Melech’s experience in Kamenets
One of the characteristics of Jewish literature is to write with subtext referencing the main texts of Jewish culture, the Torah, Talmud and Kabbalah. Some distinctive forms include using names of characters from these texts to impart significance onto the novels own characters or allusions to events and or biblical metaphors. Both A. M. Klein’s The Second Scroll and Adele Wiseman’s Crackpot have references like these in spades.
Klein takes the more formal approach; his novel not only mirrors the first five books of the bible, the Pentateuch, in chapter name and in alluded content, but the characters he uses are on a quest through history and through the Torah for the promised land, much like the journey of the ancient Jews themselves in their quest for Israel. Wiseman’s Crackpot uses a more subtle subtext of the Kabbalah, but her heroine is far from subtle herself, the very nature of her representing the everything and the nothing symbolized by the ‘broken vessel’; she is a saint and a whore all wrapped into one.
Although they take different approaches and reference different texts, both are superb novels and deserve a closer look in their relation to both the Pentateuch and Kabbalah for the full meaning of these stories to be revealed. Klein’s The Second Scroll, by the title itself suggests that it is a sequel to the petateuchal “First Scroll”. Complete with chapter divisions named for the first five books of the bible, the book is a modern re-telling of the Pentateuch; Klein himself described it at a ‘recurrence of the events’ of the first book, ‘a second scroll’ inspired by the recent formation of the state of Israel.
The plot of each chapter is delicately layered, almost imperceptibly with the plot of each corresponding book. The narrator of the story is unnamed, and although it is common knowledge the book was inspired by Klein’s own trip to Israel, and the narrator’s job is similar to Klein’s own, a writer, the book is not about Klein. The narrator fully divulges his history, thoughts and feelings, yet staying transparent enough to make the reader feel as though they are on this pilgrimage themselves. Beginning with Genesis, ‘the beginning’, we are introduced to the main character which we never meet- Uncle Melech.
Uncle Melech is a Talmudic scholar in Ratno, a prodigy who “excels sages twice and thrice and four times his age,” (13) and is the shining example for our narrator in his studies as a youth. His name is spoken with the highest regard in the narrator’s house, and his name is a prophesy itself. Melech Davidson, or ‘King, son of David’ translated, relates his to the biblical Jewish ruler King David. As in the Garden of Eden when Adam bites the apple of knowledge, word comes to the family that their Talmudic scholar, after a pogrom in Ratno, has defected to the Bolsheviks, forsaking God for Marxism.
The chapter of Genesis in the Pentateuch ends with the death of Jacob, Klein’s chapter ends with a spiritual and familial death of Uncle Melech. After learning of his defection, “We never again spoke of him in our house” (19) Klein’s Exodus mirrors the biblical Exodus in the accounts of the suffering of the Jews at the hands of the Egyptians and their leaving Egypt with a long over due letter from Uncle Melech, describing his own experiences held by Nazi’s in Kamenets, and a horrific pogrom which he escaped.
Exodus 13:16 says “by strength of hand the Lord brought of forth out of Egypt”; Uncle Melech mirrors this scripture saying “I bless the heavenly one for my rescue” (24). Exodus is also the first book of the Pentateuch to mention the High Holy days of the Jewish calendar, and they are contextually represented in Melech’s experience in Kamenets. Describing his feelings over having survived the pogrom, “I end up exculpating myself into a kind of guilt”. (25) This is the very emotion of the prayers of Rosh Hashanah.
Melech calls himself “the spared one”, referencing the custom of kapparot, the day before Yom Kippur. All the prayers of Yom Kippur are those of forgiveness, and Melech repeatedly asks for forgiveness in his letter. The chapter moves through the circle of Jewish holidays, but it is interesting to point out that because the narrator is reading a letter of the account, the cycle is back wards. This alludes to one of Klein’s major themes in the novel, a return to the homeland, by moving backwards through the calendar.