Ehud Havazelet
Ehud Havazelet

There was a moment, back in the 1970s, when Ehud Havazelet thought he was about to find an answer to his biggest question in life. It was Holocaust Week at Ramaz, the venerable Manhattan yeshiva, and the rabbis had appointed Havazelet—a sophomore, often scolded for not working to his ability—head of the student committee organizing the event. A well-known rabbi was invited to share his wisdom about the Shoah during the week’s series of discussions, and Havazelet grabbed the first available opportunity to sit the man down in an empty classroom and ask his question. “This is what I’ve always wanted an answer to,” he recalls having said. “How could God have let it happen?”

The rabbi—“who was revered,” says Havazelet, “for his liberality and his ability to talk to kids”—replied simply, maddeningly, “Sometimes we can’t ask God certain questions.”

“It was a turning point,” Havazelet explains. A few years later, he stopped wearing a yarmulke, stopped keeping kosher, and stopped praying. “Something in me said, ‘Not good enough! That’s it, so long!’ In my Orthodox upbringing, with the 613 mitzvot God gave us by which to lead our lives, down to which shoe to put on first and what to say—the words themselves—when we saw a rainbow, or a widow, there was an answer to everything in the day-to-day. But when it came to the biggest question I knew, it was not to be asked. This—what? Complacency? Posturing? Censoring?—gave me a last push toward the gate.”

But he never stopped questioning how the Holocaust could have happened. Thirty-odd years later, his third book (and first novel), Bearing the Body, represents not so much an attempt to find an answer as an argument for the need to keep seeking one even if you expect never to discover it. In the process of doing so, Havazelet says, you stumble across other questions that are equally as important.

The book is a gripping narrative about a father’s shattered relationship with his two grown sons—one living, one very recently dead—and a brother’s efforts to understand the mystery of his sibling’s death. It comes a decade after Havazelet’s last publication, the award-winning collection of linked short stories Like Never Before, and, like that book, it ultimately explores the emotional maladies suffered by those who survived the Holocaust—and the ways in which those maladies can be passed down, almost like congenital diseases, to the children of the survivors.

In this case, Sol Mirsky passes on his intense sense of alienation to his sons Nathan and Daniel. Sol uses silence to shut out anyone who is close to him. His only connection to his past—his “unending months” at Auschwitz; his childhood in Poland—is shared with strangers, in the form of a meticulously archived correspondence with other survivors, about their losses. In one of them he writes, “Nothing [will] ease the heartache…. I understand, believe me I do, that to ease even a little the pain would be more unbearable, for all we have is what to remember and what loss to feel.”

In contrast to his epistolary empathy, Sol exchanges very few words with his sons, and he never reveals any emotion. Nathan recounts having snuck into his father’s office (he was about nine at the time) and rifling through the letters on his desk. Sol caught him mid-act but said nothing, only gave him a withering look. In his own effort to stave off intimacy, 36-year-old Nathan smokes pot, drinks alcohol, forces sex upon his girlfriend—or simply cheats on her—and inwardly rails against the one person to whom he reveals parts of his true self—his therapist. One day, returning from his shift as a resident in the emergency room of a Boston hospital, he finds a letter from Daniel, whose relationship with Sol is even more troubled than Nathan’s (“He hated my brother,” Nathan tells the therapist—though by the time he says that, readers know better than to trust Nathan too much). Daniel, it turns out, had mailed the letter from San Francisco the previous week—just before he was murdered. Nathan takes it, unopened, and boards a plane for California, hoping to discover something about his brother’s death.

He learns more, it turns out, about his life, which he had largely ignored. For years, Nathan had kept Daniel at arm’s length, occasionally wiring money when asked, but never wishing to know what the money was for nor who, exactly, his brother had become. When he arrives at Daniel’s apartment—with Sol, who insists on going along, despite the reluctance of both father and son to travel together—he meets Abby, Daniel’s live-in girlfriend, and her six-year-old son Ben. The book unfolds mostly through the shifting perspectives of these four characters, with Daniel’s voice occasionally chiming in.

* * *

Havazelet, 52 (“going on 90″), doesn’t consider himself a Jewish writer, but rather a writer who happens to be Jewish. “Like being male, it’s vital to who I am,” he says, speaking from his home in Corvallis, Oregon. Born in Jerusalem in 1955, at the age of two he with his family moved to Brooklyn. His grandfather was a rabbi at Borough Park’s Young Israel synagogue, which lent his family had something of a high profile in their Orthodox community, as did their august religious lineage, which included the founder of Hasidism on one side to a disciple of the Vilna Ga’on, who started the Haskalah, or Jewish Enlightenment, on the other. His entire schooling, until his undergrad studies at Columbia University, occurred in yeshivas.

Though he always wanted to be a writer, he lacked, he says, the discipline and encouragement to pursue writing as a career, so after college he chased a different dream, enrolling in Boston’s Berklee School of Music. Almost immediately he realized that he didn’t belong there. “But,” he says, “I stuck with it for long enough to learn how to sit down and shut up, and slowly, in the back of my mind, something occurred to me: that maybe I’d grown up a little and was ready to start writing.”

His first short story collection, What Is It Then Between Us?, came out in 1984 and garnered high praise from critics, but it was a full decade before he completed his second, Like Never Before. “Constant editing,” he explains, “tumult in my personal life; the form developed slowly—that is, I had no idea what I was doing.” The collections vary in significant ways: What Is It Then Between Us? follows a wide range of characters—a drug addict in his thirties, an ailing resident of a nursing home, a young girl with an abusive father—and veers from first-person narrative to third, from the present tense to the past. There are hardly any Jewish characters in the book. Like Never Before, on the other hand, centers around one man, David Birnbaum, parsing his Orthodox upbringing and his complicated familial relationships. Each story is a complete tale unto itself, but together they build to a stunning, hallucinatory conclusion. As with the new novel, the book offers no resolution, and its protagonist (autobiographical, says Havazelet, but no more so than the protagonist’s sister or mother or father, all of whom contain echoes of himself) is sympathetic while not necessarily being likable.

Havazelet, with “a genetic predisposition to worry every word to a near-death state,” is a slow writer—and his pace, he suggests, may have cost him a measure of fame—but this last novel took longer than he expected, due to a serious illness he’s reluctant to discuss, though its fingerprints are all over the new book. From the double-entendre title to Nathan Mirsky’s profession, to a scene in which Sol spends a couple nights in a hospital and finds himself drawn, as he is to few others, to a young boy with an unidentified life-threatening disease, the author’s experience of illness has informed the novel’s themes and imagery. And the question at the center of the book, which hearkens back to the question the young Havazelet asked the rabbi who came to his school, is ultimately formulated in terms of illness: How do people live with the pathology of the Holocaust? How do they keep going when they carry their memories like a sickness within them? And what happens when that sickness becomes an inherited disease?

These are the questions that form the crux of the novel. “I wanted to ask,” Havazelet says, “What do you do if you have made what in normal circumstances would be cowardly choices”—as Sol Mirsky does—”and you hate yourself for it, and you spend your whole life hating yourself, and you try to atone but because of your self-hatred and your inability to relieve yourself of that hatred by honestly talking about it to anyone, you pass it all on to your kids? That’s really what this book is about.”