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Like Never Before

Like Never Before

by Ehud Havazelet

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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


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.

Editorial Reviews

Richard Bernstein
[A] striking talent. . .[Mr. Havazelet has] a fine ear for the eccentric cadences of lower-middle-class New York Jews and an unsentimental compassion for the scars they bear.
The New York Times
Deborah Eisenberg
Reading several of the stories at a time is a little like thumbing through an old album of family snapshots, that lightly undertaken but perilous activity, when illuminated and frozen moments unexpectedly summon up the submerged links and tensions that have lain humming through the darkness between them.... As dense, intricate, and sophisticated as they are, these stories flow easily along. The author has given us only the essential; the prose is graceful and direct. Although the materials of the book are generally those of daily life, there's an exciting velocity and bounce to the work, owing in part to zooming shifts of perspective and perception.... Havazelet is a master at locating life's hinges, at depicting the astonishing and exquisitely painful divergence between the way we fit into our worlds and the way we need to think we do.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
"Any hardship in this world is easier to bear than a disappointing child,'' thinks Max Birnbaum, a character in the 10 interlinked stories that make up Havazelet's dazzlingly insightful and emotionally resonant second book, after the praised What Is It Then Between Us? The pain that parents and children cause each other is the theme that shadows three generations. Max is an old man when he makes his observation about the hardship of raising children who disappoint, and he should know, having retired from an undistinguished teaching career that disappointed his father, a famous and beloved rabbi, and having also witnessed the downward trajectory of his own son, David. It is David's story, in fact, that forms the gripping center of these poignant chronicles. After a difficult youth, David is a brilliant, rising but self-absorbed architect who loses his job, his marriage, his self-confidence and his future in one cataclysmic day. Havazelet brilliantly probes the sources of David's angst, from his abrasive, resentful, irascible personality to the stress of being caught between the Orthodox Jewish culture of his forebears and the lure of assimilation in the 1960s. One of the many jolts of surprise in these narratives is Havazelet's candid depiction of the offspring of strict Orthodox families succumbing to the lures of drugs, alcohol, shoplifting and promiscuous sex. Hardly pious yeshiva students, they behave like aspiring juvenile delinquents. The Birnbaum women, too, are caught in the crucible of cultural change. Ruth, Max's wife; Rachel, their daughter, and pious cousin Leah make their own accommodations to life's disappointments. The moods in these stories range from broadly comedic (echoes of Malamud) to nightmarishly tragic; each contains small detonations of surprise that turn commonplace events into milestones of loss, bitterness or tentative healing. Common to all of them is the elegant simplicity of Havazelet's prose, the grace and precision with which he captures the currents of love, misunderstanding, anger and yearning that reflect complex interior lives. Yet Havazelet imbues his work with the vitality of fully engaged, risk-taking characters and the tenderness of his compassionate observation. In his hands, this kaleidoscope of alternating narrators and shifted chronologies coalesces into a haunting family portrait. West Coast author tour. (Oct.)
Library Journal
Havazelet's second book (following What Is It Then Between Us?, LJ 6/1/88) treats three generations of an Orthodox Jewish family who have come to New York from Poland. A main theme is cruelty: the sadism of a schoolmaster, the careless bullying of children, episodes of horrifying violence committed by usually gentle and loving fathers, the pain of cancer. Yet this is an extremely gentle work--the author's abundant affection and deep sympathy for the Birnbaum family is clear and moving. Each word is chosen with care, and the effect is seamless. Though billed as a collection of ten short stories, the book reads like a novel, following protagonist David from childhood through middle age. "Pillar of Fire," a superb novella in the middle of the book, details the end of his first marriage and a complex and beautiful encounter with two very young girls hitchhiking. A fine choice for all libraries.--Judith Kicinski, Sarah Lawrence Coll. Lib., Bronxville, NY
Craig Seligman
I have no idea what Havazelet's intention was, and no doubt it tells you more about me than about him that I should be worrying the issue, because what matters is the writing, and the writing soars. -- New York Times Book Review
San Francisco Chronicle
A superb collection of thematically linked short stories by the author of What Is It Then Between Us?, these works are 'astonishing in their sensitivity, clarity, and power.'
Sanford Pinsker
Extraordinary. . .The 10 interrelated stories of Like Never Before move inexorably toward a sadness that cracks the heart, and a hard-won reconciliation that affirms the human spirit. -- The Washington Post
David Mehegan
Graceful. . .[A] nuanced portrait of love and misunderstanding across a chasm no one in life quite bridges. -- The Boston Sunday Globe
Kirkus Reviews
Ten precious stories, six previously published, comprise a rich, multi-faceted account of a Jewish family in conflict across generations and increasingly at odds with its faith, from the author of What Is it Then Between Us?. The central figure in these interlocking tales is David, rebellious son of the pious Max Birnbaum, viewed in a variety of roles over the course of his life. As a child, he is both the reluctant companion on his father's long walks through Queens ('Six Days') and the truant from his Hebrew school who torments a fellow miscreant in the subway after they escape detention and steal shamelessly from neighborhood stores ('Light of This World'). He fails to understand his first wife, losing her to her morbid fascination with a neighbor's brutal slaying, while he himself takes the first step toward losing his job as an architect ('The Street You Live On'). Finally, having moved to Oregon and remarried, he can't find a way to bridge the gap between himself and Max after his mother's death, when the old man comes to visit, bearing gifts, and is sent home in anger ('Like Never Before'). Filling out the portrait are a WWII story from Max's past ('Lyon') and another from his future: During his last night on earth, he's visited in his Queens kitchen by his father and a lively welcoming committee from the afterlife ('Eight Rabbis on the Roof'). David's long-suffering mother Ruth, his commitment-shy sister Rachel, and their thrice-married, late-blooming cousin Leah also add perspective and experiences to the family mosaic, which ends with David coming home for the unveiling of his father's tombstone ('To Live in Tiflis in the Springtime'). The author's compassion for hischaracters is wonderfully full, but when all is said and done, David's explosive anger over Max isn't adequately explained.

Product Details

Knopf Publishing Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.75(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

    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.


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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