Trapped by the Past

Trapped by the Past

Matt Nesvisky

Foiglman By Aharon Megged (Translated from Hebrew by Marganit Weinberger-Rotman) – Toby Press 277 pp.; $19.95 For decades, Aharon Megged has written on the theme of the New Israeli shadowed by the Diaspora. Finally, we can read about it in English. One of the very first pieces of Israeli literature this American ever read – back when he was a teenager with six-pointed stars in his eyes – was a short story by Aharon Megged. The story, written a half-century ago, is called “The Name,” and concerns a bitter and heartbreaking familial conflict: Grandfather wants granddaughter to honor her forbears from the Old Country by naming her newborn son Mendele. Granddaughter and her husband believe such a name reeks of shtetl and Shoah; they prefer a name more acceptable in the newborn State of Israel. They even reject a compromise suggestion like Menachem. Like any great piece of literature, the story is resonant and revelatory. In this instance, within the space of a few pages, “The Name” suggests a great deal about troubling internal contradictions seething in the heart of the Jewish state. Some years later – by which time I had relocated in the land of contradictions – my best buddy in my Israeli army reserve unit would be a bank clerk from Kiryat Ata who, despite his mild manner, proved to be an outstanding combat soldier. Everyone in my outfit took that apparent contradiction in stride. The clerk’s name was Menachem, but he was known in the company affectionately as Mendele. I recall this less to demonstrate yet again how life imitates art than to illustrate how canny a true artist can be. Of course, the theme of the New Israeli shadowed by the dark past of the Diaspora is not uncommon in Israeli literature. But it’s significant that, so many decades after writing “The Name,” the novelist, playwright and essayist Aharon Megged, who is now 84, is still not done with that theme. A prime example is “Foiglman,” a novel published in Hebrew in 1988 and finally available in English. “Foiglman” is neither innovative nor ingenious. But even if the book is familiar in conception, it’s compelling and genuinely moving in its execution. The novel is narrated by a Tel Aviv University professor of European history named Zvi Arbel, a rather dusty scholar who admits, “I instinctively shy away from people who try to get too close to me.” But getting too close is precisely what happens when the aging Yiddish poet Shmuel Foiglman enters Arbel’s life. Arbel happens to know Yiddish, but he has no interest in poetry. Nor is he interested in this stranger, Foiglman, who from out of the blue, from his home in Paris, sends Arbel a volume of his own not particularly good poetry. Rather like Bernard Malamud’s Fidelman in Rome or Philip Roth’s Zuckerman in Prague, Megged’s Arbel quickly enough finds himself ensnared by a foreign fellow Jew. But who is this Foiglman? A survivor of Auschwitz, he is of course indelibly scarred. Yet Foiglman is also a determined optimist, greeting each new day of his life as an unexpected gift. He believes he can revive Yiddish literature, because he believes in the transforming power of art. He’s also foolish and self-deluding, at once gormless and something of a conniver. Foiglman is sweet, touching, pathetic – in some ways as childish as the little bird he invariably draws over his signature. A brilliant and multi-faceted creation, Foiglman is also such a confused and confounding naf that he almost admits to nostalgia for the Holocaust: “‘It… sounds paradoxical, I know,’ he stammered, ‘but there is such a thing… No, not longing for those days, of course… but rather for the sense of uniqueness, for having been chosen… for being singled out in the world, in human history, for being the select…'” And so, yes, despite himself, Arbel is incrementally drawn into helping Foiglman, who seeks his editorial assistance. First Arbel convinces himself Foiglman’s poetry has merit. Then he finds someone who will translate the work into Hebrew. Then he finds a publisher. Next he struggles to get the book reviewed. And he strives to find Foiglman a new home and acceptance in Israel. In the process Arbel is more profoundly transformed than his protege. At a meeting of Yiddish writers, for example, the dry historian discovers: “I was filled with an emotion – unlike anything I had experienced at other gatherings – that this congregation, melded together by the shared memories, language, suffering, hopes, and bitter disappointments, united in one tremor, one heartbeat – was in fact ‘the Jewish people’ of which I read and write and which I have known so well for so many years… in their midst I felt the warmth of familial intimacy the like of which I had never felt anywhere else.” This sounds redemptive, but, perhaps not surprisingly, “Foiglman” is a tragic tale. The comical, pitiable Foiglman will bring destruction in his wake, a destruction that will alter Arbel’s life to terrible effect. Indeed, the overall impact of this novel is heart-wrenching. But it’s a wonderful book, and it deserves the widest audience. Very few of Israel Prize-winner Aharon Megged’s 16 or more novels have been translated into English. The estimable Toby Press, publisher of many contemporary and classic Hebrew novels, is to be thanked for bringing us “Foiglman.” Matt Nesvisky is a Philadelphia-based writer.

Copyright c 2004. The Jerusalem Report

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