Israeli Be’er (The Pure Element of Time, 2002, etc.) evokes a Jerusalem neighborhood as magical and surreal as a Chagall painting. Meanwhile, a young soldier recalls growing up there in the 1950s and ’60s.
Framed by the Yom Kippur War, the soldier, whose job is to collect the dead from the battlefield, dreams he meets the long-dead Reb Dovid Leder. He never knew Leder, but he did know his son Mordecai. Waking, he finds himself remembering how he first met Mordecai, a memory that sets off others as he looks back at his boyhood and adolescence in a time of peaceful innocence. On his way home after school, he met Mordecai, whose alleged job was to collect alms for the blind, standing outside the Russian Bookstore. When Mordecai saw him, he declared that the Communists would never last, and then asked if he had heard of Popper-Lynkeus, a 19th-century Utopian. Mordecai wants to create a Nutrition Army that will establish a vegetarian state honoring Lynkeun precepts. The soldier is enlisted as the only follower, and, as Mordecai recalls prewar Vienna, his father’s illustrious political connections, and his attempts to further the cause, the soldier introduces other colorful characters in his Orthodox neighborhood—characters like his father, who searches for proof that the Eucalyptus, not the willow, is the tree referred to in the Bible; or Riklin, the undertaker who is rumored to have once stopped the sun in its path; and the Ringels, who venerate the last Austrian Emperor in an apartment filled with imperial memorabilia. As the narrator grows up, Mordecai’s behavior becomes more eccentric: he’s hospitalized after trying to rob a bank with a wooden gun, and, when released, sets on fire a cloth cow festooned with cheeses and sausages, which he calls the “calf-idol of food” worshipped by his fellow Israelis. Then, as the narrator continues his burial detail, he encounters an unexpected legacy from Mordecai.
A richly crafted ode to the past, this 1979 classic, now in a first English translation, was chosen by the National Yiddish Book Center as “one of the 100 Greatest Works of Modern Jewish Literature.”