Thursday, February 16, 2017

Requiem: A Tale of Exile and Return

Requiem returns us to an eternal theme, a dialogue with Soul, and we know quite well what happens when one dialogues with Soul-we change, consciousness is enlarged, the impossible becomes possible and we no longer are compelled to blindly follow in the deathly path of our forefathers.

Heinrich Heine-Oppenheim.jpg
Heinrich Heine     

Existential questions accompany the narrative of Requiem. Some in the storyline, others as metaphysical discourse. While there are expressions of sadness and struggle, there is also joy and strength. The following is an excerpt from the beginning of the novella:

“If anyone had been present in that clean and tiny room in the small hostel in the heart of New York the day Professor Shimeoni arrived, watching him as he sat almost catatonically on the bed, his legs barely touching the floor, his cap awkwardly sitting on his head as if put there by a caring nurse on a schoolboy rather than the fifty-six-year-old man he was, his small unopened suitcase next to him as if he needed to protect it with strengths he no longer possessed, or as if the suitcase somehow squeezed itself quietly to his side so that it could protect him – if anyone had seen Professor Shimeoni sitting on the simple bed in the warm but alien room, they would have seen a picture of resigned defeat.”

“But no one was present, there were no witnesses. The defeat remained the private failure of Eli Shimeoni. Incidentally, Eli was short for Eliezer. However, since he had never managed to figure out if the meaning of his name was that God would be helpful to him, or if he was to be God’s servant in a scheme of contradictions that his philosophical mind could not grasp, he had formally shortened it to Eli.”

“Professor Shimeoni felt lonely and abandoned, like a redundant survivor. At fifty-six, he looked like an old man. Even when he was a child, people had told him he was an old man, but now there remained no trace of doubt. While not concretely, he profoundly experienced himself as the last survivor. It seemed to him that everybody had already left before him. True, there were those who remained behind – he thought of the many poor who had no means to get away, and the baalei teshuva, who seemed not to ask any questions, but always knew the answer so well, claiming that “in the War of the End of Days, the War of Gog and Magog, total defeat would precede the ultimate victory over evil,” as they knew to repeat by heart.”

“First his children had left, gone abroad to study. One had taken up a prominent position at the University of Stamville, while the other was doing gender research at the Institute of Harback. Then his wife had followed, accusing him of being a fanatic and archaic idealist, or plainly silly and stubborn. Friends and colleagues had discreetly taken farewell. Initially they would apologetically say “if things ever change, you can be sure I will be the first one to return home.” But then, people became increasingly forceful and determined as they said goodbye. The cultured ones would say with bleeding hearts, “this is not the country we prayed for,” and the self-proclaimed prophets would plainly tell him, “everything is collapsing, there is no future here.” Some would reinforce their doomsday prediction, relying on historical evidence that an independent Jewish nation could not survive more than a hundred years.”

Requiem is a fictitious account of a scenario played out in the mind of many Israelis, pertaining to existential reflections and apocalyptic fears, but then, as well, the hope and commitment that arise from the abyss of trepidation. While set in Israel sometime in the present, it is a story that reaches into the timelessness of history, weaving discussions with Heine and Kafka into a tale of universal implications.

Excerpts from Steve Zemmelman's essay Containing A Jungian Light: The Books of Erel Shalit, in Spring, 2015:
Requiem is unique among Shalit’s books in that it is a novella in which the narrator, a professor Eliezer Shimeoni (who shares the same initials as the author) gives voice to the unique combination of despair and hope that is the legacy of the ideal of the socialist pioneers no less than the decades of mutual shadow projections and resulting polarization by Palestinians and Jews alike which underlie a culture of militarization and terrorist attacks.  
     It is also a story of the alienation of the Western intellectual Jew from their Jewish religious heritage and the potential for finding a way back to a renewed Judaism and humanism through a new understanding of self and other.  For Professor Shimeoni it is a fight against denial, a battle for consciousness, and the courage to take a stand against evil that define the integrity one can maintain even in a situation that is seemingly hopeless in so many ways.  He writes, “Consciousness will determine the future of Israel, and the preservation of Jewish civilization and its cultural heritage.  When denial collaborates with demonization in the collective consciousness of the world, catastrophe lies in wait for its victim.”
      It is through self-scrutiny that essential elements in the often neglected and untold story of loss and despair can be identified and understood.  While following this path may be the only way to find ourselves, to do so is to risk becoming lost in the depths of our own suffering.  Shalit poses the essential question underlying all forms of depth psychology: “What witness is more trustworthy than the sitra achra (the other side, the story which is not told) which holds so many secrets, even secrets that we have forgotten, and secrets that are hidden from ourselves?”
      Requiem is ultimately a story of the possibilities of the spirit and its capacity to transform fate into destiny, for the human capacity to surpass mere repetition or adherence to collective thought and action, and to find the courage and creative intelligence that can lead to a new way in the face of despair.  This story is an appeal to the power of the symbolic life as an alternative to the literalism and concretism of fundamentalist and militaristic ideologies that underlie war and terror.  This central concern is woven throughout this book that returns over and over to the story of the akedah, the binding of Isaac, and the fact that it was sufficient for the sacrifice to occur as a symbolic act that did not need to be acted out.  Shalit writes, “By substituting the sacrificial animal for the actual son, the story of the akedah represents the separation of meaning from act, which is essential to culture and civilization.”
      Like all Shalit’s books, in Requiem one finds literary and historical treasures.  For example, he reminds us of Elie Wiesel’s observation that we may one day have an explanation for the Shoah (Holocaust) on the level of man but how Auschwitz was possible on the level of God will always be a mystery.  The narrator then complicates this further, turning Wiesel’s comment on its head, when he notes that Abraham substituting the ram for his son passed God’s test but questions whether he passed the human test. The patriarch showed his complete devotion to God but how is a parent ever justified in being willing to murder his own child?  
Erel Shalit's narrative has a unique, fascinating and powerful style, which touches you strongly. He has a way of leading the reader to grasp complicated historical processes with unusual ease.
... We find not only the narrator of a story, but also the spiritual and lyrical face of the author. I highly recommend this fascinating and important book.
         Marcela London, poet, author

From the first pages of this book, the tone of a masterpiece emerges powerfully.
This book makes us realize that the "Israel problem" cannot be understood in a journalistic frame of mind. Politics, war, land, culture, and contemporary experience are expressions of the deep core of human life, the core of the human soul.
This is an important book for anyone who thinks about "cultural identity" and the love of one's own country and culture.
        Junko Chodos, artist

The book is available (in English as well as in Hebrew) at Amazon and Fisher King Press.

my human condition. original painting by Benjamin Schiff

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