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Remembrance Enters Eternity

 

Escape From Mount Moriah

by Jack Engelhard

ComteQ Publishing, 2000, 118 pages, ISBN: 0967407486

 

Reviewed by Dr. Eugene E. Narrett

 

Remarkable lives, lives filled with chiaroscuro, make for great literature, fiction or nonfiction, and Jack Engelhard's remarkable life has led to a notable literary gift. He has demonstrated this with novels so taut with ideas and action that they find their way to Hollywood (and inevitable simplification -- Indecent Proposal) and more recently, with a volume of memoirs whose succinct evocations of person, place and mental process allow worlds of sentiment to stand silently present without crowding or directing the reader's own thoughts and response. Impelled by his sensitivity to the ambiguities of motive, to empathy, ambivalence, and striving for a saving certainty, Engelhard is a master of the telling moment and phrase, of the summary comment (though his characters often get the last word) that implies even more than it clearly states. In evoking the fullness of a human person he has the simplicity and deftness of a master: a sharp mind, self-awareness, and a deep and feeling heart.

The author knows that the roots contain the essence of the tree and its fruit, and that they live in its seeds, however far the winds of circumstance may carry them. And so in this volume, vignettes about his root, his father, are frequent for the man was an exemplary figure of loss and spiritual richness. Noah Engelhard was one of those immigrants who never adapted to the wrenching culture shock of his forced transplantation (from France to Canada during WW II). Originally a youthful Torah scholar and leather cutter in Poland, wars in the east brought him to France where he prospered as a master designer of leather handbags, and owned a factory in Toulouse. But the Nazi occupation destroyed that, and his generosity to other refugees exhausted the remainder. In Canada, his classic designs were out of fashion and he, Noah ben Yakov became "Joe," the guy who fetched Cokes in another man's factory: "Joe! Joe! Where's my Coke!"

Like many immigrants, the author's father was a Jew too gentle and ambivalent to impose his teaching methodically on his son; he was an uprooted Jew who carried the House of Study within him and who searched every Sabbath for a synagogue in which the Rabbi was not a shallow positivist, affirming his congregation's attenuated Judaism; who searched even for a serious argument that would revive the world of Torah that had been violently uprooted.

Left to his own choosing, the life of a scholar would have suited my father fine. He belonged in a House of Study, secluded from the turmoil of business, removed from the urgencies of daily cares. In a Yeshiva his knowledge of Torah could be stimulated, his wisdom put to the test -- and his worth as a scholar and a man could be recognized and appreciated.
 
But that never happened.

In that clarity of description, in that gift for succinct summary and alertness to pathos, in that sensitivity to the emotional demands and language a culture imparts, Engelhard's literary gifts shine.

Along the way, in brisk but loving detail he sketches another world, a distinct culture not merely remembered but felt so fully it is reconstructed in spirit:

Approaching the [factory] landing you could hear the roar of the sewing machines. Closer, you smelled the adhesives and the leather. Cutters were bent over huge tables slicing up giant stretches of animal hides. They were grinding in frenzy, never gazing up from their machines, as though somewhere in their urgency of livelihood they had lost the human sense of wonder and curiosity.

As Engelhard paints it, the world of exile extends from the fashionable and also the back streets of postwar Montreal, from two-bit backbreaking jobs, to tenuous status as low-rent tenants at whim, to country vacations paid for by nerve, worry and improvised labor. Always aware and happy with what he's gained in the New World, especially as an American, he is keenly aware and deftly sketches the soul-wrenching loss and distortions that emigration, especially forced emigration, imposes on the individual and on relationships.

But these experiences -- with rats in the weeds at a garden-nursery, with Jew-hating city toughs, with relatives, rich and poor, who couldn't relate, with eviction and frequent poverty -- did not defeat but aroused and deepened the author's sense of awe at the variety and mystery of human motive and deeds. His insight was quickened by seeing his parents various and imperfect efforts to adjust to the loss of one world and immersion in another in which he moved almost effortlessly; but like many first generation Jews, never with a sense of fully belonging; always with a sense that something essential had been left behind.

This volume's attention to uprootedness (so like the masterly paintings of Samuel Bak, of whose art, and whose own memoir, this work reminds me), and a lifetime reflecting on the many facets of this experience, enable Engelhard to offer several wonderful epigrams about the singularity of three millennia of Jewish experience, so awesomely recapitulated in the past 60 years, the years of his life (born July 1940, as the Nazis overran France). In discussing the nearly untranslatable Jewish expression, "nu," a word that carries bemused acceptance within it, Engelhard speaks of the paradox of Jewish survival, of belief in or memory of a pure flame inside a soul repeatedly buried in dust and ashes. What results when filtered by centuries "is a kind of hopeful resignation," he writes; a will to live and somehow taste some of life's sweetness that always carries "both hope and hopelessness." The mind sees and the heart feels the defeats and impossibilities of realizing the dream; yet the flame in the soul still glows. As the Hassidic saying puts it, "the soul of man is the candle of God." And though God is only marginally present in these stories, one senses that Engelhard is always ready, even eager, for Him to speak.

Many of these short vignettes have a clarity so vivid in detail and sparse in evocative diction that they shine, filling the everyday prosaic world with the spirit of the world to come. In this they are like Hassidic folk tales transposed to the cities of suburbs of the new world in the 1940's and '50s, tales whose traits kept their wonder for someone who saw one world in the context of another. This quality is very palpable in memoirs like, "Relatives from America," "A Sabbath Drive," "A Telegram from Israel," and "A Sister from the Past." Mystery and ambiguity fill the unspoken spaces of these simple tales. Needing a lift into town on a Sabbath afternoon in the country, young Jack gets a lift from a friendly French Canadian driver though neither understands the other: one has no English; the other, little French. But the vignette is not one of simple goodness or transcultural compassion. Though seemingly no one knew or saw him riding in a car on Sabbath, a few weeks later the Rabbi of Jack's Yeshiva summoned him and his father to meet. "You were seen hitchhiking on the Sabbath," he charges. "When?" his father asks. "Where was this?" There's no answer, just the unexplained fact. Hadn't he learned over and again that "One sees"? That "on the Day of Judgment, even the walls will testify against you..." Was the kindly driver a tempting demon? Is it possible that just as was believed in the vanished world of Jewish Poland, nothing is hidden, not even in suburban North America for a family that is sporadically religious; perhaps especially for those who are sporadically religious?

Wonder arises from those simple moral dilemmas everyone finds as they walk their daily lives, or simply gets the mail. One day a telegram comes from Israel: Jack's father's mother, whom Jack himself has never seen and with whom his father has scarcely communicated in half a century, has "at age 102, been gathered to her people," in Israel. Why should his father, who treasures the memory of his mother's saintliness, know such a sad fact, one he cannot change? So the youth conceals the telegram until the banal routines of a laundry day bring it to light. And then, a guilty revelation dawns: "I had committed a sin; I had interfered with the mitzvah of sitting shiva and saying kaddish. My sin could never be undone." Walking the streets of Montreal that evening, the dark sky suddenly opened to reveal an intense brightness, as if in supernal confirmation of his thoughts. And yet, consoling the penitent, his father's forgiveness comes like a benediction: "You meant well; what's done is done." In the meantime, wonder and the Beyond have asserted themselves in a heart formed by millennia of exile and the imperative to remember and hold on. Common sense and the commonplace do not negate, Engelhard suggests, but serve as vessels for retaining wonder and faith. Assimilation is never complete; it too becomes a medium through which transcendence will emerge and shine, layering people and events with eternal meaning and dignity.

And these are remarkable people, teeming memorably in a book so spare and easy in its telling one reads it in less than two quick hours. And then one returns to reflect, to reflect on the warmhearted but officious sister, whose loneliness makes her needy, and whose finely honed sense of shame leads her to depart as suddenly as quietly as she arrives. On a middle-aged man, a holocaust survivor, weeping at the sight of a newspaper photograph, of a Jewish soldier, finally; of a talented, bullying choirmaster, and the shame of muddy boots at a wedding; of an adolescent watching the World Series at a malt shop while the local Romeos flirt and then go out back with the beauty behind the counter, taking the TV with them. These anecdotes are rich with a range of initiations and a broad palette of moods, insights, and memorable encounters with Truth packaged simply for our wonder.

The collection ends with an anecdote in which Engelhard, remembering an annual visit to an Orthodox synagogue, finds himself among men of his father's generation and culture, looks at himself as a new father in the context of what kind of Jewish tradition, and what sources of Jewish strength he, an externally assimilated Jew, will be able to bequeath to his own son. As he listens to the chanted prayers and ancient melodies, he writes

It occurred to me then, that I was now 42, and when my father was that age, he was an old man, one of the old men of the synagogue.
 
He also knew everything.
 
Years from now I wonder, who there will be to show me the right page? And will there be any old men left for my son? He is only two years old, and the old men cover him with love.
 
To them he is the flame. He is their eternity.

In his doubt, sense of loss, and in his love, Engelhard affirms his caring and his faith for the threefold intertwining of his son, his people and tradition. In the above question, his succinct but poetic description answers itself in an ancient verse. "In Zion there will be a remnant, and they will inherit..."

These wonderfully readable memoirs have the vivid reality of a lived dream; they sparkle like the islands of an enduring world amid the dazzling, distracting sea-spray of our everyday lives that immerse us in the present. We know there is more to us: that there must be a living soul. He intentionally shaped his reminiscences into eighteen memoirs, explaining that the number '18' in Hebrew spells "life," chai, and also the affirmation, "he lives!"

Memory and sensitivity, like self-restraint and shame, are branches of love and of understanding the mysterious beauty of life. To offer another metaphor, they are a well of soul distilled into generations of Jews for millennia by unique paths of suffering and hope. Beyond what the mind believes or reason can show, the vivid descriptions and memories in this book are forms of honoring this tradition, sparkling simple facts attesting to its endurance.

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About the reviewer...

The reviewer has published extensively on American culture and politics and on the history and geopolitics of the Middle East. Dr. Narrett earned his BA, MA and PhD degrees from Columbia University in New York City. An art critic, artist, book reviewer, columnist, in recent years he created, directed and taught in the Liberal Studies Program at Cambridge College. He is the author of Gathered against Jerusalem (2000), Israel Awakened (2001), and Israel and the Endtimes (2006).

Visit Dr. Narrett's Essay Archive in The Radical Academy

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