Speak, Memory


By Haim Be'er
Translated by Barbara Harshav.
282 pages. Brandeis University Press. $26

Towards the end of Haim Be'er's lyrical autobiographical novel, The Pure Element of Time, Be'er's ailing mother offers advice to her son, a burgeoning poet who is upset that an editor has desecrated a line about his late father. "Words," she says, "unlike human beings, can always be brought back to life." His mother's deathbed aphorism, more than any other line in Be'er's elegiac memoir, crystallizes the writer's eternal struggle to capture the past, revivify it, even as it slips away into the vault of memory. In Be'er's own version of Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Jerusalem of the late 1940s and early '50s is brought back to life with such loving detail that the divided city, groaning under strain of rationing, rife with landmines, barbed wire, haunted Holocaust survivors, and holy men, comes to life again, having escaped the thousand eyes of the Angel of Death to exist forever on the page.

Be'er, who is an acclaimed novelist and poet, grew up during the siege of Jerusalem in the ultraorthodox neighborhood of Geula, along the main route of local funeral processions. In the novel, he describes his upbringing as the only living child of his rational iconoclastic mother and his embittered religious father. He finds early solace in the magical tales of his ancient grandmother, who weaves stories of the "Old Yishuv," of the genesis of Mea Shearim where the inhabitants "wanted time to stand still," and of great rabbis from Mainz, and Shklov and Berdichev, one of whom was said to have saved the life of the hunted Napoleon by hiding him and exchanging greatcoats. These stories provide the first spark for the young writer Be'er, though many of the endless tales of lineage are little more than tangential stories, third-hand accounts of people who are never mentioned again.

The second section of the book retells the history of Be'er's parents, both of whom had tragic first marriages, and how the fallout carried over into their second marriages. Again, the dizzying relay of names and tales threatens to bog the reader down as the story spins off down the backroads of memory. The book works better when Be'er focuses on his own memories. His eye for detail is stunning, bending similitudes over the convex surface of his mind's eye. Whitewash and plaster raining from the ceiling as an Arab shell hits his apartment is described as a scattering of "white ants." His bar mitzvah—a comic romp echoing Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav's tale, "The Seven Beggars"—is marred by a brawl over chicken quarters, that ends with young Be'er shouting at his father, "Don't touch me, you crazy man! I hate you!" A touching Shabbat trip to the biblical zoo shows his father's tender side, as he breaks the Sabbath, paying for entry so as not to disappoint his son.

But even as his father lays on his deathbed, Be'er is unable to reconcile with the man he despised for his humble immigrant background selling eggs at the local Tnuva branch, for his religious hypocrisy, for his passion spent supporting amateur cantorial music, and perhaps worst of all, for bringing up his son in a house with no books.

Be'er's mother serves as the nascent writer's shining light, neglecting housework to devour Mann, Tolstoy, and Babel. She advises her son, "Go out among the people," echoing Gorky, "If you run away from life... you'll never write anything worthwhile." And then, offering her own advice, she says, "Don't finish high school, don't matriculate, you don't have to go to university either. The main thing is to read books." The young Be'er haunts the dusty bookstores and chilled libraries of Jerusalem and discovers "the tremor of the breath of culture" rising from pages like a spirit. And just as his mother protects him from the school authorities during the week, as he wanders from Bamberger and Wahrman's bookstore to the "The Light" to Sheinberger's, she intercedes on Shabbat to protect him from his father's anger, who could never accept that his son would abandon him on the Sabbath leaving him to "go childless" to synagogue.

Finally, after his father's death, Be'er is able to forgive the man with a poem that he writes, significantly, on the Sabbath.

Be'er deftly navigates the rich landscape of the past in The Pure Element of Time, dusting off old memories, coaxing them to speak and take their place among us in the world of the living. It is a worthwhile journey, allowing the reader rare insight into the formation of a young writer.