Winner of the Publishing Triangle's 2008 Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction.
Twenty years have passed since Joseph left his family and his religious Israeli community when he fell in love with a man, the brilliant rabbi Yoel Rosenzweig. Now, for his fiftieth birthday, Joseph is preparing to have his five sons and the daughter-in-law he has never met spend the Sabbath with him in his Tel Aviv penthouse. This will be the first time he and his sons will have all been together in nearly two decades.
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FRIDAY, MARCH 1, 1996
THE BOYS SEEM NOT to notice the stench of rotting fish or the shards of bottles, driftwood, and jagged shells jutting up out of the sand. In search of something along the water's edge, they remain oblivious to the icy wind that stings and bites them. Joseph, without his first-aid kit, winces at the thought of needle-sharp fish bones piercing the soft soles of their feet. But he is preoccupied with the twins, still babies, and lets the older three slip from his sight to disappear past the rotting pier. They would not hear his shouts over the ceaseless roar of the sea, so he does not bother. But should he scoop up a twin under each arm and run toward the pier? And why is he alone with all five boys on a cold winter beach? Panic foams upward inside him like bubbles on an angry sea.
He catches sight of them running away in a line — Daniel, the eldest at seven, in the lead, with Ethan and Noam close behind, their pace synchronized like miniature soldiers on a mission. Suddenly a solid wall of gray water rises as if from the heart of the sea. The boys stop their playing and turn to call for Joseph's help. But they are too far away and he can-not hear their screams. He can only see the terror that magnifies and distorts their tiny faces. He lets go of the twins as he stands to watch the wave claim his three older sons. Before looking down he already knows the babies have vanished, too, his own body submerged to the neck.
Joseph Licht awakens, drenched. It takes him a long moment to realize he is sweating under the heavy comforter and longer still to understand that his head is wet from the rain blowing slantwise in sheets through the open window. He pushes aside the comforter and sits up quickly, indignant. The carpet is soggy and the papers on his nightstand translucent. Joseph bounds out of the bed and skids in a puddle, slamming the window shut. He turns to face the priceless Géricault nude he moved from the living room only last night and sees that the rain has darkened the wall beneath it and spattered the gilt frame but has not reached the canvas itself. Hands on pajamaed hips, he stares hard at the painting through lowered lashes. An art treasure, in his bedroom, nearly destroyed. He imagines restorers in white lab coats working to return it to its original glory and Pepe, shocked at last, throwing him out into the street. Sitting on the edge of the bed, he gathers the reassuring comforter around him and takes stock: the painting is unscathed, the papers will dry just fine in the sauna, and if Joseph can let himself believe it, on this very Sabbath, right here in his beachfront apartment high above Tel Aviv, he will be celebrating his fiftieth birthday with his five sons — all old enough to be fathers themselves — marking the first time in nearly two decades that they will all be together with their father.
Joseph's image in the bathroom mirror this morning does not entirely displease him. Though no longer a man who turns heads, he knows he looks good for someone his age. On a good day he can pass for ten years younger — thirty-eight even. Joseph has found the right shade for his hair, a metallic color suggesting gold and silver and reminiscent of the blond he once was. This keeps him from looking like an old fop, the kind whose very forehead takes on a hennaed sheen. The wrinkles in his face are still fine lines. He is no longer thin, but neither has he gone soft and doughy.
In the kitchen Joseph perches on a stool at the counter, upon which he has arranged computer printouts of his to-do list and the weekend menu. He pours hot brewed tea into an antique porcelain teacup, tracing the floral border with his finger. The rising steam paints a cloud on the window and Joseph looks beyond it to the dull gray sea, the empty beach bereft of little boys on crucial missions. Down the coast even Old Jaffa is mellow and subdued on this midweek winter morning, crazy strung colored lights breaking up and refracting back at Joseph through drops on the windowpane. With a red marker he crosses off completed items from his list: cookies, potato kugel, ratatouille.
He has given long and careful consideration to planning the menu for this reunion, each item chosen for the effect it will have on his guests' emotions as much as on their palates. Twenty years ago he left his wife, Rebecca; their five sons; his father, Manfred; the moshav where he grew up; all his friends and acquaintances — in short, his life of thirty years — when he fell in love with the Rabbi Yoel Rosenzweig, a dynamic young teacher-scholar hailed by all as an illui, a Torah genius, perhaps the greatest of his generation. In his old life Joseph had never held a dinner party, never hosted other than on the sporadic Sabbath. Back then the objective of hosting was to create an environment entirely recognizable to all the participants: no vegetables other than squash and carrots for the standard chicken soup, no exceptional sauces for the required chicken, no exotic seasonings for the potatoes. The only surprise in the Friday night meal came at its conclusion, after the singing of the traditional Shabbat melodies, when the sated guests had been mollified. Only then might they be expected to face with equanimity a chocolate cake or poppy roll or apple pie.
Joseph's rebellion was thorough: he has neither eaten nor served those foods on a Friday night since. Now the most humble of his meals is a lemon and artichoke chicken that he is careful to serve with Thai rice or Chinese noodles, or fresh corn on the cob in summer. A meal hosted by Joseph may begin with a sorbet or fruit salad, the main dish accompanied by honey-glazed sweet potatoes or fresh greens with a drizzle of orange and mint. His desserts are the talk of his circle, designed to leave his panting guests cursing themselves for poor pacing.
Joseph lifts his teacup in a toast to his own cleverness. He has, after all, succeeded in planning a perfectly traditional set of Sabbath meals while maintaining his own hard-earned panache. And most important, every dish will be on the table for a precise and celebratory reason, either because it was a food one of the boys once loved or because it will jiggle loose a crystallized memory or because it will provide a topic of conversation if none is forthcoming. There will be chicken soup and chicken, but the soup will be a highly refined version of Rebecca's — the noodles, rice vermicelli, and the chicken, stuffed breasts. Potatoes, too, but in the form of roesti, which Joseph learned to prepare from Rebecca's mother and ultimately personalized by adding onions fried lightly in beer. Knowing that his middle son, Noam, loves red meat, he will grill cubes of the choicest beef seasoned with basil and coriander. Through effective detective work he has learned that Gavriel is still a chocolate fanatic, so in his honor Joseph has included a dark chocolate mousse with amaretto. And for Gavriel's twin brother, Gideon, who has abandoned the family tradition of modern Orthodoxy for ultra-Orthodoxy — and as far as Joseph is concerned, aesthetics and good taste for stringent religious observance — he is inaugurating newly purchased sets of cookery, cutlery, and crockery, dutifully immersed in a ritual bath precisely according to Jewish law.
There will be a lot of other dishes, too: a light Corsican ratatouille, fennel salad, tossed greens with heaps of olives and croutons (the boys used to pick these out and fight over them), three vegetable casseroles in the unlikely event that Gideon's wife — Joseph's sole daughter-in-law — doesn't eat meat, and a wonderful Brazilian fish recipe that includes mustard, wine, peanuts, and coconut. The last is a dare: he will mention Pepe and Brazil only if things are going exceedingly well. Last night he baked oatmeal cookies for munching and one of today's projects is a huge iced angel food cake, the kind the boys always requested for their birthdays. This time the Birthday Cake, as they called it, is for Joseph himself.
He slides off the stool, removes the glazed-glass bowl of blueberries from the refrigerator, and rinses them carefully at the sink. After all his cautious planning, these unanticipated fruits are the most special food of all, a good omen for the coming reunion. They are at once a beloved treat, a memory, and a topic of conversation. Afluke. Asign. Just as Joseph was roaming the shuk, filling his basket with edible memories, he saw them, "... big as the end of your thumb / Real sky-blue, and heavy, and ready to drum / In the cavernous pail of the first one to come!" It was that poem that had spurred him, at the height of his infatuation with Robert Frost, to take the family berry picking in western Massachusetts in the frenzied days before Rebecca and the boys returned to Israel, leaving Joseph alone in Cambridge to finish his doctoral dissertation. The oldest boys, Daniel and Ethan, had wanted to see "... fruit mixed with water in layers of leaves, / Like two kinds of jewels, a vision for thieves," and Rebecca had readily agreed, eager to blot out the tantrums and rages to which Joseph had been subjecting them all and hoping the boys could take back with them to Israel new and better memories of their father: Joseph at peace in nature rather than seething with frustration in front of the old Hermes typewriter they had filched from Rebecca's mother, or raising his hand as if to strike them.
The berries ripened outrageously early that year. Even Joseph had known that the fruit should not have matured until August, so he wasted no time in arranging the outing when his adviser reported, after an early July weekend visit to his summer house, that the surrounding countryside was bursting and ready for picking.
A photograph from that day stands out among all the others on a glass-topped table in Joseph's living room. It was snapped by a local farmer's son awed by the sight of the young couple with their five boys, slight variations of one another, all blond, all healthy, all full of confidence, energy, and curiosity. Rebecca had laughed when the young man said she and Joseph looked like brother and sister, but this had annoyed Joseph; he had always been uncomfortable admitting they were second cousins, a fact of which their resemblance was an unwelcome reminder. Now, after more than twenty years, he can see how he and his wife were similar and how they were not; much like a peacock and his peahen, their features were nearly identical, but on him sharper, clearer, more highly colored. His hair lighter, his eyes brighter, his smile broader, his teeth whiter. She was a faded version, a smudged copy. Still, the photo features youthful parents, not yet thirty, smothered by the chubby twins, at twenty months already trying to keep pace with the older ones, hugging, squeezing, and toppling one another. Daniel at seven, Ethan just turned five, Noam not quite four. All seven Lichts in full laughing motion, limbs flailing, eyes crinkled in absolute gaiety. No movie camera could have portrayed the excitement or hidden the anxieties with more fidelity than did the still camera of that Massachusetts farm boy on that summer day in 1975.
Just yesterday Joseph watched his Nigerian house cleaner, Emanuel, pick up that photograph from the glass-topped table, watched him dust and study it. Emanuel dusted others, too: the boys collecting eggs from the henhouse as toddlers; slightly older, riding bicycles, tractors, horses; and later still, somber faced in army fatigues, as if ready for anything in the name of God and country. He dusted the single black-and-white photograph of Pepe's daughter, Carolina. But Emanuel did not pick up and look into those other photographs as he dusted them, only the one of the berry pickers, the model family with its promise of perfect happiness.CHAPTER 2
THE FIRST TIME JOSEPH heard of the Rabbi Yoel Rosenzweig was in the Talmud study group after Sabbath morning synagogue services on his first Saturday back in Israel, when he was still adjusting to the strangeness of return after three years pursuing a doctorate at Harvard. He marveled at his boys, who, in the few months since they had returned early with Rebecca, had come to seem as though they had never lived anywhere else, never spoken another language. He wondered if they had had time to establish rituals of their own, whether they had found some of the secrets of moshav boyhood or whether those secrets die with each person's own youth.
One thing was clear and constant to Joseph above all else on that Saturday morning. He could not imagine being anywhere but the Sabbath morning Talmud study group, still led by Rabbi Crystal after nearly thirty years. Even the study room smelled the way he remembered it — the odor of books left to mold in their musty bindings — and Joseph was not at all surprised to find the three-legged chair Rabbi Crystal used for his books propped up under a window, where it had always stood. Joseph himself had broken the fourth leg while decorating the synagogue for Independence Day nearly twenty years earlier, in 1957. What Joseph could not understand was that if nothing at home had changed, then why was it he had to ask people to repeat themselves, did not catch the hidden meanings in their words, had trouble interpreting their exchanged glances? There was a foreignness in their speech and manners, and Joseph was beginning to wonder who had changed after all. Had Sde Hirsch, his moshav, been metamorphosing in his absence, or was it him? Would he fit in here again?
He was sitting in his old seat, pondering the wisdom of their return to the moshav, when Zev Frankel, who always made the blessing over the wine after Sabbath services, mentioned Rabbi Yoel Rosenzweig. "That boy's an illui," he said. Frankel had been Joseph's Bible teacher for four years in elementary school, and in Joseph's memory the only other human being ever to have earned the title "Torah genius" from Frankel was the great Maimonides himself. "Rabbi Rosenzweig isn't even forty years old yet but I'm willing to believe he'll be the head of the Rabbinical Court or chief rabbi in a few years." Frankel added with awe, "He knows the five books of Moses by heart."
"Aw, that's nothing." For fifty years Mordechai Kapinsky had been looking for ways to outdo Zev Frankel, ever since he had lost the battle for Fanny's heart to Zev's superior education. "I know a dozen guys who can chant the whole five books without a sour note." He grinned at Zev and Joseph noticed he only had a few teeth left in his mouth, and those were dark and twisted like the blueberry brambles Joseph had grown to love in New England.
"But this Rosenzweig, he's read every volume of the Talmud a few times and I hear he's writing a commentary of his own, like he's back in the fourteenth century or something," Zev countered. "And he can quote just about everything that's ever been written about Jewish law. I went to one of his lessons once, his Wednesday evening lecture at the Yeshurun Synagogue in Jerusalem. He was talking about the laws of betrothal and brought in Jewish sources and goyish ones, too — Shakespeare and Milton and some French writers I never even heard of, without a single book in front of him." He waved one thick finger in the air. "Now that's what I call an illui!"
Joseph lost no time in arranging to be in Jerusalem for Rabbi Rosenzweig's lecture the following Wednesday. He hoped to have a moment to speak with this young rabbi, barely older than he, at the end of the lesson, to ask for some help in finding suitable texts for the book he was working on. He was having trouble with classical sources and historical background material, and he was sure someone who had such knowledge at his fingertips could be helpful. And, of course, he was curious.
Noam and the twins insisted on riding in the back of the station wagon when Rebecca brought Joseph to the bus stop. Joseph grew irritable and impatient as the boys fought over territory, certain he would miss his bus. But once on the way he relaxed and enjoyed the bus ride to Jerusalem, his first trip to the capital since his return to Israel and his first extended period of time out from under the roof of their small moshav home crammed full with five boisterous boys. The weather had turned cool and a surprise rain shower the day before had summoned some greenery from under the cracked brown earth. Little buds and sprouts gathered into soft carpets that escorted the road past Tel Aviv, past the meteorological station, near the monastery at Latrun, and up to the foothills of Jerusalem, where the road began to ascend. There the forests were thick on either side of the road, green and welcoming, but the abandoned armored tanks strewn among the trees were reminders of a more treacherous era, a period of menace and havoc. Joseph thought about the Yom Kippur War, which he had sat out in Cambridge, then caught himself and decided to prepare the questions he would ask Rabbi Rosenzweig.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Light Fell"
Copyright © 2007 Evan Fallenberg.
Excerpted by permission of Soho Press, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Khol (secular, common, profane; workaday) khol,
Kodesh (holy, sacred, sanctified; the Sabbath) kodesh,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I loved this book and was drawn in from page one. Evan Fallenberg's writing is so beautiful, articulate and descriptive. This particular parent must choose between his happiness and what is best for his children. This is a dilemna that all parents face at some point. I highly recommend this book - very thought provoking.
In 1996 in Tel Aviv, literature professor Joseph Licht hopes to reconnect with his five adult sons as he desperately needs their forgiveness. Twenty years ago he deserted them and their mother when he realized he loved married male Rabbi Yoel Rosenzweig Joseph was unaware that he was gay until that moment, but soon after he and his rabbi began their affair until a guilt wracked Yoel killed himself. Stunned by his loss, a grieving Joseph ended his marriage to Rebecca and his relationship with their five offspring. He also no longer practiced Judaism after three decades as an Orthodox Jew. Now he invites his children to join him on his fiftieth birthday although he is unsure they will come for each of them has major emotional problems that he knows he caused by what he did to them two decades ago when they were young.----------------------- Readers will feel empathy towards the five sons although their range of issues seems to run the gamut. Life in many aspects of Israel comes across very deep as the audience is taken to locales where the Licht family live to include the Negev, the university, the kibbutz and a small gay enclave. Although the look back to the Joseph-Yoel tryst is seen through a fond schmaltzy nostalgic lens even by the sons rather than a nuke that destroyed two families, readers will enjoy this deep family drama of a disdained patriarch trying to reconnect with the now adult children he deserted.-------------- Harriet Klausner