They were small, felt, ringed in blue. We wore them to meals, to all of them, and of course, to services on Fridays and Saturdays. You were given two at the start. If you lost them, they were a few dollars to replace. Of course, they were yarmulkes, even though we never called them that, choosing, instead, to call them beanies. To have called them yarmulkes, I suppose, would have been to place them in a more strict religious context, that, as boys, we may have shirked from. Or found uncool. It’s hard to remember now. This was my summer camp near Cape Cod, a tiny, wooded outpost flanked by a fresh water lake, a dozen creaky, wooden bunks.
Even as a young kid, I recognized the chapel as something beautiful. To get there you had to walk along the water. There was a fence that separated the field from the lake. We’d go in what was supposed to be our best clothing. But we were young, and we were boys, and inevitably, we were filthy. I remember having to go down a slope, although this might be inaccurate. It’s been fifteen years since I was there last, and the photographs I’ve found on the web don’t do justice to my memories. There were three sections of benches arranged in a half-circle. Plain wooden benches like the sort you’d see at a softball field. And there was a bimah, a makeshift pulpit. Behind this was the water. There were high trees surrounding us, white pine, black gum, red spruce. The chapel, I realize now, was nothing but a landscaped clearing. There was another summer camp along the lake, a YMCA camp. And there were a few houses dotting the shore. One of them had an airplane docked out front, its landing gear retrofitted for the water, and occasionally, during services, if you were lucky, you’d see the pilot take off, or land, and then, a few moments later, you’d see the water lap up against the shore – small, insistent waves.
Most of us were secular, if not entirely unobservant in our usual lives, and these services amounted to the totality of our religious experiences. One summer, a boy had his bar mitzvah there, all of his friends pitching in together to make it happen. I remember this particular service more than the others. These were small gestures: the beanies, the prayers we sung before our meals, the imposed solemnity of our weekly walk to the chapel. I remember worrying that my yarmulke would blow off in the middle of a service, some lake-born gust of wind taking it and spilling it somewhere. This was a fear one doesn’t suffer in synagogue.
Lately I’ve been thinking about that chapel, about how lovely it was to sit out there in the woods, with the birds out overhead, and that airplane dropping slowly onto the water. There was no better place to pray quietly, to find peace, to feel gratitude at the easy beauty we had around us. I find myself wishing I could back there now, even though, I’m fairly sure I’ve long lost those felt beanies. Although I suppose, for a few dollars, I could get another.
At a certain point in the process, I had to do the cutting. Not the small cutting, the excising of some misplaced lines, the usual reshuffling that revision turns into at the end, everything somehow feeling more surgical than therapeutic. But I had to really cut. To kill some stories. To take them out, shelve them, end them. This is what I did, in the most unsentimental of ways – stories that I’d suffered over for months at a time, pulled from the manuscript, put into the drawer. There were fourteen stories. Then there were ten. For a few weeks there were nine. Now the book exists in its final form, and there are seven stories, all handsomely put together and bound and out there for anyone to read. But what about the others, the stories that didn’t make it?
Short story collections are, at their best, a crystallized instance of a writer’s preoccupations. In most cases the medium doesn’t allow for the concentrated energy a novel does, or for the lingering, careful introspection. At their best, a certain incidental beauty emerges, a glancing touch of something lovely, or wise. I wrote the bulk of my book in Iowa City, a wonderful town with a small Jewish community, but where, after a few months, I found the simple task of buying candles for a menorah nearly impossible. The experience stuck with me. I’d been working on a book about a piano player. I shelved it. Slowly, the stories began to touch one another, their common threads signaling, at first, a deepening fascination about religious identity. My characters, as they emerged, were secular Jews whose notion of their identity was brittle and uninformed. Why did I want those candles so badly, when I barely celebrated any other holidays? At the end of one of these stories, a character whose father is dying announces that he has no idea what it means to be Jewish. This, it seemed to me, was what my book was about. Or what it should be about. But then, so quickly, things changed. Other threads emerged: struggling families, adulterous lovers, estranged brothers. My preoccupations were shifting.
There is a distance, often, that takes root between what a writer wants to write about, and what a writer actually writes about. Outlines become useless, taunting things. A collection of stories becomes bound by ideas the writer is not entirely away of. Slowly, this began to happen to me. The woman who eventually became my editor helped me realize that the characters I’d been writing weren’t all religious, but they were all Jews. If nothing else, this was the thread.
John Cheever’s advice on putting together a story collection was to put the best story up front, the next best story last, and then arrange everything else in the middle. I heard this a few weeks after my book had been acquired for publication, an occassion that to me felt like my own, private Hanukkah miracle: my book of stories would go out into the world! But there was a whole separate book I’d shelved. In it, there is a story about a brother whose twin is dying. A story about a family whose adopted son is a painting prodigy. There is a story about a boxer who falls in love with his opponent. I’m this book’s only reader now. It’s a funny thing to see: my slight obsessions rising up and falling away. My plans for a perfectly round collection loosening. This book doesn’t have a handsome cover, or a title, or really, to be honest, any future. But it exists, if for no other reason, than to remind me of how my book got made – by cutting and cutting and cutting.
Photo by Nina Subin
For me, the year has always begun in September. I grew up near Boston, and part of this feeling, surely, is that the season changes then, that summer ends and school begins, that in the stores suddenly there are reminders of what’s to come: Halloween masks, potted burgundy chrysanthemums, pumpkins for sale in bins at the farm stands. Of course, September, in most cases, marks the beginning of the High Holidays. It falls late this year, the bulk of the Days of Awe spilling over into October. As I write this, we’re half a month away, and in New England, there is still the residual film of summer hanging over everything. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are, perhaps, the most benevolent of all our holidays, a time devoted, in part, to an introspective critique of our sins and misgivings, our failings, the grievances we carry. I took the title of my collection of short stories, The Book of Life, from the part of the High Holiday liturgy which has been my favorite since I was young: On Rosh Hashanah It is Written, On Yom Kippur It is Sealed. The stories in my book are about family – about the enduring struggle between father’s and their sons, about the difficulties between brothers. But in a large part, the stories are about the sins and errors we commit against those we love.
Growing up, these were the only services we attended. We weren’t alone. The annex of our synagogue was opened to accommodate those, like us, who still found it necessary to attend. This is the story of so much of the Reform experience this last half-century, a loosening of the traditions, a slackening, a burgeoning secular identity. But it has never been a puzzle to me why these holidays remain so important. There is a solemnity, and a sober holiness to the sight of the bereaved standing among their neighbors to recite the Mourner’s Kaddish. There is the insistence of the Yahrzeit candle, and the sweet symbolism of apples and honey. And there is a certain beauty to the idea that transgressions suffered in private can be absolved in public.
But perhaps the most beautiful of the High Holiday traditions is the one least known by Reform Jews, and certainly, the one least practiced. In Hebrew, tashlikh means casting off. The ritual is a simple one: you take pieces of bread, throw them into the river as if you were feeding ducks, and watch them all float downstream. To do this is to symbolically cast away your sins, to slough off a year’s misdeeds, to start the new year fresh. This comes from the prophet Micah:
He does not retain His anger forever,
Because He delights in unchanging love.
He will again have compassion on us;
He will tread our iniquities underfoot.
Yes, You will cast all our sins
Into the depths of the sea.
I was in my late twenties the first time I heard of this. I was living in Iowa City, a student at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. I’d moved to the Midwest from Brooklyn, and I had just begun to write the stories that would make up my first book. They were, without fail, about Jewish men struggling to connect to their faith, men struggling to free themselves from the guilt of their transgressions. There is something wonderful about the idea of casting off our sins, washing away a year’s worth of errors. During Yom Kippur, the action is a collective one. We repent aloud for sins, even if we haven’t committed them. One person’s sin is the congregation’s sin. By the time I went down to the Iowa River with a few pieces of bread stuffed into my pockets, it’d been a long while since I’d been to synagogue to celebrate the High Holidays. Ten years. Probably more. But here, on the river, in the grass, a thousand miles from home, I felt compelled to begin to reconnect, to begin anew, to cast off.