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The Renewal Reader

Around this time of month, more than sixty years ago, W.H. Auden gave voice to this popular quest for renewal:

“From the conservative dark, Into the ethical life The dense commuters come, Repeating their morning vow; 'I will be true to the wife, I'll concentrate more on my work'…”

Auden’s theme was nothing short of the collapse of civilization at the dawn of World War II, but his point here was quotidian: Each of us, at some point in life, struggles with starting over–if not quite wiping the slate clean, then at least scrubbing away at the thing furiously.

To mark the occasion of the Jewish New Year, Jewcy asked its stable of contributors to do one of two things. They could write about their personal attempts at renewal – by describing, say, a painful break-up, a recovery from addiction, or the loss of a loved one—or they could give us an example of a work of art that deals with the subject at the more universal level.

We were moved, amused, and gratified by the responses this request elicited.

Beetle Jews.

In Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, after enduring the distraction and annoyance of their son having turned into an insect, the Samsas are overjoyed to find that the insect has died and that their daughter has turned into a woman. Renewal, in this lens, is a world that has no vermin and a lot of sex:

While they were thus conversing, it struck both Mr. and Mrs. Samsa, almost at the same moment, as they became aware of their daughter's increasing vivacity, that in spite of all the sorrow of recent times, which had made her cheeks pale, she had bloomed into a pretty girl with a good figure. They grew quieter and half unconsciously exchanged glances of complete agreement, having come to the conclusion that it would soon be time to find a good husband for her. And it was like a confirmation of their new dreams and excellent intentions that at the end of their journey their daughter sprang to her feet first and stretched her young body.

—Eli Valley, Jewcy contributor

To thine own self be true.

The literary work I always think of in the context of renewal is Theodore Dreiser's American Tragedy, a truly masterful novel which I make a point of rereading each year. The protagonist, Clyde Griffiths, repeatedly tries to reinvent himself, but subconsciously reverts to his underlying nature, which ultimately leads him to commit a horrific crime. I think one of the dominant themes of American literature is that efforts to efface one's past are bound to fail, whether those of the working-class George Milton and Lennie Small in Of Mice and Men or the affluent Jay Gatz in The Great Gatsby. I look back on the number of occasions that I have personally tried to reinvent myself on a smaller scale—in a fresh relationship or a new job—and how I always end up reverting to the patterns of my past. So maybe meaningful renewal comes from embracing one's patterns of behavior, and one's history, rather than striving to alter them radically.

—Jacob M. Appel, short story writer and author of the play “Thirds"

Why do I cry for you?

The way of the the gnostic, the metaphysical believer, and above all the follower of the paths of mystical Judaism, Christianity, and Islam begins and ends with acceptance of the end of each cycle of life. (For the really esoteric readers, the city of Irem mentioned in this text is one of the only authentic ancient monuments mentioned in the fantasy fiction of H.P. Lovecraft. Little did he know! And little did the late Edward Said, who viciously attacked Massignon and the example of Hallaj, also know!

The night before his execution in Baghdad for alleged heresy, the great Sufi Husayn bin Mansur Hallaj (858-922) recited, according to his son:

I cry to You for the Souls whose witness [the mystic himself] now goes beyond the ‘where’ to meet the Witness of Eternity; I cry to You for hearts so long refreshed – in vain – by clouds of revelation, hearts once filled with seas of wisdom; I cry to You for the Word of God, which since it perished, has faded to nothing in our memory; I cry to You for Your (inspired) discourse before which ceases all speaking by the wise and eloquent orator; I cry to You for Signs that have been gathered by intellects – nothing in books remains of them but dust; I cry to You, I swear it by your Love – for the Virtues of those people whose only recourse was to keep silent; All have crossed the desert, leaving neither a well nor tracks behind – vanished like the people of ‘Ad and their lost city, Irem; And after them the abandoned crowd mingles in confusion on their trails – blinder than beasts, blinder even than she-camels.

(Adapted from the version of Herbert Mason.)

—Stephen Schwartz, Executive Director, the Center for Islamic Pluralism, and author, most recently of Is It Good for the Jews: The Crisis of America’s Israel Lobby

What bugs me about new dreams.

Twenty years ago when I was a teaching fellow in English at the University of Pennsylvania I assigned Kafka's The Metamorphosis for a seminar on modernism. The story wedges as firmly and poisonously in the mind as the apple hurled by Gregor's father wedges in the insect's shell, so I will forgo a summary. The final sentence describes the family's liberation after Gregor’s death: "And it was like a confirmation of their new dreams and excellent intentions that at the end of their journey their daughter sprang to her feet first and stretched her young body."

With a single exception, every student in my seminar interpreted that conclusion as "life-affirming"—a triumph of hope over tragedy. Young and embarassingly vital themselves, they acknowledged the selfishness of Gregor's sister, Grete, but also admired her resilience in embracing life. Irritated by their obtuseness, I spent most of one class arguing the author's intent and explaining why the family's response made the story more tragic, not less so. But my students were adherents of reader-response theory. They saw a feel-good ending, and so it must be.

My mother died this month after a long, debilitating illness. She and I had a difficult (euphemism for "tortured") relationship, and as we drove back from the funeral in Maryland I anticipated a life uninterrupted by her admonitory letters or querulous voice on the telephone. I don't know that I experienced "new dreams" or "excellent intentions." But certainly I experienced relief and, yes, a modicum of happiness. That I recognize the tragedy in such responses may make me a better reader. It doesn't make me a better person.

—Leigh Buchanan, Editor-at-Large, Inc.magazine

Smoke ‘em if ya got ‘em.

This quote comes from Mary Yukari Waters' wonderful story "Since My House Burned Down" and speaks, in many ways, to what I think of as the boundless hope I only wish I still had, the kind of hope which reminds me of what it means to live without fear. In order for the quote to make sense, however, it's important to also note the haiku by Masahide the narrator of this story recounts to herself (which, oddly, is now the title of the band 1997's new album): Since my house burned down/ I now own a better view/ of the rising moon.

I head down toward a sunny bench overlooking the water. These days walking exhausts me. The river flows past, sunlight glinting on its surface like bright bees swarming over a hive. I can actually hear the bees buzzing, so I take out my hearing aid and put it in my handbag. I sun myself like this for a long time, eyes half shut. I conjure up from memory the surface sounds of the river, its tiny slurps and licks as countless currents tumble over one another. I remember too the soft roar in flood time of the undercurrent as it drags silt and pebbles out to sea.

The music comforts me. I imagine dissolving into the water, being borne along its current. Something slowly unclenches in my chest. I am pared down, I think suddenly, to Masahide's poem. And I sense with a slow-mounting joy how wide this river is, and how very deep, with its waters rolling out towards an even vaster sea; and the quiet surge of my happiness fills my chest to bursting.

—Tod Goldberg, author of Simplify, Living Dead Girl, and Fake Liar Cheat

Ye Olde Renewal Poeme.

This is a protest quote from "Minor Manuscript" by Sir Thomas Wyatt. There is no such thing as renewal. Especially after Bergman's death.

The piller pearisht is whearto I lent, The strongest staye of myne vnquyet mynde; The lyke of it no man agayne can fynde, From East to West, still seking thoughe he went. To myne vnhappe! for happe away hath rent Of all my ioye the vearye bark and rynde; And I (alas) by chaunce am thus assynde Dearlye to moorne till death do it relent. But syns that thus it is by destenye, What can I more but have a wofull hart, My penne in playnt, my voyce in carefull crye, My mynde in woe, my bodye full of smart, And I my self, my self alwayes to hate, Till dreadfull death do ease my dolefull state?"

—Francois Blumenfeld-Kouchner, Jewcy blogger

Days of Shock and Awe.

Some years ago, on the day before Yom Kippur, I moved into a new apartment, my first permanent home after an itinerant decade spent jumping back and forth from long term sublets to my parents’ place downtown. Lucky them! Lucky me! It was September and so humid I felt like I was gulping filmy air instead of properly breathing.

Most of my belongings were in storage out of state, so I rented a truck and with my father’s help loaded it up and drove to Brooklyn, by way of Yonkers, where we got lost and I became hysterical with anxiety that I’d never arrive and that the stress of moving would never ever end.

It mercifully did and that night, I tossed restlessly on my mattress amid scattered boxes in a still, stuffy room. When I woke the expanse of unpacking and then the start of Yom Kippur lay ahead.

Friends had invited me to their Conservative egalitarian service for Kol Nidre and the following daylong observance. Sitting in a pew, drops of sweat tickled their way from my neck to my belly and soaked my dress. I started to cry from exhaustion, from tension. It turned soon to sobs, and, as I halfheartedly grasped at discretion, I remembered my father’s description of the Yom Kippurs of his childhood in Orthodox joints in Gravesend and Flatbush. In those shuls women sat separately from their husbands and would wail in sorrow, letting out desperate moans of despair over who'd died years before, weeping over what they'd lost and what they yet longed for, until the rabbi would look up at them in the gallery, and spit "Vayber Sha!" – Women Quiet!?

On my first Brooklyn Yom Kippur, as my friends tried to soothe me while fans whirred to too little effect, I thought of these women, and wondered if maybe my own great-grandmother had been among them, crying herself hoarse, beating her breast, wishing, among her laments, for what good might remain in this lifetime. The very idea unleashed new waves of tears, shed too for what I wanted and did not yet have, but also out of gratitude for the sense of continuity in a family and in a tradition. My crying took some time to ebb and when it did, it gave way to a magnificent sense of lightness. A new year was now underway. —Sara Ivry, Senior Editor, Nextbook

A different kind of metamorphosis.

In The Assistant, Bernard Malamud's hardscrabble, unsentimental meditation on forgiveness and fate, some good people do bad things, and some bad people do okay things, but mostly, okay people do very bad and also very extraordinary things. What it all seems to add up to is this: that hidden motivations and connections and debts between us are more complex than we can possibly fathom. At their best, love and loyalty are unspeakable mysteries from which spring everything holy in daily life.

It was a strange thing about people—they could look the same but be different. He had been one thing, low dirty, but because of something in himself—something she couldn't define, a memory perhaps, an ideal he might have forgotten and then remembered—he had changed into somebody else, no longer what he had been. She should have recognized it before. What he did to me he did wrong, she thought, but since he has changed in his heart he owes me nothing.

—Elisa Albert, author of How This Night Is Different and the forthcoming The Book of Dahlia

Renewal is commentary.

I felt a whole new world open up in front of me when I first read this passage from Alicia Suskin Ostriker’s The Nakedness of the Fathers: Biblical Visions and Revisions, a creative meditation on biblical texts. I had grown up in a world in which literalist readings of the bible were, well, gospel. I had never heard the rabbinic admonition to “turn it and turn it” (“it” being Torah). I believed that interrogating the scriptures, and especially re-imagining them from a contemporary perspective—not to mention a woman’s perspective—would mean death, of some sort, at some point. But the Torah, our sacred text, is alive and evolving. It is not made of stone. The creation narratives of Genesis are but a touchstone to something larger—to the ongoing acts of creation that we, ourselves, can be part of by delving into the biblical texts and reading them afresh, with new eyes and a new vision, whether we are male or female.

Yet the beginning is not the beginning. Inside the oldest stories are older stories, not destroyed but hidden. Swallowed. Mouth songs. Wafers of parchment, layer underneath layer. Nobody knows how many. The texts retain traces, leakages, lacunae, curious figures of speech, jagged irruptions. What if I say these traces too are mine? If I pull at the texts like the yard worker who goes out with a rake in early spring. She pulls at the compacted layers of leaves, heaving them up from the ground. Wet and soggy, they resist, they cling to the earth. She stands in the yard sniffing the fresh air. Under the compost there is bare ground from which a few thin chartreuse sprouts have begun to uncurl. A dog barks somewhere in the neighborhood. Another beginning, I tell myself. Nor is the canonized text a final text, nor can the writing be finished. For I remember slavery; I remember liberation from slavery. This is what the Lord did for me when I came out of Egypt. I remember a covenant in which I promised to serve God’s purposes. And what if I say the purposes have not yet been all revealed?

They say no, they say blasphemer, they say false, They say whore, they say bitch, they say witch, They say ignorant woman, they lock me up for crazy Of course I’m crazy Digging and digging Smelling the ground I talk to myself and see things I remember things, and sometimes I remember My time when I was powerful, bringing birth My time when I was just, composing law My time playing before the throne When my name was woman of valor When my name was wisdom And what if I say the Torah is My well of living waters Mine.

—Monica Osborne, Jewcy blogger

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