Witz: The Story of the Last Jew on Earthby Joshua Cohen
On Christmas Eve 1999, all the Jews in the world die in a strange, millennial plague, with the exception of the firstborn males, who are soon adopted by a cabal of powerful people in the American government. By the following Passover, however, only one is still alive: Benjamin Israelien; a kindly, innocent, ignorant man-child. As he finds himself transformed… See more details below
On Christmas Eve 1999, all the Jews in the world die in a strange, millennial plague, with the exception of the firstborn males, who are soon adopted by a cabal of powerful people in the American government. By the following Passover, however, only one is still alive: Benjamin Israelien; a kindly, innocent, ignorant man-child. As he finds himself transformed into an international superstar, Jewishness becomes all the rage: matzo-ball soup is in every bowl, sidelocks are hip; and the only truly Jewish Jew left is increasingly stigmatized for not being religious. Since his very existence exposes the illegitimacy of the newly converted, Israelien becomes the object of a worldwide hunt…
Meanwhile, in the not-too-distant future of our own, "real" world, another last Jew--the last living Holocaust survivor--sits alone in a snowbound Manhattan, providing a final melancholy witness to his experiences in the form of the punch lines to half-remembered jokes.
Dalkey Archive Press
The New York Times
How's the Jewish experience in this country lived now? In our blithely post-tribal times, the answer may mean altogether more for the life of American letters than the lives of American Jews. Surely, the fact of being Jewish -- like that of being Lutheran or Alsatian -- has never had a weaker bearing on the course and contour of one's existence than it does in today's developed West. Yet the identifiably Jewish novel survives, as distinct aesthetic type and, perhaps, the definitive voice of American literary fiction as such.
Or does it? At its most polemical and problematic, Joshua Cohen's Witz is an 800-page, half-million word, vaguely novelistic exegesis on the moral and epistemological impossibility of future Jewish novels. At Witz's most compelling -- more or less the same parts -- it's a primal plea for the return of a tradition to its messy, marginal, but living roots from an ossified privilege in the lucrative, self-satisfied center of mass culture.
It is, in other words, a novel that had to be written by a 29-year-old. The primacy of Jewish writing in America would, of course, never be "representative" in the demographic sense. But like the New England Brahmins ascendant generations earlier -- and that peculiar, gale-battered existentialism running through Hawthorne and Melville to, say, Henry Adams, that most extravagant anti-Semite -- the Jews of the second half of the twentieth century were the minoritarian sliver of the population whose acute, parochial subjectivities came to distill, bottle, and serve, neat, the general spirit of the age. Self-alienation, historical dislocation, sexual neurosis, survivor's ambivalence: the basic psychological building blocks of serious fiction in postwar America, gentile or otherwise.
Cohen's critique is simple and brave: born into a world where all identity is optional, and trumpeted more proudly than ever, writers of his generation -- or more precisely, the one just previous -- have reversed the genuine pathos of a Philip Roth, adopting facilely resolved "Jewish" themes as kitsch talismans of literary intent and mainstream marketability. (He's named names, including Jonathan Safran Froer and Michael Chabon, as "white boys who write to be liked.") Witz throws down its gauntlet in a cracked fable: On Christmas Day 1999, a plague wipes out most of the world's "Affiliated" -- Cohen's wisely adopted stand-in for the J-word -- leaving only the first-born sons. A cabal including the U.S. president has the survivors interned, luxuriously, on Ellis Island. They're after Affiliated bank accounts and real estate but also, Cohen implies, an inheritance worth much more than money: the sanctifying warrant of group history, and historical victimhood.
Thus the goyim begin changing their names and augmenting their noses through the new practice of "rhinoplastics." Forelocks and yarmulkes become de rigueur. Mayor Meir Meyer runs New York City, where the decimated Upper West Side is repopulated with observant -- imagine that -- converts and the Third Temple rises on Central Park South. As a satire of mendacious fourth-wave Holocaust lit -- not to mention Christian Evangelical Zionism -- Witz does not lack for teeth, though it bites off perhaps less than the prodigious talent on hand could chew. By Passover 2000, all the first-borns are dead, save one.
Our protagonist Benjamin Israelien is now a celebrity messiah, then pariah when the boy's irreligious placidity fails the fanatic public's smell-test for Last Jew on Earth. Cohen insists on a prickly, pranksterish density -- adjectives routinely trail their objects, as in Hebrew ("gratitude formulaic"); places like Yo Semite National Park and Palestein dot the map -- but Ben is, despite himself and his author, a doleful creation of immense timely appeal and, yes, ecumenical likeability. Blond and blue-eyed, born fully grown with glasses and a foreskin that regenerates each time it's cut, secular Ben just wants to be left alone by a culture whose profits and prophets turn on resuscitating the dogma that patrimony is destiny.
So he runs. It's the cross-country cinematics of this escape -- and, of course, the doorstop heft -- that suggests Witz as this decade's Infinite Jest or White Noise, the young man's big picaresque of ideas. In truth, it's much too insular, too slapdash, too particularist for the comparison. Cohen's is a novel of one idea, and as such, could be comfortably shorter by 400 pages or more, though I wouldn't want to be the one making the cuts. Indeed, Witz's witty and wearing logorrhea does ultimately persuade, if only as an ironic feint for Cohen's real achievement, and promise: a fiction featuring heterodox Jewish experiences -- among other things -- that aren't gravely universal or world-historical, that can once again be small, specific, situated, and strange.
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By JOSHUA COHEN
DALKEY ARCHIVE PRESSCopyright © 2010 Joshua Cohen
All right reserved.
Chapter OneOver There, Then
IN THE BEGINNING, THEY ARE LATE.
Now it stands empty, a void.
Darkness about to deepen the far fire outside.
A synagogue, not yet destroyed. A survivor. Who isn't?
Now, it's empty. A stomach, a shell, a last train station after the last train left to the last border of the last country on the last night of the last world; a hull, a husk-a synagogue, a shul.
Mincha to be prayed at sundown, Ma'ariv at dark.
Why this lateness?
He says reasons and she says excuses.
And so let there be reasons and excuses.
And there were.
A last boat out, why didn't they catch it? They didn't have their papers? their papers weren't in order?
He says excuses and she says reasons.
And so let there be excuses and reasons.
And there were, if belated.
Misses Singer strokes her husband's scar as if to calm him. But what she calls a scar he knows is his mouth.
Late because they're stuck in one exilic fantasy or another; late because the adventure of ingathering doesn't seem all on the up and up; late because they're owed payments, and you're goddamned right they're going to collect ... what's yours? I'm just waiting for this one deal of a lifetime to come through, and, when it does, God! the moment it does, you'd better believe I'm out of here ...
Singer stops, stoops to pick up a shoe, sized wide, fallen from his withered foot last step.
Nu, it's been like this ever since he was born, and those long, hard years have all been as yesterday's toll: the bridge crossing, the bottomless price of a boat full with holes, an aeroplane cast down from heaven, betrayed of its wings. And it's not as if he hasn't crawled his end of the bargain: wriggling ever forward from garden to grave, he's trying, just ask him; if he hadn't married so well, he'd have to gnaw down a branch for a cane. And then what: you pray for a splinter, you get a tree in return, from whose flesh is made paper and from whose fruit is sucked ink, both of which collaborate in God's writing of Laws whose words and even the letters of which bless you beholden to meaning; and so we receive knowledge, such as the following, and the preceding, and this: in seeking only to stay upright, you fall, are banished then cursed and reviled, condemned to wander a continent you don't even know where you're going, only when you're expected, which is every Friday at sundown though your calendars were never coordinated and what you always thought had been west was really only a left turn taken with your back to the north, in haste and with little sleep, then upon your forehead, the development of a worrying mark.
A meal after Shacharit, which is the prayer of the morning, praising God Who made the light only by saying it illuminating, also, our own saying of thanks to Him for not making us unto them-the animals, women, or sick; for not yet giving us over to the darkness of death-shadows that have no souls for which to pray if even they could, as they lack both voices and hearts, shuffle their bloated, crapulous ways into shul: Unaffiliated, jingjangling keys-there couldn't be! that many doors ... goyim nameless faceless nearly formless, quiet massing hulks emerged out of dim wet here to make a living that's more a dying. It's strange, no one understands: they're here to help, not destroy. Be calm. One sweeps up; another sweeps the seats for articles and personal effects left behind, by night. Yet another stacks books on the almemar, shoves them, balled up crumpled wet, into pew pockets, lays them out on seats swept toward the rear, nosebleed territory from which the Shammes groans in with an enormous what hath God wrought iron key, looped on a rope around his waist, hanging low under his gut, swinging with his stride-which is as long and wide as the last night he'll spend here, free, unconcerned.
Hours later when hours were still hours as restful and lit as all Sabbath's day, not the binding celestials of numeral and ordinal, the narrow gauge of comet trains, stardeadline, failing, falling, the tickers of arrival and departure and arrival, diurnal again-the clock centerpieces upon our timetables that not only remind us when to partake but are, simultaneously, the only sustenance left-the Affiliated muster, assemble outside ... soon, there's a congregation beyond: nondenominational, because what does observance mean anyway, irreligious maybe even, or all of them heaped together, thrown atop the burning pile, who knows, with the languages who can tell? Their bloods are their tickets, purchased at a steep price or a long song much in advance. Presence by the pint. They lineup two-by-two, two of each kind, husband and wife. They've restedup, washedup, dressedup; they've reported for showers and were shorn. There's last summer's rose attar, perfume stagnant in air-or it's smoke, strangely sweet ...
Menschs bow down by the curb, bow at the knees and cast fingers, fish around in last regime's grates and late afternoon's puddles for anything that's not yet blown away: loose pages, blots of blatt, daf stains, yellowed newspapers the print of which's run off to tomorrow with yesterday's wife, scraps of rag, parchment or is it just skin, God, it's skin. As a handful of the oldest menschs bow, they fall, are then helped back to their feet by menschs only slightly younger, each of them by another younger by just a wink or a wrinkle, they're righted, and so now they're ten altogether, which makes us a minyan. Runoff is wrung out from these yarmulkes, mud knuckled away with spit. The menschs gather these scraps, spread them on glassy bald skulls with thumb's knife, against the gusts at the doorway, as if they didn't have these frags and parches, corking it All down, their heads would spill out to the sky. And its vault. Never forget the vault. Windily, they kiss at the jamb, which is marked. An Unaffiliated at the door hands out books, programs inside, both also pressed into yarmulkes.
Yellow over red to brown over black if I'm squinting it right, I don't have my glasses on me just now, comes to west through the windows. Then, Let there be light, and there is light and if not good, then so-so-eh, though you might prefer feh. It's not theirs, though: insight is forbidden to the assembled, at least here, and what they seek in their own homes, hosting ruin just past the horizon, and on their own time, which is almost up, is absolutely none of our business. Two lights becoming one becoming two: the Shammes has lit candles, flame, but the fire's outside. The stainedglass remains dark. The floor's a mess: remnants of flowing tracery, shards of leaded panes from the windows lancet and rose, long replaced or walled up due to heating costs; pews' rubble heaped to the side, seating's splinters, scrapped immature limbs-for use in stoking the furnace.
They're still late-it's a long walk and in these shoes ...
Those who aren't late yet they go some to the left some to the right and up the stairs, to the balcony there: the cheap seats, the women, forgive; some have forgotten though they're forgiven, reminded again. Entering, the audience is shaking hands; they hug, kiss, and make inquiries with the hands they're not shaking. Shoes echo off stone. Sweeping suits up in their hands, gathering skirts and slacks they sit, Phfoy. Elders should sit first, but the kinder these days threw respect to the dogs, a distant barking the night through. Cushions, where there are cushions, in the first few rows, wheeze out a measure of dust. Coughs and sneezes ensue, allergies. Some sit on benches, others on seats along the wall, at shtenders, a nod to the old traditionalists: a grip on the hat's brim, a little bow, the upright stooping to become the fallen in greeting, left wordless while the dialect's still being decided. Everyone's pooped, the day's pooped ... I yi yi and all that kitsch, it once was. A few sit in pews, they appear ashamed, remote; there are foldingchairs way in the back. The room's filling up; there aren't enough seats, never are, no room, no space, no air: some stand rocking for warmth as if they're their own mothers; others sit on headstones hauled desecrated from the cemetery beyond; there're a few pieces of remaindered furniture outside, too, holy borax that's rental on special, on remnants of sample carpeting they sit anywhere they can, on frayed cushions over loose currencies, sagging under weight, on a sofa with corneal slipcover making piecework flatulence when you go to give up your seat to someone with more hope, or is it less luck, I don't know-to make way for others, people standing on people pouring in through the smashed in shattered out windows slicing their guts open on jagged edges of glass then falling their ways in, intestinal ladders and no, no angels registered, not tonight ... though if not now, if you're such a Hillel, then when-then never: widows and orphans emerging from drafts of pure nothingness and of the absence of pure nothingness, which is just the proof of pure nothingness, yadda; they lean against the walls, crouch in neighboring alleys-with the door left open a crack.
Womenfolk above, the menschs below-the women can't complain: it's all ritual, no one's fault, merely a gesture to what, who remembers; the women disappearing behind the mechitza, then peeking out, disappearing again. Curtains, bodying presences-is that the one I'm in love with? her sister? maybe her mother?
How can the room hold so many, their light-so fresh, so clean, such blushing about the face? Virginal, their apples intact, if desperately ripe. For the purposes of swallowing them the shul seems to expand, a snake's mouth, releasing an inky venom decreeing the digestion of a millennium, slower. The Fire Marshal Who art in Heaven has bestowedeth upon them His blessings of numinous capacities and maximal occupancies, illimitably, which means nevermore up for renewal ... a great oven, heating.
Authorities up on High have dictated All.
A group huddling past the river of three names and of no name, done feeding the waters, done watering them, and so just in time to make the first seating's lights: they're rushing in, they're dripping, taking the steps down to humble, supplication doesn't matter if meant as it's imposed from above-this ducking through the portal so that their prayers might rise up from the depths; and, too, so that they don't smack their heads that's how low.
Psalm 130, if you know it. An arch.
They're entering their Father's House-but is their Father home? Anyone, anyone?
You were expecting what besides miserly decoration, impoverished, no humanity, just faceless lions and onewinged birds, frozen midroar and half tweeting. Above the ark, where the scrolls are kept, where no scrolls will be kept anymore-a tympanum, a woodwork canopy peeling paint and blue mold; deepplanted vaunt, hardened bounty amidst carved drapery, earthen vines strangling eternity, then above, only ribbing. Menschs on the lowest level, their wives and daughters higher, upon the balcony then on balconies decorated in rock flowers and jewels, who knows how many of them on up to the stone seat of the moon, as if one half of the Decalogue, the cleaved five commandments, and who can sneak a look? or else they're kept to the side, or toward the rear, the women, nearest the western wall, the separating grillwork a veil of metal, an armor of plaits ... the menschs keep turning, keep coming up with prayerless occasions to turn their eyes upward, behind. We're inattentive, weekly; resentful, daily; at all times our souls unprepared-beginning there at the ceiling, its crown, an ornamental rib intended to forsake the vault of a cross. An extra, whether left from Creation or a predating build. An almemar parts the room, though later in the show the staging will remove itself to the eastern wall, the pulpit: another migration, yet another orientation, and so which way to face, though the movements are known, felt instinctually-are up and down and back and forth, in and out and this and that and what where, only now.
Everything known better days. The worn steps up to the proscenium's ark, arching at the height of the street once again: their cups covered over in dissolute pillows, stuffed with who wants to think. Just inside the vestibule, a lavabo for the washing of hands before prayer's suffered drought. Those without prayerbooks are to read the prayers that have been written on the walls in a hand unwashed. A hand impure, in that it's withheld.
At that proscenium, arkways, the House Manager, resident schlockmeister extraordinaire, an obese mensch shvitzing nerves in this freeze, smokes a frond rolled in loose page, fitted into a holder hollowed out from his humerus; he taps ash to the floor, lines of ash indicating staging. All has been blocked since eternity. The pit's just below; the baldspot on the Conductor's head blinding the balcony: he's bent over his score, baton in one nostril out the other, scribbling his cues in fanatical charcoal, circling rests and only the rests. Tacit. His tuxedo's motheaten, his cummerbund an enormous expropriated armband. A clarinet running scales up from the chalumeau, embouchure cracked, his reed a sliver of skull; a fiddler, a tallskinny mensch to the clarinet's shortfat, fiddling with the tuner on his tailpiece: if he's sharp he's sharp, if he's flat he's flat, it's the thought that counts, condemns; an organist, pulling out all the stops, warming up the webbed pipes; the Copyist rushes in, vaults over the rail, trips over stands, slipslides in spitvalve discharge, hands out parts barely dry, just finished as all work-not just that of Creation but of copying, too-must be barred from the sunset: dusk's red ink smeared, ink that actually ran out yesterday and is now only blood worried with spit; the Prompter wiping his forehead with the House Manager's noserag, then numbering cue cards with a quill so sharp his cousin could perform morally impossible ocular surgery with it-a procedure ensuring prophetic hindsight, would help. The House Manager, lapels at his ears, flicking the switch to the Applause sign, On and Off then On again, as onstage, the Emcee the rabbi pops Polyn's P's into the microphone smuggled in tonight only.
Testing ... Testing ... One-Two-Three ... Is this thing on? ... Good evening, ladies & gentlemen ... and feedback attends Try the veal! ... the fivethirty show's exactly the same as the three-thirty show-and thanks folks, I'll be here all week ...
Nu, that's what he thinks.
As feedback echoes, feeds back on itself the sound cud, swells in the mouth to air raid proportions, but it's maybe a drill, let's hope, or a close relative screaming Name somewhere near-as the crowd alarmed, is made fidgety, restless ... a buzz that is its own sting, inspiring of shock, the instinctive Amen that surprises: people whispering to each other, jawing that it's finally, about time-unannounced, from the leftwing stageright, the cantor comes forward, arrayed in an illfitting white kittel.
Houselights of the world to dim, out; the candles guttering brighter.
They don't know to sit or stand: there's a great creaking, an opening of books, a mass cracking of covers, a slitting of page with the forefingernail, honey on the pagetips to encourage as the rabbi intones off the script, introduces himself, yet again; it's a foreign language, yet another tongue's trouble: it's a responsorial without a response, or actually anything to respond to ... how's everybody doing tonight? we'd like to thank you all so much for coming.
A buzz at its height, as if a hive dangled down from the roof of the night: people whispering, shouting, screaming final warnings, advice; addresses overseas to be memorized, 36,000 12-Millionth Street, Apartment 3B and ring twice; times and dates ... the corner of Broadway & Innocence, 1952, 6 pm; lashon hara ... it seems here, the pages are different: some have books with oddnumbered pages, others just even; some of the books only have numbers: digits-and dashes; other books have photographs in them, are only photos, images black & white, and uncaptioned, or the pages, whatever they have or say or show, don't correspond to whatever it is the rabbi or is he the cantor, the chazzan, I forget, he does, too, announces twotongued, in every translation known to this side of the ocean: page 296, two-nine-six, page number two-hundred-and-ninety-six, in the white book, you can do your own conversion for the blue.
Excerpted from Witz by JOSHUA COHEN Copyright © 2010 by Joshua Cohen. Excerpted by permission.
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Maybe due to my lack of knowledge or understanding for the style of writing, I experienced much difficulty sifting through Cohen's obstinate delineations...though I was very curious to move onward with the story. The little I read, I acquired some knowledge of Judaistic practices. Reading through pages full of distracting lines that meant nothing to me, I had to let it go. It's a hodgepodge of thoughts that lend the reader insignificant details towards a story meant to come across. I must say, Cohen's mind is jampacked with scholarly imagery; suitable for his own understanding of course.