The Pit of Tel Aviv, A Preliminary Damage Report

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Avi Steinberg’s first book, Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian, is now available. He will be blogging all week for the Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning’s Author Blog.

I was on a roll with my manuscript, a prison library memoir, of all things, and then Kafka rolled into my life. Or rather, I rolled into his. At about the time I was finishing up my final edits for
Running the Books
—my fledgling first book—my life fell into the abyss described by the good Dr. Kafka:

“What are you building?” asks the man.

“I want to dig a subterranean passage,” the second man shouts back. And continues, “Some progress must be made. My station up there is way too high. We are digging the Pit of Babel.”

Directly under every proud edifice, under every act of creative ambition, is a pit that will—that must!—take the mission in precisely the opposite direction. My pit was, appropriately, located in Tel Aviv.

I was living in Jerusalem last year, minding my own business in the Valley of the Cross, that cozy nook, when suddenly I got wind of some excitement from the coast. A riotous legal controversy was unfolding over an archive of literary documents, including some undetermined amount of unseen work by Kafka. According to local reports, the papers were stashed in the Spinoza Street apartment of a notorious Tel Aviv cat lady. (The number of cats in the woman’s apartment, like the number of Kafka documents there, is unknown and possibly unknowable.)

The details of the case were of soap opera complexity. This cat lady, it turned out, was the daughter of the secretary—and probably lover—of Max Brod, Kafka’s good pal. Brod escaped Prague for Tel Aviv in 1939, and lived there until his death. The cat lady claimed that the papers, which may be valued in the millions of dollars, were her inheritance from her mother, who received the stash from Brod as a gift. The Israel National Library

strenuously disagreed with the cat lady—while the Deutscher literary archive in Marbach, Germany totally disagreed with the Israel National Library. And everyone disagreed with Kafka, who, in about 1921, had politely requested that these papers be destroyed. And so a legal battle royale was going down in the Big Orange between the following parties, all of whom were entangled in shifting alliances with one another: the cat lady and her legal team; the cat lady’s sister and her legal team; the respective legal teams of the German and Israeli archives; an attorney from the State of Israel; and the court-appointed executors for the estates of the cat lady’s mom and Max Brod, respectively. Nobody who’s being honest with himself really knows how many lawyers are involved, not even the judge. This information, like the number of cats and Kafka documents in Spinoza Street apartment, is hidden somewhere in the Pit of Babel.

Posted on December 6, 2010
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