It’s 1am. I don’t write much at this hour, at least nowadays. But I got a text message with some upsetting news and can’t fall asleep. The news doesn’t affect me directly, but it upsets me directly, and my mind and soul are cracked open. And the screen is here to listen.
Today I disposed of a heavy burden I’ve been carrying with me for the last month or so. By that, I mean I finished Amos Oz’s memoir, Love and Darkness. I’ve been calling it a novel, but my friend Steven is right, it’s a memoir. It’s the story of a man looking back on his life, telling his story based on memories, fragments of memories, and out of the shards and broken pieces.
Throughout the memoir and at the very end, Oz recalls a songbird that would sing outside the window of his childhood home in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Kerem Avraham. Elise, he called her, because she would always sing the first five notes of Beethoven’s iconic composition, Fur Elise.
Because Steven and I were both racing to the finish of Love and Darkness, we’ve been able to banter quite playfully about the book. I finished the novel just as we were stepping off the bus for lunch at the Alonim Junction in Israel. To indicate that I had completed the seemingly insurmountable task of scaling Mt. Oz I told Steven, “Oz has ruined Beethoven for me forever.” He smiled knowingly.
Eventually we came to Jerusalem, where much of Love and Darkness took place. We met with rabbinic colleagues at the Hebrew Union College- Jewish Institute of Religion. HUC-JIR is a place with many memories, fragments of memories and more than a few shards and broken pieces (most of them soft around the edges, at least for me). It’s the Kerem Avraham of my Jerusalem.
While on campus, Michael Marmur taught us a passage from a novel called, “Et Hazamir.” The passage was about a fictional Hasidic rebbe who had an unusual prayer for the Jewish people during the time of the War of Independence. I drew a line of connection because both the author of Et Hazamir and Oz, the author of Love and Darkness, look back at the War of Independence, but in very different ways. On a personal note, the title, “Et Hazamir” struck me because I used that same image, taken from Song of Songs, as the title for an album of lifecycle music that my wife, Loren, and I created and which includes songs that we wrote for family celebrations. “Et Hazamir” means “Season of the Songbird.” I don’t know if Elise from Love and Darkness was a Songbird (with a capital S), but she certainly sang a song.
Tonight I had dinner both “on my own” and “alone.” By choice. It’s a rare treat for me to walk the streets of Jerusalem with nothing but my own memories, fragments of memories, shards and broken pieces. Walking back from dinner in the city center, I stopped in a bookstore, but nothing caught my eye. Heading back to the hotel, I came to Hillel Street, a block away from Ben Yehuda. There I heard the faint sound of music. Since I’d last been on Hillel Street, perhaps 5-6 months ago, someone had placed a grand piano in one of the leveled courtyards that occupy a portion of the road. Not unlike the grand piano I saw yesterday at the Polyphony Foundation in Nazareth, I found myself wondering quite mundanely, how did that piano get here? The faint sound of music was coming from the piano where sat a young woman. And of course the song that she was trying to play, with just one hand, and quite incorrectly, was Fur Elise. She got the first notes right, but lost the tune from there. It was such an obvious gesture of the Divine and/or the ghost of Amos Oz, that it didn’t strike me as particularly special or auspicious when it happened. It was, in fact, the most natural thing in the world. The only possible song in all creation that could emanate from that young woman and that piano in that moment. Beethoven both ruined, and in some odd way, rendered cosmically hysterical and also perfect.
A few days ago I told Steven that I intended to make a pilgrimage to Kerem Avraham, the neighborhood in Jerusalem where Oz was born and much of Love and Darkness takes place. I figured, I’ve never been there and I should check it out. Steven suggested that I could simply walk the more familiar cafes of King George and Jaffa Street as they too are important landmarks in the memoir and likely more interesting. And that’s precisely what I was doing at the time.
And now as I type at this atypical hour, awake and alert for reasons that make my stomach turn, I realize that in that moment I was Amos Oz, the young woman was Elise, and the piano was the songbird’s voice. And I realized that just like Amos Klausner tried to leave Jerusalem behind and changed his name to Amos Oz, so too did Ernest Pollack, whose grave we stood by on the shore of the Kinneret, try to leave Vienna behind and changed his name to Natan Ikar. And just as it took Amos Oz most of his life to be able to create meaning out of his childhood and life experiences, so that only from Arad, and as an older man, he could see Jerusalem, and his childhood, so too today could be a day that I might one day wish to revisit and tell as part of my story. But before I write a memoir I have a lot of remembering and a lot of forgetting to do, and one thing is for sure, it won’t be written in the middle of the night.