I don’t speak Hebrew and, despite a few semi-earnest attempts to learn my aleph-bet, I don’t read it either. I recognize enough spoken words of biblical Hebrew that I can more or less follow an English translation when someone reads Torah, but that’s about it. And while I’ve studied some Kabbalah, I am no scholar: I know that individual Hebrew letters are associated with specific mystical qualities, but I cannot tell you what they are. Still, I am fascinated by the aleph.
Toward the end my novel, A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World, the thirteenth-century Jewish mystic Abraham Abulafia appears before my hero, the hapless Leonard, in the old medieval basilica of St. Peter’s in Rome. Known for his meditative work combining Hebrew letters, Abulafia hovers over Leonard (literally: his feet do not touch the ground), juggling Hebrew letters in fantastic, unfollowable patterns. He wants to impress Leonard with his message, and he does. But unbeknownst to him, he drops an aleph as he dematerializes. The remainder of the book hinges on this aleph. Leonard can exchange it for something he badly needs (his seven-year-old nephew Felix!). It also, not incidentally, allows him to save the world. Phew!
The aleph! I know of it what you probably know: first letter, no sound, the beginning of the words echad, referring to divine unity; ein sof, the infinite which is the divine source of all manifestation; and emet, or truth. Powerful! But if I must be truthful, it was not my rabbi teachers who drew me to the letter, it was the Argentinean writer Jorge Luis Borges.
Borges may or may not have been descended from Portuguese Jews, but his interest in Jewish texts, symbols, and ideas defined a sizeable portion of his life and work: he translated Kafka, loved Buber’s Hassidic tales, and lectured on the Kabbalah; he wrote stories with Kabbalistic and other Jewish themes, and searched his ancestry (in vain, apparently) for Jewish forebears. Whatever his “pedigree,” I love his work and, in particular, his 1945 story “The Aleph.”
In this story, a horrendously pedantic poet by the name of Carlos Argentino Daneri is writing an epic poem that seeks, basically, to describe everything on the planet, or maybe even the universe. He is aided, it turns out, by an aleph in his basement, which, he explains to the story’s narrator, is a point in space that contains all other points. Looking into it, one can see everything that is—clearly and at the same moment. The narrator is allowed a glimpse; he describes the resulting vision necessarily as a succession of images, though of course he sees them all simultaneously. What follows is a beautiful paragraph listing some of these images, both enormous and minutely specific (deserts and each of their grains of sand, his own bowels, horses on the shore of the Caspian Sea, the obscene letters his beloved had written to this pedantic poet …).
One of my favorite writing exercises when I taught for one brief year was to assign students this story and ask them to write such a list of images—just the list: they didn’t have to create a story about or around it. I guessed that freed from the rigors and constraints of narrative they too would write astonishing paragraphs—and they did! I startled them by asking to keep those lists (at a time when teachers still received hard copies of student work!)—they were that good. I have them still.
In my book, the aleph (which, naturally, quivers and vibrates) is more focused: it does not allow viewers to see the entire universe from every conceivable angle; rather, it enables them to see scenes from their own lives, past and future; this, in turn, helps them understand and embrace their destinies. The vision is no less transformative, however. A variation of Reb Borges’ aleph, to be sure, but a heartfelt homage nonetheless!
The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
Debra Spark is the author of The Pretty Girl, a collection of stories about art and deception.
In literature, as in life, you may go looking for one thing, only to find another. Several years ago, I decided to go to London to do research for a novel I was planning to write. I had written a short story about Victorian toy theatres — it’s in my most recent book, The Pretty Girl — and I didn’t think I was quite through with the subject. I had an idea of writing a novel that was set, at least partially, in Victorian times and focused on a Jewish engraver of plates for the toy theatre. I felt, from the start, that I was in over my head. What did I know about Victorian London? Much less, Jews in that time period? As part of my research, I engaged a tour guide who took me on a daylong tour of Jewish London. By the end of the day, I felt unequal to the task of my novel. There was too much I didn’t know. The last stop on the tour was an Orthodox synagogue. My female tour guide and I arrived during services and crept upstairs. We were the only women in the balcony and from the looks of things, there hadn’t been any other women up there in decades. In one back corner of the balcony, there was, of all things, a clothes rack on which hung racy pieces of women’s lingerie. Downstairs, men davened seriously, muttering their Hebrew so quickly that I couldn’t make out a word. At one point, a man whipped out a cell phone, though he continued to pray, and I thought perhaps he was putting in a call to the Big Guy at that very moment.
I loved this strange scene, but didn’t know what I could take from my day beyond my pleasure. I was dispirited. I felt I’d have to do a Ph.D. in history, before I could write the book I intended. I was also anxious to get back to the Marriott in Swiss Cottage where I was staying. My mother and young son were waiting for me, and I knew my son would be impatient for my return. He was not, at that point in his life, good with an extended separation.
It was late in the day when I finally got to the hotel. On the way up to my floor in the elevator, I saw a man in a yarmulke holding a clipboard. I almost had an urge to tell him about my day, as if all Jews were bound to be interested by my dip into history. I saw the words Adin Steinsaltz on the man’s clipboard. Now I had another reason I felt like speaking. “He wrote my favorite book,” I said, pointing.
“What’s that?” the man said, interested.
“Do you understand that book?” the man said abruptly.
I had actually studied the book, which attempts to explain the Jewish mystical system that is kabbalah, fairly seriously at one point, so I gave him a longer answer than he might have liked. “I feel like if there are 100 levels on which to get that book, after reading it twice, I managed to get to level two.” The book had meant a lot to me, because it opened up a way to think about Judaism that made me feel what I do in the world, my actions, whether kindly or not, influence the structure of the universe. I liked the notion that if you do a good act, you put more good in the universe, and similarly with a bad act. Thus, each day man has the potential to create the world as a better or worse place.
“Well, I tell the rabbi, I don’t get that book,” the man said, and he introduced himself. He was Steinsaltz’s personal assistant.
I was shocked. The Steinsaltz book—and other books by Steinsaltz—had once been so important to me that I had named my son, Aidan, after Adin. Or that’s not quite right. My husband, who isn’t Jewish, had found the name Aidan in a baby book. He liked it. I did, too, but then thought it was strange to give a boy whom we were going to raise as Jewish such an Irish name. Somehow “Adin,” though I knew it was pronounced differently, made me think it would be OK after all.
It turned out that the Rabbi, who is known perhaps best for his translation of the Talmud, was speaking that night. To a sold out crowd. But the assistant said he could get me in. As exciting as this prospect sounded, I had to say no. I couldn’t leave my son any longer with my mother. So the assistant offered something else. I could come up the next day to the Rabbi’s hotel suite and have coffee with him.
I could barely sleep that night. I was so excited. Later, I told Steve Stern, a Jewish writer friend in New York, about this encounter, and he gasped, “He’s a holy man!”
My meeting was brief. I was embarrassed by my secular self in front of the rabbi. I should have counted on not feeling quite frum enough to be meeting with him. I felt I should have a question for him, but I hadn’t prepared a question. I didn’t know what to say. He was gentle and kind, but I struggled to hear him, as his voice is soft, and my hearing isn’t so great. I ended up deciding to ask him about the end of the Book of Esther. The end of the book had troubled me, since I reread it in preparation for taking my son to his firstPurim celebration. Like most Jews, I knew that Haman, the bad guy, gets his just desserts, that he is hung on the gallows that he intended for Mordecai, the hero. But I didn’t know (till I reread the book) that afterward, the Jews go out and kill 75,000 additional men. I asked the rabbi about it. The lack of clarity in the Book of Esther bothered me. Thanks to an edict that the king has signed, the Persians have permission to attack Jews on a certain date, even though Haman is dead. But it is not clear they are taking advantage of that permission, when the day comes.
“Well, you’ve never been beaten,” the rabbi said.
“If you were beaten, you’d understand.”
It seemed to me that we were talking about contemporary Israel and Palestine and not ancient Jews and Persians. Later I realized we probably were. I discovered that the rabbi’s politics were far to the right of my own. The other thing the rabbi said, though I can’t remember what we were talking about that led him to these words, is that he liked children, because they weren’t ruined yet. It didn’t seem the sort of wisdom that you’d get from a great man. It didn’t even seem true, though I love children myself.
Why am I telling these stories?
Because the meeting with the Rabbi redirected me, though not in the way I thought it would, when I was up all night, anticipating my morning coffee with the rabbi.
I never wrote that book about toy theatres, the one I planned to write when I went to London. Instead, I wrote a novel, called Good for the Jews, that is a loose retelling of the Book of Esther and makes explicit use of the Rabbi’s words about being beaten. I also wrote a story for my subsequent book, The Pretty Girl, called “A Wedding Story.” In it, a rabbi says what Steinsaltz said about children, and the character who hears his words stumbles on them; they are not what she wants out of a sage.
I couldn’t understand enough about the facts of the Victorian world, so I couldn’t write the novel I intended to. I couldn’t understand the Rabbi’s thinking, and so I found a story I did feel I could write. Stupidity, you could say, stopped me, and stupidity led me forward. Different kinds of stupidity. To write about something, you need to know about the things that are knowable. If there are facts to be had, you need to have the facts. But you don’t need to know about what is unknowable. You just need to be present to it.