed was the complacent derision in their faces, and recognized much the same in himself, which made him even angrier. He knew his father just that well, and of course he loved him. Did they? Did they love him, these pale boys with their earlocks and green suits, smugly arguing laws nobody but they cared about anyway?
On the street, as his father pulled papers from his suit pocket or tried to relatch his briefcase, which had come undone, as he called, "Wait, David, tell me about your day," the boy would tuck his chin into his neck and walk faster, willing himself deaf and blind.
In Brooklyn, his father's shul was a yellow brick building that, along with another shul next door, took up most of 50th Street between 13th and 14th Avenues. Birnbaum's father had been rabbi here twenty years, was among the city's prominent clergy, on school boards and planning commissions, knew aldermen, councilmen, deputy mayors. The script, though it had never been openly discussed, was that Birnbaum's older brother, Rachmil, would take over one day. But he had not survived the war, the passage from Poland. The honor, the obligation, descended then to Birnbaum. But he was not his father, had other leanings, enjoyed his reading and translating medieval manuscripts, was uncomfortable speechifying, swaying crowds, being the center of everyone's attention. Until the possibility had passed, however, Birnbaum did not himself realize that in idle moments he saw himself up there, dispensing kind wisdom from the podium, leading the congregation with his example of quiet dedication and good works. His father distantly encouraged his scholarship, had even helped him get the job at the boy's high school in Queens--a favor, Birnbaum sometimes thought; other times, exile. Now another man, Alan Ostrow, was being groomed as his father's successor, and Birnbaum, who had managed to publish only a handful of monographs and one article, was not nearly as happy in his choices as he had once hoped to be, as his father's impassive approval made him avow he was. He was disappointed in himself, and disappointed, obscurely, in his father, for accepting him as he had turned out.
At the shul his position was conspicuous if not eminent. He was in charge of organizing the study groups and classes that met during the week, though he taught only occasionally himself. He was on committees, headed, with his Uncle Simon, the charity drive for the orphanage in Jerusalem the shul sponsored. He was well liked, prized for his singing voice, his offhand humor. He sensed the congregation considered him one of them, approachable, one who could take a bit of ribbing, while the rabbi was grand, removed. This was true, and Birnbaum told himself it was all to the good. He tried to see himself as a simple Jew, a humble man who quietly did his duty to God and family and community. If he had doubts, he practiced keeping them to himself.
And, if it was sometimes painful to admit this, given his relationship with his own father, he put great stock in his children. They were bright-eyed, affectionate, favorites among the congregation--it was a special thing to be the rabbi's grandchildren (if not, he sometimes couldn't help musing, the rabbi's son) and they seemed partly everyone's kids. David had his clear singing voice, and Rachel a laugh everyone recognized, turned to smile at. They did well in school and somehow the whole community knew their most recent grades, what their teachers had to say. People would introduce his children as if they were their own: This year he learned twelve blat of Talmud by heart, most in his class. She did half the cooking for the seder, twenty-five people they fed.
After the Torah reading David would climb the front steps to sit with his grandfather. As a young boy he had sat on his lap. Older, in his own suit and tie, he sat next to the rabbi, in a high-backed red-velvet chair identical to his and, across the velour-draped ark, the president of the congregation's. You could hear him singing up there. Birnbaum would look over at Ruth, would try to catch his father's attention--here was something they could all be proud of together.
When he had finally moved his family to Queens no one raised an eyebrow. It was nearer the job, after all. They had good schools for the children, the houses were newer, there was room for a man to prosper. It's the right thing to do, people assured him. Brooklyn is finished, they all said. We'll be joining you soon enough.
But to Birnbaum there was defeat, a taint of abandonment in his leaving. He couldn't put a name to it, didn't allow himself to, but he had never thought to leave. All his adult life, when he looked into his future--well, he didn't know anymore what he saw, but he never saw this. Nothing was clearer than the logic of the move, the necessity, for it--a man couldn't stay forever in his father's shadow, after all--yet now he was doing it he had trouble keeping his mind turned forward toward the bright new life he and Ruthie had planned. It was reckless, he feared, and there would be costs.
And this foreboding, this bracing for grief was only confirmed for him two years later when he returned to follow his father in the funeral cortege, Borough Park's crowded streets hushed for once, schoolchildren three deep on the curbs, storekeepers, merchants, housewives, everyone in Brooklyn, it seemed, gathered in the streets to pay final respects to the great man. What Birnbaum remembered was the body before him in the box, swaying gently in the hearse, the cold door handle which he wouldn't let go of, all the long walk to the cemetery, the prayers and shattered apologies he offered under his breath.
[CHAPTER ONE CONTINUES...]
Meet the Author
Ehud Havazelet is the author of the critically acclaimed collection of stories What Is It Then between Us? He teaches at Oregon State University and the Warren Wilson M.F.A. Program for Writers, and lives in Corvallis, Oregon.
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