In November, Simone Somekh published his debut novel in Italy with Giuntina, surprising the local readership with a charming coming-of-age story set across the United States, Israel and Bahrain. Somekh’s protagonist, Ezra Kramer, is a an Orthodox Jewish aspiring photographer who leaves his family and community to pursue his dreams and choose the lifestyle he believes in. As soon as “Wide Angle” came out, Vanity Fair Italy, Corriere della Sera and Repubblica—three major Italian media outlets—praised the book for discussing religion, materialism, sexuality and politics in a new, refreshing way. “Wide Angle” is now being translated into French by Mercure de France.
Simone Somekh will be reading from and discussing the book at New York University’s Casa Italiana this evening, February 20, at 6:30 p.m.
My tears were starting to taste like Boston again.
It hadn’t taken more than a few hours for the frustration, the anger, the impotence and the sadness to come back and take hold of me.
As the bus sped down the highway lined by the tall trees of Massachusetts, I cried. How could I have possibly fallen so low? How could I have isolated myself that much, forgetting even Aunt Suzie and everything she had done for me? I didn’t know when I’d hit rock bottom—maybe when I’d preferred to play Viviana’s game rather than go and visit the only person in the world who’d done so much to help me, or maybe when I’d betrayed my best friend and slept with his girlfriend. I didn’t know when—but I knew I had hit it. And now I didn’t know how to get back on my feet.
The closer the bus got to Boston, the more persistent the memory of Carmi became. Carmi—the only person from my past life I’d regularly thought about since the day I had moved to New York. I thought of Brighton, of the house I grew up in, and about the anger that had led me to leave my community, my world.
Carmi had been the victim of the greatest injustice I’d ever witnessed. As hard as I tried since living in New York to follow my own dreams and forget what had happened in Brighton, I realized how much my desire to avenge Carmi’s suffering still lingered, burning powerfully inside me. I’d spent years figuring out how to use people. Sydney had been useful. Adam had been useful. Seth had been useful. Suzie—of blessed memory—had been damned useful to me and I’d had no qualms about taking advantage of her. But not Carmi. I’d never thought of Carmi in utilitarian terms; Carmi had been my friend, my brother, my comfort and my salvation. Carmi had also made me feel desperate, frustrated, and disappointed. Carmi had been everything and nothing, the most and the least, the best of him and the worst of me and the best of me and the worst of him.
My parents’ house was quiet, almost lifeless. My room was the same—it seemed that nobody had entered it for years, and maybe that was indeed the case—unlike my parents, who had visibly grown old. They both had lost weight, they both had more wrinkles on their faces and less strength in their bodies. Their solemn journeys toward a premature old age seemed to have been synchronized.
I sat on the bed where Carmi used to sleep when he lived with us. My mother walked into the room without saying a word.
“I’m so sad,” I said, shaken by a sob.
“I’m so sad too,” she whispered, as she sat next to me and held me tightly against her chest.
I don’t think we were sad about the same person but both of us were missing someone, and each of us was suffering from their absence. It didn’t matter that I was thinking of Carmi and she was thinking of Aunt Suzie; the important thing was to be close to each other in that moment.
“I’ve missed you, Ezra. I’ve prayed to God day and night that you would come back, to be part of our lives again.”
I did not reply.
“These have been some rough years. I don’t know why everything went so wrong. I don’t know why God has put us through this. Since the moment Mrs. Taub died, so many misfortunes have happened—an endless flow of negativity. But we have faith. At least, I have faith; even these struggles will come to mean something, someday.”
“It’s true, it’s been tough. It was tough to be here, disconnected from you and your ideas, and it was tough to build a new life for myself, far from everything I used to know. Aunt Suzie was a formidable aunt. She supported me every step of the way. But I never told her that. I never expressed my gratitude to her, or maybe I’ve never felt any gratitude until today.”
“Oh, Ezra. I’m sorry it’s been so difficult.”
“I think Carmi had it worse than any of us. Don’t you think so?”
“I don’t know, Ezra, I don’t know. Everything was so… wrong… I spent entire nights wide awake, thinking about it…”
The tears vanished from my eyes, which narrowed into two slits.
“You spent nights thinking about it? That’s all you were capable of doing? Thinking?”
My mother looked puzzled. She’d obviously expected me to explode with rage and attack her, sooner or later, but not this soon. I didn’t let her frightened look stop me, and I continued: “Why are you so passive? Carmi left, or was told to leave, and the community watched and said nothing. Not even the rabbi lifted a finger. Everyone lay awake for entire nights, thinking about it, but nobody dared to act. It’s better not to face certain issues, isn’t it? They’re too uncomfortable, aren’t they?”
“Don’t attack me,” she said, grabbing my wrist. “It was a family matter for the Taubs; we couldn’t intrude. Mr. Taub had obtained full custody of his son, what could we do? We had no intention of fighting with the lawyers.”
“Who cares about lawyers? Who cares about Mr. Taub? A kid was suffering and the whole community did absolutely nothing.”
“Ezra—you’re blaming me for something I was no part of. I have no voice. I have no authority. If Carmi was suffering and we couldn’t help him, I don’t see why you should blame me for it.”
“It’s not you, mom. You personally are not to blame. It’s you as a collective, you as the the Jewish community in this town, you as Orthodox Judaism. You.”
This time she chose to stay quiet.
I looked outside the window. The Bostonian fall had already begun to color the trees red, orange and brown, putting on a show that I’d missed back in New York. But inside the house, nothing seemed to be changing; my parents were still blinded by their faith—and I was still blinded by my anger.
“Are you staying for Rosh Hashana?” my mother asked after a few minutes. The Jewish New Year began the following week.
“I don’t know, mom. This place is too messed up. I’m too messed up. I don’t know. Dad hasn’t even said one word to me.”
“Have you said one word to him? You barely said hi.”
“Should I remind you of the way he treated me when I chose not to go to yeshiva?”
“Ezra…” began my mother, but then didn’t say anything. She cradled one hand within the other as if she wanted to protect them from my words, which were as sharp as daggers. Staring at the floor, her eyes full of tears, she whispered: “What did we do wrong?”
What did they do wrong? Everything—more than everything! They’d chosen to raise me in that world made out of certainties and strict rules, that world of taboos and prohibitions. They’d wanted to fit, at any cost, into a community to which they had never fully belonged. Had they gotten their choices, their priorities, all wrong?
I looked at my mother.
“You never let me choose. Faith is such a personal issue, it’s so subjective, and yet you always presented it to me as the only option. You never showed me the existence of different kinds of Judaism; you just force-fed me yours. And when I decided to take a different path, you shut me out of your world.”
“This is what we believe in,” my mother responded firmly. “How could we possibly have raised you letting you know there were other options? Other religions? Other lifestyles that you could pursue? It would have gone against all our principles.”
Without breaking eye contact, I spat my truth into her face.
“You were so worried about making all the pieces fit together that you lost sight of the most important ones. You wanted a community and you let go of your family. You wanted God and you let go of human beings. Sometimes I think that you looked at reality through a wide angle lens: in order to widen the horizon, you let the view of the objects in the foreground become all blurry.”
With one sigh after another, my mother hugged me, and I knew that as much as she was hurt by my words, as much as part of her believed that I spoke the truth, nothing in Brighton would ever change. I could change, our relationship could change, but not my parents—they had taken their stand, they’d chosen a side, and now it was too late for them to go back.
This excerpt was translated into English by Simone Somekh. Jane Tylus, Miriam Herst and Gabriel Sanders contributed to the translation.