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Writing In A Time Of Darkness
Mon, 12/22/2008 - 19:00
Special To The Jewish Week

In David Grossman’s title essay from his new book “Writing in the Dark,” the Israeli novelist states that writing “has immense power, the power to change a world and create a world, the power to give words to the mute and to bring about tikkun — “repair” — in the deepest, kabbalistic sense of the word.”

A simple sentence, bold in its assertion of the power of writers and writing, but one that reveals layer upon layer of meaning.

First of all, what is “the Dark” to which he refers?

For the author of “See Under: Love” and “The Yellow Wind,” whose essays in this collection combine the personal, political, and cultural, the darkness is many things: the claustrophobic political situation in Israel; humanity’s lack of psychological self-awareness; the flattening of language that creates heat, but little light; and, more acutely perhaps for Grossman, the recent death of his son Uri during the Second Lebanon War. The fact that Uri means “light” in Hebrew adds another level of poignancy to Grossman’s statement.

As someone tilling the same journalistic and novelistic fields as Grossman, who has had the privilege to spend time with him on his visits to San Francisco, and with a son named Lior (also a variation on the Hebrew word for light), I feel a special connection to his personal, artistic and existential anguish. Which is why his statements of confidence for what writing can do are all the more remarkable. Taking seriously the idea that writing partakes of some holy spark — since God created the world through words, and the very language of the Torah has a direct connection to God — Grossman suggests that writing, and by extension true human communication, is one of our few clear divine gifts.

Putting pen to paper, Grossman explains, creates “the freedom to articulate the tragedy of my situation in my own words.” More personally: “The consciousness of the disaster that befell me upon the death of my son Uri ... now permeates every minute of my life. The power of memory is indeed great and heavy, and at times has a paralyzing effect. Nevertheless, the act of writing creates for me a ‘space’ of sorts, an emotional expanse that I have never known before, where death is more than the absolute, unambiguous opposite of life.”

Part of this freedom, he adds, is to actually feel more, not less — a variation on Kafka’s famous idea of literature being “the axe for the frozen sea within us.” And so for Grossman writing induces a state of sympathetic imagination, which then creates the space “not to shield myself from the legitimacy and the suffering of my enemy, or from the tragedy and complexity of his life, or from his mistakes and crimes, or from knowing what I myself am doing to him. Nor do I shelter myself from the surprising similarities I discover between him and me.” This sentence recalls one of the most moving lines in the Passover Haggadah, when God commands the angels not to celebrate the death of the Egyptian slave masters drowning in their murderous pursuit of the fleeing Israelites. In support of this insight, we spill some of our Passover wine onto our plate.

There is a theological dimension to Grossman’s idea, referenced in his kabbalistic use of the word “tikkun,” that is equally audacious. Wanting to unpack this further, I sat chevruta-style with my rabbi, Menachem Creditor, and studied this essay.

“If God created the world with words, and the world is in need of repair, does that mean that the world must be, can only be, repaired through the use of divine words?” Rabbi Creditor asked at the end of our session. “We could say in the same vein: It is God’s word that is broken, not just the world.” The implication, he added, is that “it is intentional creative writing that is the healing of god’s word,” an important step in the healing of God’s world.

This is heady stuff not only for Jewish writers, but for Jewish readers as well. For writing itself is a metaphor for the pathway of intimate communication and connection that exists, at least theoretically, for all people — a variation on Martin Buber’s philosophy of “I and Thou,” in which true dialogue between people is our model for connecting to God, and vice-versa.

I was reminded recently that in contrast to the light of the Shabbat candles, which we are allowed to “use” for functional purposes, we cannot employ the Chanukah candles in order to read, clean or work. There is little explanation for this rule in the tradition. My humble suggestion, in this time of physical, financial and perhaps spiritual darkness, is that we stop to experience the light of Chanukah as a symbol of our connection to one another.

The darkness may be our motivation for writing, just as it must have been for God before Creation. But let the light of Chanukah be our reminder of what is possible, a visual prompt for how Jewish writing can be a light unto the nations, as well as — and perhaps most importantly — a light unto ourselves.

Happy Chanukah.

Daniel Schifrin is writer in residence, and director of public programs, at San Francisco’s Contemporary Jewish Museum.

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