Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Have you ever read The Last of the Just, by Andre Schwarz-Bart? It's one of the best novels I've encountered in a long time. We were assigned it for our Modern Jewish History course. The teacher asked us to write reaction papers:

Andre Schwarz-Bart’s The Last of the Just opens in a scene I once happened upon unawares, strolling around York, in the north of England. Clifford's Tower still stands not far from the river, empty and padlocked. At the foot of the building there is a little car park, and a small placard made of a formica-like material. It states baldly that in March of 1185 there was a persecution of Jews in York, and that in a lull, the remaining Jews took shelter in the tower, hoping for the protection of the King, protection that never came. Rather than convert or fall into the hands of the mob, they committed mass suicide. The wording was utterly dispassionate; no regret was expressed. I remember that the sunny morning went suddenly airless; I could not move.

In much the same way, I was transfixed by this novel, reading it through a long night in one sitting. It opens and closes in conflagration: in the first chapter, the body of Rabbi Yom Tov Levy is tossed upon the fire, his ashes scattering in the air; the novel ends in a plume of smoke from the crematoriums of the Shoah. The journey from ashes to ashes is made by a series of Lamed-Vovniks, of Just Men, of the Levy family. The designation of “Just Man” (Lamed Vav) is a paradox, a blessing as heavy as a curse. Each generation inherits the blessing and the destiny; each generation has its own grief.

The book manages to convey both the real historical situation of many Jews of Europe through those centuries, and at the same time to maintain the mystical story of the Just Men, and to maintain the mystery around the story as well. In the beginning, Schwarz-Bart explains that there are 36 Lamed-Vovniks, and that “if just one of them were lacking, the sufferings of mankind would poison even the souls of the newborn, and humanity would suffocate with a single cry.” (p. 5) And yet this book is titled The Last of the Just! What does this say about our post-Shoah world?

The theological questions are daunting. In the beginning God rewards the faithfulness of Yom Tov Levy by establishing his descendants as Just Men: what kind of reward is that? What kind of God gives such a destiny as a reward? Such questions are raised very gently at first, cushioned by the piety of the early Levys, but they become sharper as the book goes along, just as the cruelty of non-Jews sharpens as the story progresses. The questions crescendo in the dark doxology that closes the story: what kind of God is this, and what does it mean, to praise such a God?

The book has a brief coda: the narrator closes with the feeling that Ernie Levy is somehow not completely gone, but “there was only a presence.” I am left wondering if perhaps the real God in this story is not an exterior God, but the inner goodness of the Levys themselves. “Presence” is the common English translation for “Shekhinah,” the name for the Presence of God in exile. Perhaps, the book whispers, we are looking in the wrong places for God.

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