Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi: “Gilgul”

08/12/2011 § Leave a comment

Originally published in The New Yorker, August 15 & 22, 2011.

The conventional narrative used by Yerushalmi involves a lot of questions asked by the third-person narrator, Ravitch, as he attempts to come to terms with the psychic grief from losing his wife — clinical depression (“the trembling of his hands and the motor roaring loudly in the back of his skull”)  — with the aid of a psychic whom he’d met four years ago in Jaffa, Israel. That these questions go unanswered should come as no surprise, given the religious theme (gilgul refers to “the transmigration of souls. Reincarnation. Metempsychosis.”) and the mystic slant of the opening: “‘You know,’ she said, almost shyly, ‘that I have the ability, if you wish, to look into your eyes and tell you when you will die?'” (It must be said, too, that the opening is blatantly twisted to allow this to be the misleading first paragraph, for less than a page later, we’re getting this: “It was then that she made her offer and he refused.”) But keeping with the style of the story, then, I must ask why the New Yorker has published this posthumous short from a Harvard history professor whose has only ever published non-fiction, the latest of which was way back in 2005? Why have they published a work with such ham-fisted dialogue, a work that sounds as if it was translated from the Hebrew, despite being written in English, with such awkward explanations as these:

“Before I tell you my tale,” she continued, “I shall ask you only one question. Do you know what gilgul is?”

“Given that I have been speaking Hebrew to you since we first met, I find it odd that you should ask. Of course I know.”

Not only did this not need to be spelled out, but it’s spoken in triplicate, from the direct call-out of the title, to the reminder of the language they’re speaking, to the pointing out of the awkwardness of the question, to the reminder that he does, in fact, know. On top of that, you’ve got the structure of the story, in which Ravitch, looking for answers, is instead given a story of his own, in which a middle-aged Jew from Bucharest is cursed with literal restlessness (he cannot settle down) and is found to be possessed by the reincarnated spirit of another “wandering Jew” from Spain. In case we don’t get it, Gerda is described here as Scheherazade (a quite generous and unearned title); then, at the end of her sluggish story, she’s denounced as another Circe (yes, the author is Educated): “Coffee grounds, Tarot, gilgul–they were all of a piece, a cheap occultism, sham powers of darkness.” The story, in the other words, gives up on itself: “He could make no sense out of what he so vividly recalled.” (Never mind the lack of vivid language in this piece, that the author tells without showing is the least of his problems.)

As the story dies down (was it ever living to begin with?), Ravitch remembers his grandmother — also a superstitious storyteller — and then the lore passed on by his father from the “classical Hebrew texts,” until finally noting that he is nostalgic for these things because he no longer believes in anything. What this means as he sits on the beach, watching the people go by, is that he’s on his own now, separated from his wife, his country, his God — even divorced from the novel he wrote and subsequently disowned — and he’s been told to find meaning in a story, any meaning will do: “What must I do?” he asks himself, staring at the sand. “The sea heard him but did not reply. It continued to shimmer, to heave and swell, to roll its waves, ancient, majestic, inscrutable, indifferent.” Ah, the Unfathomable fathoms of water, which ask us to blindly care. I, for one, decline.

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