About the Author
Philip Zaleski is senior editor of Parabola magazine, coauthor of Gifts of the Spirit, and author of The Recollected Heart. His writing on the subject of religion and culture appears regularly in such national publications as The New York Times Book Review and Reader's Digest. He teaches religion at Smith College.
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Max and Mottele from Pakn Treger
Lives are distorted, or occasionally salvaged, by questions of identity, and people are sometimes consumed by who they are or, even worse, who someone else is. Yet this is a struggle I've never felt in my own bones. Identity is someone else's problem; I've always known who we are. In this compact body that barely seems to fulfill the requirements of one, there are in fact two: Max and Mottele.
You could think of us as the American and the Jew, or the modernist and the traditionalist, or the nonbeliever and the believer, but none of these categories wholly fits either of us. Mottele, who knows almost nothing about the real America of politics and economics, is uncritically in love with Yankee ways, while Max, who does understand America, is a European socialist.
Of course, Mottele isn't really a citizen. He's the son of immigrants. He grew up among Yiddish-speaking parents and grandparents in a place called Michigan, which he thinks is a province of Lithuania. With his mother's milk and his grandmother's Sanka coffee he took in the shteti. The things he knows about happened before 1920-many of them closer to 1920 B.C.E. Thanks to his grandmother's favorite book, Tsena Urena, the women's Bible commentary he's as comfortable with Abraham and Moses as Max is with Bill Clinton and Shimon Peres. Mottele believes that his ancestors keep tabs on him, even after their death. And, as if that's not enough, God checks the record every year between Rosh Hashanah-and Yom Kippur and has been known to make unannounced appearances. This constant checking keeps Mottele close to the fold, but within his limits he likes tohave a good time. America is made for him: it's a gigantic amusement park filled with goodnatured clowns in every shop and office.
Max, however, knows better. Max discarded the shted. He realized at an early age that by speaking English and reading books he could please his Gentile teachers. He knew these pleasant women were Gentiles by their failure to talk about cholera or pogroms or Hitler. They passed out gold stars and, later, scholarships. Max understood a good deal when he saw one. To impress his teachers he memorized the Gettysburg Address. He practiced every night at bedtime as his grandmother marveled at how well he said the Shema Yisroel in English. He read so many books that his grandmother was afraid he would ruin his eyes and never get a good job, and she was right. After more than twenty years in school he became merely a teacher.
While Max immersed himself in Shakespeare, Milton, and Christian humanism, Mottele stayed away - more than that, he disappeared. In the seminars and classrooms Mottele was a forgotten remnant, a Yiddish Puff, the Magic Dragon. Then, with formal education behind him and his head filled with the glories of English literature, Max began to write stories. He wanted them to sound like the stories he read in the anthologies. He hoped for British characters who would experience epiphanies, those obscure but luminous moments that reveal the human condition. But all of his people turned out to be Americans, and none of them even knew what an epiphany was. They were good-natured folks, clowns in every shop and office.
Mottele had not disappeared. He had been there all along, busy, taking notes on the raw material, mostly Max. When Max started up with women and memorized "To His Coy Mistress" to impress them, Mottele almost died laughing. When Max lectured on Christian humanism) Mottele took quiet revenge for the Crusades. And when Max started writing stories, Mottele squeezed in his characters, the kinds of Americans he loved to laugh at: ballplayers, truth seekers, entrepreneurs, and vegetarians. Max, of course, did the serious work of being an American. Mottele stayed in the background unless Max carried seriousness too far.
"You live in the Garden of Eden" Mottele said. "Everything around you is funny, and you don't know it because you spend all your time in the library." "The life of the mind exists in the library"' Max said. "My Garden of Eden is the card catalogue."
"Then why are you always looking around at the girls?" Mottele said. "Be honest about it. Let's go to a mall-there you can read a book and look at girls ... as well as at shoes and dry goods."
"I can't write in a mall," Max said. "I need a quiet place to work. "That's why there's a Christian Science Reading Room," Mottele said. "Meet me there in two months and I'll give you a book of stories."
After Mottele delivered the stories as promised, Max gave him a freer hand, and over the years they've collaborated so well that no outsiders recognize the differences between them. Yet the differences are all over their stories. They squabble like the president and Congress, and, like them, they pretend to do so for the common good. For example, Mottele noticed that Max was getting a little too full of himself. His picture was in the paper, people paid him to read aloud to them, and he got free tickets to ball games. So Mottele wrote a story about a fellow just like Max, a sports-loving lightweight who thought he was a big shot ready to enter the arena of letters. Mottele set the story in a boxing ring, where Max had to prove himself against a real heavyweight, Norman Mailer.
Table of Contents
|Lorenzo Albacete, "Secrets of the Confessional" (from The New York Times Magazine)||1|
|Marc Ian Barasch, "Night Eyes" (from Utne Reader)||4|
|Wendell Berry, "Sabbaths, 1999" (from The Hudson Review)||15|
|Ben Birnbaum, "How to Pray" (from Image)||22|
|Robert Cording, "Gratitude" (from The Paris Review)||42|
|Mark Doty, "Source" (from The Gettysburg Review)||44|
|Brian Doyle, "Grace Notes" (from Notre Dame Magazine)||48|
|David James Duncan, "Strategic Withdrawal" (from Orion)||60|
|John Landretti, "Bear Butte Diary" (from Orion)||64|
|Leah Koncelik Lebec, "Stillbirth" (from First Things)||93|
|Bret Lott, "Toward Humility" (from Fourth Genre)||106|
|Valerie Martin, "Being Saint Francis" (from The Atlantic Monthly)||131|
|Alane Salierno Mason, "The Exegesis of Eating"||154|
|Daphne Merkin, "Trouble in the Tribe" (from The New Yorker)||169|
|Thomas Moore, "Neither Here nor There" (from Parabola)||184|
|Howard Mumma, "Conversations with Camus" (from Christian Century)||189|
|Sheldon M. Novick, "The Temptation of the Sublime" (from Double Take)||197|
|Pattiann Rogers, "Millennium Map of the Universe" (from The Gettysburg Review)||213|
|Floyd Skloot, "The Yoga Exercise" (from The Hudson Review)||215|
|Joan D. Stamm, "The Way of Flowers" (from Tricycle)||216|
|George Weigel, "Holy Land Pilgrimage" (from First Things)||222|
|Lawrence Weschler, "The Novelist and the Nun" (from The New Yorker)||242|
|Terry Tempest Williams, "Santa Teresa" (from Portland Magazine)||260|
|Simon Winchester, "A True Daltonic Dandy" (from DoubleTake)||267|
|Charles Wright, "Clear Night" (from Shenandoah)||277|
|Notable Spiritual Writing of 2000||283|
|A List of Former Contributors||286|