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Gamaliel Friedman is only a child when his family flees Czechoslovakia in 1939 for the relative safety of Hungary. For him, it will be the beginning of a life of rootlessness, disguise, and longing. Five years later, in desperation, Gamaliel’s parents entrust him to a young Christian cabaret singer named Ilonka. With his Jewish identity hidden, he survives the war, but in 1956, to escape the ...
Gamaliel Friedman is only a child when his family flees Czechoslovakia in 1939 for the relative safety of Hungary. For him, it will be the beginning of a life of rootlessness, disguise, and longing. Five years later, in desperation, Gamaliel’s parents entrust him to a young Christian cabaret singer named Ilonka. With his Jewish identity hidden, he survives the war, but in 1956, to escape the stranglehold of communism, he leaves Budapest after painfully parting with Ilonka.
He settles in Vienna, then Paris, and finally, after a failed marriage, in New York, where he works as a ghostwriter, living through the lives of others. Eventually, he falls in with a group of exiles: a Spanish Civil War veteran, a survivor of the Warsaw ghetto, a victim of Stalinism, a former Israeli intelligence agent, and a rabbi—a mystic whose belief in the potential for grace in everyday life powerfully counters Gamaliel’s feelings of loss and dispossession. When Gamaliel is asked to help draw out an elderly, disfigured Hungarian woman who is barely able to communicate but who may be his beloved Ilonka, he begins to understand that a real life in the present is possible only if he will reconcile with his past.
Aching, unsentimental, deeply affecting, and thought-provoking, The Time of the Uprooted is the work of a master.
I’m four years old, or maybe five. It’s a Sabbath afternoon. Mother is lying down in the next room. I’d asked her to read to me from the book she had by her side, but she has one of her frequent headaches. So I ask my father to tell me a story, but just then there’s a knock at the door. “Go see who it is,” says my father, reluctantly glancing up from the journal he’s keeping. A stranger is at the door.
“May I come in?” he asks. A big bearded man, broad across the shoulders, with sad eyes—there’s something disturbing about him. His gaze seems heavy with secrets, and glows with a pale and holy fire.
“Who’s there?” my father asks, and I reply, “I don’t know.”
“Call me a wanderer,” the stranger says, “a wandering man who’s worn-out and hungry.”
“Who do you want to see?” I ask, and he says to me, “You.”
“Who is it, a beggar?” my father asks. “Tell him to come in.” No matter what the hour, my father would never deny his home to a stranger seeking a meal or a night’s shelter, and certainly not on the Sabbath.
The stranger comes in at a slow but unhesitating pace. Father stands to greet him and leads him to the kitchen. He shows the stranger where to wash his hands before reciting the usual prayer, offers him a seat, and sets before him a plate of cholent and hallah. But the stranger doesn’t touch it. “You’re not hungry?” my father says.
“Oh yes, I’m hungry, and I’m thirsty, but not for food.”
“Then what is it you want?”
“I want words and I want faces,” says the stranger. “I travel the world looking for people’s stories.” I’m enchanted by the stranger’s voice. It is the voice of a storyteller: It envelops my soul. He continues: “I came here today to put you to the test, to measure your hospitality. And I can tell you that what I’ve seen pleases me.” With that, he gets to his feet and strides to the door.
“Don’t tell me you are the prophet Elijah,” says my father.
“No, I’m no prophet.” The stranger smiles down at me. “I told you, I’m just a wanderer. A crazy wanderer.”
Ever since that encounter, I’ve loved vagabonds with their sacks full of tales of princes who became what they are for love of freedom and solitude. I delight in madmen. I love to see their crazed, melancholy faces and to hear their bewitching voices, which arouse in me forbidden images and desires. Or rather, it’s not the madness itself I love, but those it possesses, those whose souls it claims, as if to show them the limits of their possibilities—and then makes them determined to go further, to push themselves beyond those limits. It’s second nature with me. Some collect paintings; others love horses. Me, I’m attracted to madmen. Some fear them, and so put them away where no one can hear them cry out. I find some madmen entertaining, but others do indeed frighten me, as if they know that a man is just the restless and mysterious shadow of a dream, and that dream may be God’s. I have to confess that I enjoy their company, I want to see through their eyes the world die each night, only to be reborn with dawn, to pursue their thoughts as if they were wild horses, to hear them laugh and make others laugh, to intoxicate myself without wine, and to dream with my eyes open.
Is today Monday? Maybe it’s Tuesday, but no, it’s Thursday. As if it matters. The wanderer can’t seem to wake up, which is unlike him, and so it was with Isaac and Job when they were full of years, as Scripture tells us. In his dream, he has just seen his father. He stands solemnly for a long moment, and then father and son embrace. He awakes with a start, then falls back into heavy, oppressive slumber. No more father. Talk to him, he doesn’t answer. Stretch out a hand, he turns away. With an effort, he opens his eyes. He knows he’s alone, that he should get up, that he has a long and trying day ahead, but he can’t seem to place the day in his exile’s life: Does it belong to his future, to his past? His soul is lost in the fog and is taking him to some terrifying place of the damned. Somewhere an old woman ravaged in body and memory is watching for him, perhaps to punish him for misdeeds long forgotten, for promises carelessly tossed aside. Who is she? A beauty he dreamed of as a boy but could not hold on to? One of his daughters, stricken in her mind and lost in the depths of time? He searches his memory; their dark faces circle around him and seem about to close in and suffocate him. He knows that he is destined for a fateful encounter with a mysterious woman. A turning point? The end of a stage of his life? If so, isn’t it time for some kind of heshbon hanefesh—an accounting of his soul—in which he would review the fires he’s been through and the many lives he’s led?
He shakes himself awake, gets up, goes to the washbasin, and examines his reflection in the mirror. He sees his yellowish gray pallor, his sagging features, his dull gaze. He doesn’t recognize the man staring back at him. All he’s done is to change nightmares.
My name is Gamaliel. Yes, Gamaliel, and I’ll thank you not to ask me why. It’s just another name, right? You’re given a name, you carry it around, and if it’s too much of a burden, you get rid of it. As for you, dear reader, do I ask you how come you’re named William, or Maurice, or Sigmund, or Serge, or Sergei? Yes, Gamaliel isn’t an everyday name, and let me tell you, it has its own story, and it’s not one you hear every day, either. That’s true of everybody, you’ll say—and so what? If they want, they can tell me the story of their lives; I’ll hear them out. Let me add that I’m also named Péter. Péter was my childhood. For you, childhood means playing with a ball, rolling a hoop, pony rides in the park, birthdays and holidays, vacations at the shore or in the mountains. My childhood was in a nightclub. It has a story, too.
I’ll get around to that.
Just bear with me.
For now, let’s stick to Gamaliel. Odd kind of name, I know. You don’t see it very often. Sounds Sephardic. So how did I get it? You really want to know? I inherited it. Yes, some people inherit houses, or businesses, stamp collections, bank accounts. I inherited my name. My paternal grandfather left it to me. Did I know him? Of course not; he died before I was born, or else I’d have been given another name. But then how did his parents happen to choose so unusual a name, one that seems better suited to a tired old man than to a newborn baby? Did they find it in the traditions of their Sephardic ancestors, those who were expelled from Spain, or perhaps those who stayed on, the Marranos, who pretended to convert but secretly retained their Jewish identity? You can find the first Gamaliel in the Bible: Gamaliel, son of Phadassur, chief of the tribe of Manasseh; and in the Larousse Encyclopedia, where he is described as “a Jew and a great luminary.” And of course in the Talmud, where he’s frequently quoted. His grandfather was Hillel the Elder. He lived and taught somewhere in Palestine during the first century, well before the destruction of the Second Temple. Yes, I bear the name of a great leader, known for his wisdom and moderation, universally respected in Israel. He was president of the Sanhedrin and of a well-known academy. Nothing was decided without his consent. I would have liked to have known him. Actually, that can be done. All I have to do is look in the records of discussions in which he took part. I’ve been doing that every chance I’ve gotten since I came to America, which by now is quite a while ago. I like to study, and I love to read. I never tire of reading. I have a lot to catch up on.
Besides, you could say it’s what I do for a living.
I write so I can learn to read and read and read.
From the Book of Secrets
The air-raid alarm is silent, making it a quiet night, but even so, the Archbishop of Székesváros has a nightmare. The Archbishop, Monsignor János Báranyi, dreams he is in the Vatican, waiting for an audience with the Pope. Feverishly, he is searching for the first word he’ll speak, the one crucial word that will convince the Pope of his humility and his obedience. He cannot find that word. All he can think of are garbled phrases that might as well be false prayers dictated to him by some evil spirit. What shall I do? Lord in heaven, what shall I do? Without that first word, nothing else he says will matter; the Lord’s Creation will be damned. The Archbishop is in a panic. Time is running out: In a few minutes, the door will open and he will be kneeling before the successor to Saint Peter. The Pope will tell him to rise and speak about his mission, but he, a poor sinner from a distant province, will still be seeking that first word. Help me, Lord, help me! Suddenly, his mother is there holding him by the shoulders. She is long dead. The Archbishop knows that even in his dream—but then what is she doing here, in the Pope’s waiting room? How has she come into his dream? He is about to ask her, when the door opens, opens so softly that it does not disturb a fly perched on its golden doorknob. Now the Archbishop cries out in horror. . . . It’s the Angel of Death, who tells him to come forward. . . .
Posted August 4, 2005
In 1939, Germany is cleansing Czechoslovakia of the Jewish problem forcing the Friedmans to flee their home for Hungary. The Nazis soon march into Budapest where they continue to implement the final solution. Hoping to keep their son safe, the Friedmans leave their child Gamaliel with a young Christian cabaret singer Ilonka. She keeps him safe until the war ends. Gamaliel ultimately leaves Hungary and settles in New York. Though residing in America for decades, Gamaliel feels displaced, a man without a country. Family life failed him as his wife committed suicide and his daughters hate him and he lost all contact with Ilonka years ago when she seems to have vanished. Work is unfair as he ghost writes for others to gain accolades. He has five fellow lost souls, who can tell interchangeable survival tales and only having to substitute names because their stories are identical. His only solace is the manuscript he has written Secret Book life is miserable as he feels like a drifting refugee with no place to call home until a doctor asks him to talk with an ailing elderly woman who only speaks Hungarian. --- Nobel Prize winning Elie Wiesel provides a well written but bleak look at the plight of the nation-less displaced people who once removed from their roots never find homes. Gamaliel is terrific as he reflects back on his melancholy life as a symbolism of all the refugees dislocated and relocated at the whims of the powerful and never knowing when if ever to settle in anticipation of the next dislocation. This is a desolate look at humanity even with a somewhat uplifting climax. --- Harriet Klausner
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Posted August 12, 2010
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