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November 28, 2003 - Image 111

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2003-11-28

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

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experience of what I have experi-
enced." He adds, "He resembles me
on my worst day."
The novel has its roots in a play
called Jacob Cohen and the Angel of
God that Skibell started many years
ago and couldn't finish. One scene,
about the attempt to deconstruct evil,
featuring an old man, Chaim
Sibelski, narrating the day he died in
the Holocaust, grew into a short story
that ultimately grew again into his
first novel.
The author wanted to go back to
that play again and write about
another character, the great-grand-
son of Chaim — Charles Belski. Of
course there's a ring to Skibell,
Sibelski, Belski.
When Belski becomes a father —
reluctantly, as in all things — a visit to
his daughter's daycare center prompts
a humorous dip into his memories of
growing up.
The novel also involves a take on
the Marx Brothers, each as a differ-
ent model of assimilation, as suggest-
ed by Belski's colleague Leibowitz.
The two men travel to Poland
together en route to a conference in
Germany on Wagner and the Jews,
where Belski will deliver a paper
titled "Jewish Figures in the Dreams
of Richard Wagner."
As a travel companion, Leibowitz is
insufferable, but not without wisdom.
In Krakow, Belski wanders into a syn-
agogue, thinks he's encountering a
prayer service and realizes it is a video
playing, with Jews made of cardboard
scattered around the room.
But it's while watching a documen-
tary film about Woody Allen in a
Krakow theater, after visiting
Auschwitz, that he retches, repulsed by
the stereotypical idea of a Jew that
Allen represents.
Back in America, Belski ponders,
"All my life, Judaism seemed like more
to me than a highly articulated form
of ethnic paranoia, but now, having all
but abandoned it, I couldn't help feel-
ing its loss, as though I had been
denied an ancient birthright, or had
thoughtlessly traded it away for the
thin gruel of modernity and an attrac-
tive wife."
In a dream, the ghost of his grand-
father appears when his wife is preg-
nant a second time, asking him in
Yiddish why, with so many gentiles
in the world, he has to bring in
another. His Jewish psychiatrist,
even further along on the assimila-
tion spectrum, doesn't get it.
The novel's final section involves a
surprising twist, featuring a meditative

minyan with chanting, a rabbi who
explains the mystical structures of the
universe, an Orthodox rabbi who
understands much about love and a
klezmer band called Yid Vicious.
In part, the novel is Belski's coming-
of-age story, but it's middle age that he
comes into, with a softened heart. He
even glimpses joy.
The author, who now lives in
Atlanta, says that coming from
Lubbock, he's always felt bereft of
place, envious of people who had
cities like London as home. But, he
says, being able to write about Jews
in the American-Israel-Eastern
European corridor does fill in for
not having a city.
Skibell grew up in a Reform com-
munity, but his world changed
when, after being an unemployed
screenwriter and bartender for a
while in Los Angeles, he took a job
doing data entry for Aish HaTorah.
He had never met Orthodox Jews
before and had no idea what the
outreach organization was about, but
working for them turned out to be
an 8-month discovery seminar" that
led him to further study and obser-
vance.
He now belongs to an Orthodox
synagogue, observes Shabbat and
kashrut, and is also involved with the
Jewish renewal movement. He likes to
describe himself as "a shtam Yid a
plain Jew."
When asked about the roots of his
humor, he explains that he grew up
with two sisters and a brother in an
atmosphere of jokes. They'd sit around
the kitchen table feeding each other
straight lines to see who'd have the
best comeback.
As a novelist, he has no particular
agenda. Unlike essayists and philoso-
phers, novelists, he says, don't have to
have the courage of their convictions.
"You don't have to believe in the
premises that your book supports, put
forth by your characters. The political
agenda for a novelist is to lift the
repression that falls on any subject."
He admits he's more concerned
about issues like assimilation than
most people. "I don't know why I
think about these things," he says,
"but I do."
This fall, Skibell has been taking
time off from his teaching post at
Emory University in Atlanta to teach
in Israel as part of Bar Ilan's new cre-
ative writing program.
The book he's now working on is a
long novel set in Vienna, featuring
Freud — actually a distant cousin —
as a character. ❑

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