Memories of Amnesia
The Persistence of Folklore


I grew up in the South during a plague of amnesia. Due to a recent historical trauma of cosmic proportions, no one was able to look back, and various lingering planetary threats made looking forward a dicey proposition as well. Thus, the present was a barren and hopeless affair, and the places consecrated to giving it meaning no less desolate. The synagogue in the Southern city where I was reared was as antiseptic as a Methodist church, the rabbi droning conventional wisdom in ecclesiastical robes, the choir singing vapid hymns in their loft, the congregation more or less chloroformed. There was a stale mythology of tired household tales, stories of giants and floods worn threadbare by centuries of rote narrative that inoculated the listener against authentic magic. When I was old enough to leave, I set out in search of mystery and romance, but ended by living the life of my generation, medicating myself along with my brethren against the claustrophobia of our time. Eventually I returned home empty-handed, where, in the absence of what I’d been seeking, I began to write stories that invoked my own idea of mystery and romance. The problem was that, with an imagination confined (and defined) by the infertile present, my stories tended to revolve around characters searching for mystery and romance and finding none. Because the characters were in need of some nod toward identity, however superficial, I sometimes tagged them with Jewish names, and was surprised to find that the names more or less fit. One of my characters, Lazar Malkin by name, dissatisfied with his experience on earth, nevertheless perversely refused to die. Exasperated by his obstinacy, the Angel of Death (a stock persona from the tired tales I’d been weaned on) hauled him off to heaven alive. This seemed to me an original notion: a fresh idea had sprouted in my otherwise desert environment; my sapling of a narrative had born fruit. But when I tried to pluck the fruit, a funny thing happened. When I tugged, the sapling itself came out of the ground, dragging with it a root system larger than a giant sequoia’s. The eruption from underground seemed to displace everything else on earth, overwhelming the narrow isthmus of the present with a timeless dimension. And attached to those prodigious roots was another world shaken loose by the great deracination. The roots were in fact an inverted tree that my persistent tugging had pulled upright again, and from its branches hung many versions of the story I thought I’d invented: There was the Hasidic tale of Rabbi ben Levi, another stubborn old man, who deceives Malach Hamovess, the Angel of Death, into admitting him into paradise alive; and Elijah the Prophet who ascends to heaven in a fiery chariot, only to return to earth in various disguises to meddle in the affairs of men; and Enoch, who “walked with God, and was not,” who was translated while yet alive into the archangel Metatron. Turns out I wasn’t so original after all. Accidentally I had tapped into a vast network of living myths that, once unearthed, began to dog me like creatures out of Pandora’s Box, or (to put it in a more Jewish context) from under the Foundation Stone of the Temple that King David lifted against God’s decree.

The Tree had its geographical locus on North Main Street, a blighted downtown district in my hometown of Memphis. And with the Tree’s resurrection—having as it did a genealogical as well as a mythical significance—the denizens of the once vital North Main Street ghetto community reappeared; the dead came back again. Mr. Sebranig the shoemaker came back, and Mr. Sacharin the fishmonger, Dubrovner the butcher in his bloody apron and the Widow Teitelbaum, who peddled bootleg whiskey from under the counter of her vest-pocket delicatessen. I saw my grandfather and grandmother, her puckered mouth ringed clownishly with borscht, whose wizened face I would recall as a hedge against premature ejaculation. Now her features echoed a whole culture with its traditions and superstitions, all the baggage she’d brought along with her from the Old Country, sometimes referred to as the Other Side. This included the demons and imps called sheydim and mazikim, wandering souls called dybbuks and hidden saints or lamed vov tzaddikim. There was the golem, the soulless monster the old sorcerer rabbis had fashioned out of clay, and Lilith, Adam’s first wife turned succubus, who stole babies from their cradles and visited sleeping men to embarrass them with nocturnal emissions. And there were summer nights in the Pinch, which was the name of that North Main Street ghetto, when the apartments above the shops were infernal and the whole neighborhood would sleep outside in the park under the Tree—from whose branches these mythical creatures would descend.

Needless to say, this was all very exciting. I had rescued the irrational dimension of a largely sanitized tradition from obscurity and enabled the timeless realm to reenter history, restoring magic to the arid wasteland of contemporary experience. But there was a problem: because the Pinch itself had degenerated into gutted buildings and weed-choked lots, and the ghettos of Eastern Europe that had spawned the Pinch were now graveyards, their populations long since reduced to ashes. As a consequence, there was no longer a natural habitat wherein the resurrected dead belonged, to say nothing of the whole supernatural menagerie with whom they’d once lived cheek by jowl. The shoemakers, patch tailors, ritual slaughterers, and market wives found themselves without a culture in which to pursue their traditional livelihoods. By the same token, the creatures from sitra achra, the Other Side, had no communal order to invade and subvert with their time-honored mischief. Here is the place where I’m supposed to say that I reconstructed their world in my stories, replicating their vanished community, complete with poverty, disease, and the threat of pogrom to be sure, but also with mystery and romance. Isn’t that what art is? A container made in time to hold a timeless element? But my artificial containers, formed from recycled folk narratives, were never sturdy enough to confine authentic magic, which tended to crack the forms wide open. In the absence of their original milieu, the citizens of that timeless realm didn’t so much blend as collide with the contemporary world. The archetypes and modernity made strange bedfellows. The born-again mortals, feeling exposed and disoriented, scrambled to assimilate as fast as they could, pursuing get-rich-quick schemes to insulate themselves from an alien environment; while the supernaturals, feeling equally out of place in a world where they weren’t believed in, where the evil men did outstripped their wildest machinations, succumbed to various petty corruptions: the wonder rebbes became spiritual hucksters, founding meditation centers that boasted celebrity followers; the golem used disproportionate force against the perceived enemies of Israel in barroom brawls. Lilith started an escort service; the dybbuks took possession of living souls with reckless abandon, and so forth. Think of a subterranean version of the anarchy unleashed on the world in Yeats’ poem “The Second Coming.” Like an ineffectual parent trying to corral his delinquent children, I endeavored to shepherd the demons and born-agains back into yet another container, which they also smashed, forcing me to repeat the process all over again, ad absurdum. This was my method, which was arduous and frustrating and aged me prematurely. (I’m only 19.) It was a doomed Sisyphean enterprise, and like Blake’s eternity yearning for the productions of time, I wished for a return of the old status quo. Then lo, my prayer was answered: the boring rabbi from my reform temple turned up in his seersucker suit and, with unsuspected strength, tilted the Tree back into the ground whence it had risen, while the remnant of that refugee heritage scurried back into the gaping hole as well. The poor sapling, bare of fruit, stood once more in place of the Tree, and I returned to the synagogue and sat peacefully among the congregation, amnesiac again and wondering, “Why do they look so smug, as if they’re keeping some big secret from me?” End of story.

There’s the familiar Chasidic parable about the forest, the fire, and the prayer that describes how the Baal Shem Tov, when he needed enlightenment, went to a place in the forest, lit a fire, said a prayer, and mirabile dictu, enlightenment was granted. His nephew would go to the same place in the forest and light the fire, only to find that he’d forgotten the prayer; but it was sufficient just to be by the fire in the forest. Then the nephew’s nephew would go to the forest, where he was unable to remember the prayer or light the fire; but he was still in the forest and that was sufficient. The nephew’s nephew’s nephew, however, couldn’t even find his way into the forest, never mind light the fire or say the prayer; but he remembered the story of the forest, the fire, and the prayer, and that sufficed. But my generation has only the story of having forgotten the story, and that frankly isn’t enough. Still, I sometimes encounter some joker at a party whose tasteless shtick recalls the routines of the old badkhonim, the jesters who entertained at Jewish weddings with their bawdy repertoires; or a drooling lunatic on a subway platform might spew a stream of vitriol that could have been formulated by a dybbuk; or a child of a friend utters some gnomic wisdom beyond his years, as if his soul had endured many gilgulim, or reincarnations. In this way chords are struck; a vestige of the knowledge erased by the Angel of Forgetfulness at our birth (by his famous fillip under our nose) obtains. “We cannot renew our former strength,” said the illustrious rabbinic storyteller Nachman of Breslov, “but we do retain an imprint of those former times, and that in itself is very great.” In the Beginning, according to the 16th century kabbalist Isaac Luria, God had to withdraw Himself from the universe in order to make room for creation, but the vessels in which He deposited His Light could not contain their volatile contents and cracked open. For centuries it was the mission of the Jews to retrieve—through study, good works, and prayer—the sparks of holiness scattered from those broken vessels and return them to their source, thus repairing the rift between heaven and earth and making the universe whole again. This was the Jewish m.o. for several centuries, until along came the Holocaust, an implosion as seismic in its destructiveness as the explosion that allowed for our creation. Since then the sparks have not been so easy to recover. Before, they were hidden in plain sight, the way a father hides the afikomen for his children at Passover; now those sparks are buried so deep under the ruins of a lost culture that their recovery requires a major excavation. The whole tradition must be uprooted—branch, trunk, root, and seed—in order to yield the least gem-sized spark, which must in turn be fanned like crazy in the hope of starting a new conflagration. Then, if you’re lucky, a demon or angel might leap out of the flame.

Over the course of several diary entries Franz Kafka, the high priest of hopelessness, began a story about a slovenly rabbi living in the squalid Prague ghetto, who is attempting to create a man from a lump of clay. But after setting the stage for an eruption of magic in that dilapidated secular atmosphere, Kafka never completed the story. Meanwhile the old ghetto was razed to the ground in the name of progress, and later on all the displaced Jews were sent to the gas chambers. Which was maybe why the story, having no real world model to draw upon for its context, was doomed from the outset. Still, for those of us helplessly drawn to the archetypes of an outworn tradition, who believe they retain some transformative power, Kafka’s uncompleted story remains a challenge: You want to describe how the rabbi rolls up his sleeves like a washerwoman and plunges his hands into the wet clay, while the curious neighbors in his reeking courtyard look on. This is of course outrageous effrontery, the idea that you can trespass where Kafka himself feared to tread. The old mystics issued caveats against such presumption: the apprentice kabbalist should be at least 40, married, and with a respectable paunch as a ballast against pursuits that might carry him away. There are many fables about the consequences of being carried away. But say that you actually succeed through much rigor in animating your literary golem. Fueled by your faith in his power, he may still resist your control; he may lay waste to your best-laid plans, kick your narrative container to pieces, and escape into a modernity that absorbs him to the point of invisibility. What’s left to you is either to content yourself with chronicling your failure, with telling the story of forgetting—or to give chase, throwing nets over the monster to drag him back into your tale, which he will break out of again world without end.