by Rafaël Newman
For C.J. Newman
My father is no longer at home.
He returned to Montreal, the city of his birth, on retirement from the University of British Columbia, and has been living in the bottom half of a duplex in the Mile End district since. Some time ago he decided to sell the flat to a friend and now continues to inhabit it as a tenant, an arrangement known as viager, or “life lease”. My father’s place is near avenue Bernard; the strip of that thoroughfare starting at avenue du Parc and intersecting Jeanne Mance, Esplanade, Waverly, and Saint-Urbain has undergone gentrification since he was young, and now features a bookstore specializing in graphic novels and a variety of trendy, ironically louche venues; farther afield there are the celebrated feuding bagel bakeries, St-Viateur and Fairmount, each with its coterie of hipster disciples. Beginning in the adjacent Outremont district and spreading across Parc and down past those four perpendicular streets (whose initials, Ouija-style, eerily spell the word J.E.W.S.), there is also a large community of Hasidim, whom my father enjoys addressing (and occasionally serenading) in the Yiddish of his childhood, which was spent not far from here in Montreal’s Plateau neighborhood, among Jewish immigrants from the Pale of Settlement. Those early immigrants, my father’s extended family and their compatriots, have long since moved on, to more salubrious districts to the southwest, away from tenements and walk-ups and into modern high-rises; or out of the province of Quebec altogether, to neighboring Ontario and beyond. My father’s immediate family – my grandparents, aunt, and uncle – have all died, leaving him with only a handful of cousins nearby, from whom he is for the most part estranged.
None of these disappearances or displacements, however, is the source of my father’s current alienation, which is not physical, but rather spiritual.
He seems, for instance, to be hosting dybbuks in his apartment. These Ashkenazi poltergeists are fond of moving his personal items from their accustomed sites to incongruous new ones: glassware has turned up in the washing machine, his dentures have strayed to the front walk or under his mattress, and his spectacles have been found in a box of old family photographs. More maliciously still, the sprites have evidently destabilized furniture otherwise anchored in place, so that my father has fallen recently when leaning against an end table or walking down a previously unobstructed corridor. His treatment for the bruises or breaks these falls have engendered has been sluggish and cursory, at the hands of a local health system chronically overburdened, all the more so during a pandemic, and loath to keep him in hospital, at greater risk of infection than alone in his apartment, to which he is routinely returned in a taxi.
But the most egregious sign of my father’s internal dislocation is the subtlest as well, a jarring detail: his valediction in our ever less frequent email correspondence (the dybbuks have been messing with his internet connection), and now at the close of more regular, if extremely brief phone calls, has become “God bless you.”
The replacement of his accustomed secular expressions of affection, variations on “I love you”, in what had been for years a stream of free association commentary on politics and snatches of poetry in progress, with this formulaic benediction is disorienting because, although he was raised by orthodox Jewish parents, had a bar mitzvah ceremony, and lived for a time in Israel, my father’s relationship with “God”, and thus with any organized worship in “His” name, has been ambivalent at best. He usually describes himself as a socialist, but has said that, when it comes to God, he is a “lapsed atheist”. For a time in the 1990s he joined a group of people dedicated to reviving the spoken Yiddish of their youth; at Passover my father, a published author and professor of creative writing, was deputed to produce a new version of the Haggadah, re-telling the story of Exodus, for the group to use at the seder, or ritual Passover dinner, they were planning to hold. When the other members asked him to excise any mention of God from the draft he had submitted, however, he refused, noting that “God is inseparable from the history of the Jews” – by which I took him to mean belief in God, which I held to be a sensibly constructivist view.
Furthermore, such theological ambivalence on my father’s part has been paradoxically underscored by his interest in religious traditions other than the Jewish: for a time, on Canada’s spacey West Coast in the 1970s, forms of “Eastern” mysticism were de rigueur (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and The Tao of Physics each had a prominent place by his bedside); more consistently, it has been the diversity of Christian belief that has fascinated him, once in “debates” held with students and colleagues from a range of charismatic and evangelical backgrounds, and latterly in heated discussions with representatives of “Jews for Jesus” and other peripatetic proselytizers at his neighborhood coffee shop.
In his own practice as a man of letters, meanwhile, my father has been influenced by forebears of disparate confessional provenance. (Indeed, despite a lifelong interest in the Shoah and his authorship of a novel on Montreal’s “shtetl” of diaspora life, he has told me of his reluctance to serve as a “poster boy” for the Jewish community.) Poets he has routinely cited include the “pagan” Goethe, the millenarian Yeats, the Anglican convert Eliot, and the Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins. I remember being particularly perplexed by his admiration for the last of these, whose adulation of an explicitly Christian God in one celebrated sonnet is so unambiguous:
To Christ our Lord
I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird, – the achieve of, the mastery of the thing!
Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!
No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermilion.
I suppose what attracted my agnostic Jewish father to this frankly Christian credo is the sheer ecstasy of its adoration, coupled with a formal innovation that belies its 19th-century origin. Perhaps it is also simply the same showy pleasure in the dramatic potential of language – “O my chevalier!” – that my father has enjoyed in certain non-Jewish (though not particularly Christian) writers of prose, notable among them John Cheever, who deploys lyrical diction incongruously and to poignant effect in the midst of his short stories.
Surely such an aestheticizing attitude to the varieties of religious experience would inure my father to reflexive pious niceties like “God bless you”, I had thought. All the more so when I recalled an incident from the final years of his own parents. My grandmother and grandfather, whom I knew as Bubbi and Zaideh, had moved in the early 1990s from their apartment on Bourret Avenue in the Montreal district of Snowdon to a unit in the King David, a seniors’ residence in neighboring Côte-Saint-Luc. Like them, their neighbors in the building on avenue Trent were aging Jewish Canadians in need of assisted living with in-house care; care provided, it seemed to me when I would visit them there, almost exclusively by Canadians with roots in the Caribbean, very likely non-Jews, to judge by the crucifixes I noticed adorning many of their outfits. (I was so struck by this inter-ethnic pairing that I began to fantasize about a counterpart old folks’ home in the Caribbean, for locals, staffed entirely by Eastern European Jews: a worthy premise for a counterfactual novel by Michael Chabon.)
During one such visit, almost 30 years ago, my father and I had eaten lunch with his parents in the King David’s kosher canteen and were whiling away the afternoon with them when my Zaideh noticed it was time for Ma’ariv, or evening prayer service. (Night falls early in a Québécois winter.) We rose from the table. Bubbi, who had once confided to me her religious skepticism in the face of her husband’s unquestioning faith, was escorted back to my grandparents’ unit, and my father and I accompanied Zaideh to the King David’s shul, or synagogue, an ordinary linoleum-floored room with folding chairs lined up in rows and a makeshift bimah, or platform for the officiant, against the east-facing wall.
As my father and grandfather joined the queue of elderly inhabitants collecting prayer books and shawls, or tallits, provided just inside the door, I settled into a seat at the back of the room – only to notice my father gesturing at me, urging me to don a tallit myself. He had just counted the number of attendees at the service, he whispered, and remarked that, himself included, there were only nine in line, one short of the number needed for a minyan, or prayer quorum. So I was to be pressed into service as well, although I had never been bar mitzvah, and am, by my birth to a non-Jewish mother, not properly considered a Jew at all.
I wrapped the shawl around my shoulders with a mixture of embarrassment at the masquerade, and secret pride: for here was a late vindication, a recompense for the shame my brother and I had felt the few times our grandfather had taken us to shul as young men, and had had to explain to his fellow worshippers why his grandsons were not wearing tallits. (On one such occasion Zaideh had introduced me to the shammes, or beadle, who asked what I was doing in life; when I said I was studying Greek literature at university, the man reflected sorrowfully that, after the Germans, the Greeks had been the greatest enemies of the Jews.) I joined the nine others, mumbling along with them as they davened, or prayed, interjecting at intervals a loud “amen” (pronounced “owe-main” by the mainly Polish-born congregation) to cover my inability to read the Hebrew text. Our subterfuge had worked: Zaideh himself seemed oblivious, merely satisfied to have paid tribute to his ancient God.
I was touched by my father’s pragmatism, by this feint designed to spare the feelings of his own pious father; and it seemed to me further proof of that same familiar ambivalence of his, which had always been willing to mingle tribal affiliation with worldly, respectful apostasy. In his honor, in tribute to the attachment to words that is my father’s most cherished gift to me, one that has united us for decades, and in a spirit of irreverent gratitude for involving me in the elevating deception, I wrote the following, riffing on the Hopkins sonnet for Christ:
The Hired Davener
To our Christian Landlord
I thought this morning morning’s minyan, King
David Home for Aging Hebrews’ boffins, in their reading
From the scrolling Torah, looked a little under numbers, needing
One extra, since an ennead of alter kackers can’t sing
To Yahweh properly! so off, off forth on shpring,
As a late meal creeps – oof! – up in heart-burn: I bore the tiding
Aloft to Big Nurse. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a goy, – a shabbes goy, and not just any grober ying!
Night duty done, boiler fixed, packed, oh, your truck, strap near
buckled! BUT the shrey that broke from me then, a zillion
Times told bolshier, more bilious: “Oy, a volunteer!”
The wonder of it: chéer, nód, to our pavilion
Strode, donned blue-starr’d kippa, bringing up the rear;
Shawl, golem-like, draped around G-d’s civilian.
This was my salute, all those years ago, to the poetry that has been my paternal legacy, to the high culture, leavened with Borscht-Belt humor, that has served me as a patrimony in lieu of legitimate ethnic appurtenance, and that sustains me today. And yet now, suddenly, these past few weeks, the same pragmatic, worldly, synthesizing father who had pre-gifted me this inheritance in my childhood and who is presently around the same age Zaideh had been during our visit to the King David, has been exhibiting the formulaic parochialism of his own father, wishing God’s blessing on me in what feels like a reflexive act of piety.
Perhaps he has experienced a revelation, a spiritual awakening, a late epiphany on the road to Damascus. Perhaps the dybbuks have possessed him bodily, and are wreaking havoc with his world-view for sport, like the “wanton boys” in King Lear, his favorite Shakespearean tragedy. Perhaps he had been dissembling all along, and had already found religion on the kibbutz in northern Israel during the Suez Crisis, when the Holy Land was threatened, and spared.
Or perhaps, as in the fable of the three rings, adapted by Lessing from a tale of Boccaccio’s and most recently retold by Olga Tokarczuk in The Books of Jacob, her epic of 18th-century syncretism, he is merely attempting to live as if he were deserving of divine approbation, since his true destiny remains obscure. Each of three sons, Lessing’s Nathan the Wise explains in the play that bears his name, has received a ring from their father: one of the rings is a precious heirloom, endowed with the power to render its wearer agreeable to God, while the other two, indistinguishable from the first, are mere copies. When the three fall to disputing which of them has inherited the true ring, the judge who hears their case tells each of them simply to act the part of a righteous man, as if he were the bearer of the genuine article; in Tokarczuk’s retelling, this is amplified into a prescription for monotheistic ecumenicism.
In a sense, then, my father, who has manifested righteousness in various ways in his life, ranging from support for progressive causes to volunteer work at a local soup kitchen, is hedging his bets, acting as if his legacy from his own father – an unquestioning faith in God and His blessings – were the true ring. For my own part, I will do the same with the heirloom my father has given me, and continue to honor poetry in his name.