An excerpt from the novel, Who Shall I Say
I’ve described the narrow lane we stand in the middle of, there is no more to add but the light which is changing; standing in front of this man who now turns his back to the tombstone I’m unsure how to respond. I tell him my name. Did I know Barabbas? Where I’m from everybody knew him though nobody knew who he was. He smiles repeats my name seems to measure its weight removes his glasses squints a warm breeze grazes us moves through the trees, he waits for my next words I cannot find them, then I find them: Later I’ll tell him everything I’ve learned the words I’ve collected the truths the fabrications, but would he tell me first, was the deceased a relative? a friend? He extends a hand introduces himself.
Léopold Bloom. Bloom through my mother Claire Bloom of the Bluem-Kaplan line, daughter of Yudl Bluem and Sonia Kaplan whose father’s name was Leopold; an ancestor’s name given to the great-grandson and Leopold Kaplan becomes Léopold Bloom through the vagaries of history out of which the Messiah will emerge. From the late nineteenth century to the early twentieth the Kaplans Pascals Feldmans Rabinovitchs Kaufmans Westermans Molders Taubes Cohens Levys Bluems-turned-Blooms settled in the Laurentians, my own kin were there from 1912 along with the others who came from Eastern Europe and Russia to La Macaza where I was born in ‘45.
He recites his identity chants the names the dates as if this is a story he’s waited a long time to tell; whenever you are around Barabbas stories beget themselves voices rise up there’s nothing to do but listen to them punctuate them kindle them. La Macaza?
La Macaza means nothing to you? The name sounds strange erroneously foreign, it has several possible origins the most likely being the Algonquin, Maaksse, meaning “meeting of three streams” which everyone pronounced as they saw fit, Macassey, Macassa, Mocasa and finally Macaza where the river of the same name flows fed by two streams the Chaud and the Froid. There I witnessed the end of a story with my mother and my grandmother the story of the Jews of the Pays d’en Haut. Curé Labelle had opened the territory to immigrants and French Canadians alike had granted them tracts of barely tillable land along the Rivière Rouge just north of Labelle itself; at the turn of the twentieth century in La Macaza there was a Jewish colony where my own kin came and lived for thirty forty years up to the 1950s. They were impromptu farmers they didn’t cultivate much: oats barley potatoes hens a cow or two for manure with support from the Baron de Hirsch no it was the hotels and rooming houses that yielded money there were three hotels at one point, people travelled up from the city by train or by car as soon as spring came in summer the vacationers the wine the kosher meats came on the train du Nord. I am the last Jewish child of La Macaza. The Bloom-Kaplans ran the Bloom-Kaplan Hotel; in the ‘20s my grandparents built a ballroom just before my mother was born, my father was born in La Macaza too his parents had land on the banks of the Riviere Macaza near the Chaud they grew tobacco one summer, it didn’t last. My mother is the one who told me.
Quite the story! I sense the detour is worthwhile, is unavoidable; behind him the pink granite glitters the poem on the tombstone dances in the air the heat. Reluctant to move we stand on one leg then the other he speaks of his mother of her voice which will never leave him; she is the one who told him.
people came to the hotel in the summer you weren’t born yet I was still a little girl if they didn’t have rooms they slept in the barn in the early days before the hotel grew they slept in the hay there was hay
Everything he knows of his father he has from his mother, and if I have time he’ll tell me the story of La Macaza which will lead us to the man lying under the ground a few yards away. Léopold Bloom speaks readily casts his eyes around to the right to the left he sees no one he speaks of his mother of her voice inside him that rises at will; I have all the time he needs.
look I found this at your grandmother’s house in a shoebox there’s a date there try to read it it’s faint what do you see 1913 that’s before me they weren’t married yet they’d just arrived with their parents 1913 it says “from Poland” and there “scattered farmers” and here you’ve got the value of their lands not many just fourteen farmers for seven hundred souls we have the list of names memorize the names Taube that’s your father’s family your grandfather’s name was Sem Taube Sem not Sam Sem is what he always said Sem he wrote Sem and your grandmother Gerty they both came from Poland from Danzig Sem started a synagogue in his house I went to it everyone went he worked at the mill and Gerty she ploughed pulled weeds dug the earth a strong woman not a young one she corded wood and he studied look 1913 it says I found this at your grandmother’s house she underlined the names Yudl Bluem and Sonia Kaplan and my uncle we all called him Dodi it means my uncle everybody called him Dodi I don’t know why read what it says “wants to start a charcoal factory” and he did he got his charcoal factory it was there when I was a girl it was wood charcoal of course there was a big round kiln beside the road to the lake at Ouellette we had wood all right the lumberjack camps were farther north the young men went and felled trees he went too sometimes Sem and Gerty’s son I’m talking about your father they all wished they could keep him at camp he was so strong perfect for river driving when he was fifteen years old he could walk on the logs read the names remember the names Dodi came from Russia his name was Izbitsky
Bloom is unexpectedly comical, he sketches in the air the meeting of the waters the charcoal kiln he spells out all the names standing on one leg then the other; we look for a bench we find one over there under a clump of hydrangeas and off we go! He’s drenched in sweat the breeze dries our foreheads our temples just a little, I look for shade I haven’t got a fine linen hat like he does, he offers me a corner of the bench out of the sun, and we sit.
Bloom my mother’s name, Claire Bloom daughter of Yudl Bluem and Sonia Kaplan whose father’s name was Leopold, the name switches sides and Leopold Kaplan becomes Léopold Bloom through the tangles of history out of which the Messiah will emerge. My mother fell in love with the Taube boy, they knew each other from childhood she fell in love with him one night at the ballroom a beautiful hall which had set the parish priest’s teeth on edge but Yudl had made him welcome and the Catholics too they came and danced there it was a joyful place the priest did nothing there was nothing he could do, this was the 1940s in La Macaza; she saw him dance one night two nights three nights, a dancer like no other they said, not like the dancers of those times, when he was still a young child he left the village to study with a rabbi in Montreal the Torah Hebrew the commentaries, a prodigy they said, he came back in the summer sometimes in the winter at fifteen sixteen to go up to the lumberjack camps and work with the men, my mother is the one who told me, he felled trees with the others, like the great Hillel Hazaken who under Herod’s reign made his living cutting wood in the mornings so he could study in the afternoons; he was well-liked for his strength for his mind, at just fifteen sixteen seventeen eighteen years old he was a giant already with a head full of legends, the lumberjacks the log drivers listened to him they took him in when he showed up alone on foot they called him the goddamn Jew, a sort of exorcism I suppose that bonded them to him until he left again alone and on foot in the snow. One summer he returned as usual from Montréal to La Macaza, there are no Jews left there now, this was in the time of the three hotels plus the farmers who’d rent out rooms or their barns to the vacationers, in the summer the station was thronged with arrivals the Jews travelled in clusters they were loud there were the orthodox too all in black in the heat waves, and others fellow scholars all of them arrived in La Macaza with the good weather, these summer rushes were still goin on when I was born but then the hotels closed down ours did too I was four years old my mother and my grandmother told me; one summer the summer of ‘44 he returned as usual except he was transformed, his eyes his face his hands his whole body shone he was so luminous he brought day to the middle of the night! My mother repeated this as long as she lived, this was how she spoke; one summer night in ‘44 she fell in love with him when he danced in the ballroom at the Bloom-Kaplan Hotel nobody danced like him, twenty times a day she’d tell me, I’m hardly exaggerating everyone thought he was magnificent. According to my mother he danced all alone nobody had ever seen a person dance that way, he danced that way in front of all the lodgers and then he vanished at the end of the summer of ‘44 they thought he’d gone back to his studies but when they looked for him in Montreal he was nowhere to be found, not a soul in the city had seen him. They searched everywhere tried to learn where he’d gone because he had left something behind: me.
He pauses measures his effect. From the ground rises the scent of thyme. He’s wearing a white linen jacket, as he speaks he takes it off then replaces it on his shoulders; now again he stirs he stares at the tombstone we can see it from here I stare at it too the inscription indecipherable from this distance, he turns to me and continues: speaks of his mother of her voice he hears reciting.
they sent Gerty to look for him in Montreal but nobody had seen him come back that fall his teachers thought he was still in La Macaza he’d often disappear like that suddenly abandoning his studies for the logging camps spending a month two months but this time he wasn’t at camp either and Gerty who was so strong came back weeping she wept like that for months are you listening to me she saw me with my belly she kissed me she wept but as for me I just waited he had to have known eat your soup you know I’m right better to wait for him and he doesn’t come than not to wait and he comes
Children listen to their mothers so I ate my soup. His father’s name was Sem, he spoke five six languages and Gerty even more, the child too had a gift for language, from a very young age he studied with his father in their synagogue in a room of their house but soon they sent him to a Rav in Montreal, at the time it was three four hours by train to Montreal from La Macaza, his father drove him down on Sundays and back on Thursdays, later I believe he studied with Rabbi Menachem Zeev Greenglass of blessed memory who came from the other world by way of Japan and China to which he’d fled. My mother attended the Catholic school in La Macaza and then in Labelle with the other Jewish children of the village, they were excused from the catechism and from kneeling during the prayer it wasn’t so bad, she raised me in French her parents spoke it with a strong Yiddish accent of which my mother kept a light trace for love I suppose, anyway their schooling separated them; she’d known him since they were children and always told me he was different from the others. In Montreal far away from La Macaza he changed became devout a scholar; in June 1944 he came back metamorphosed and danced in a way I eventually came to see thanks to my mother thanks to the words she searched for all her life, I wasn’t born when he danced, my mother tried to find the words that would let me see the way he danced in ‘44 the summer she fell in love, he danced in the hotel ballroom among the lodgers and others from the area, nobody danced like he did his breath was phenomenal almost frightening my mother said his body rose up and he flew her eyes never left him followed him everywhere, at the end of summer he left not knowing what he was leaving behind, a minuscule embryo maybe a runt; they thought he went back to his studies but old mother Gerty and the others who went looking for him returned empty-handed they went and saw the students who knew him nobody had any clues to offer but the marvelous Kabbalist who’d trained him said they needn’t worry because the man they were missing had attained the highest path received the light of the infinite the holy sparks that unite a person with the source of all Creation, this he said and what else? that his soul was in a state of ebullience brimming with primordial ruach, his kavvanah his concentration his fervor if you will was extraordinary, his masters believed he could affect the world by the power of his kavvanah alone!
So he danced like a mystic, is that right? Surrendering his breath his body to the contemplation of the Hebrew alphabet from produces the foundational vibrations of infinite light. Bloom removes his glasses looks at me squints repeats my surname says he knows it well enquires about my lineage and asks where I learned of mysticism like this; it’s all there in the books if you’re interested and I’m seeking it too that energy that light which the kabbalist receives within but risks imprisoning it if it’s given no way to keep flowing back to its source; so he had to dance like a mystic in order to work at unknotting the knots that block this flow this divine current, am I right? Bloom had been listening but now seems not to see me he mutters not responding to me he mutters to himself; I go on as if he were still listening I tell him how I discovered the prophetic kabbalist Abraham Abulafia whom all writers should know should study. He sits unmoving no longer fiddling with his jacket he waits for me to go on or finish, I go on: the man there beneath the tombstone was continually begetting words, the raw material of the world, the stuff of creation which remains inaccessible so long as the tongue within stays knotted up, is this the same man he’s telling me of? Did the dancer from La Macaza know tseruf? That alchemy of Hebrew letters whose permutations allow the mystic to unseal the soul and extract hidden meanings from the Torah that speaks within him? Léopold Bloom mutters distincly this time that there’s much he has to tell me that he needs time, I keep talking without pausing I say that this process of contemplation is a physical one it requires movement the body opens so that the soul can rejoin its divine source: and so did this dancer from La Macaza have to master and direct his living breath to capture to receive the light of the infinite made rhythm made dance? Every writer should know should study this tradition: there is a clearing out that occurs when you begin to play with the words that speak within you in other people’s voices. Bloom fixes his gaze on me squints his eyes attentively mutters that it will take time if I’m willing to listen. He looks straight ahead now, where his words go.
Old mother Gerty who’d been with him all summer couldn’t accept it she wept for months. Four years later he returned, or was it him? He was different hard to recognize, everyone said it was another man—metamorphosis or masquerade? Returned or replaced?—the doubts crept in and though a few people, my mother and my grandmother among them, insisted it was the same man just transfigured clouded over somehow grown taller stronger, most of those who’d known him before said they didn’t know him now; I’d been given my mother’s surname in the interim, he blessed me he left again was lost a second time if it was him, my mother was categorical the man was my progenitor but the other villagers were troubled, Gerty ill from all her weeping hadn’t recognized him. Sem with his cataracts could no longer see, they say he spent some hours, if I can believe the witnesses, with him in the prayer room at the house, when he emerged his face was shining. My mother is the one who told me.
As he speaks he removes his jacket for good and lays it down between us, he tells me he hears the voices of this story, hears them all.
old Gerty didn’t recognize him her eyes were burnt by tears even while sick she collected the manure still corded the wood, he went over to kiss his mother and you could see that for her it was like the manure cart horse had kissed her you hear me it’s a comparison I’m making so you’ll understand but as for me I’m telling you it was him how can I be sure his size his strength his arms a lover is never wrong no of course I didn’t give myself to him again I wanted him to marry me he came back for you to see you to bless you he was another man he was a man transformed not an imposter as people said he was he’d changed that’s all he didn’t wear tzitzit anymore or have a beard he left behind the little suitcase which I gave you and told us that he wouldn’t stay that he’d come back he said he would come back so in the meantime eat your soup fathers like their sons to eat their soup he blessed you
I ask him if he’s telling me about the man beneath the tombstone or another man; the question makes him smile, how to know?
I’ve long been the son of a fantasy of my mother who by the way placed me in her own line, the Bloom-Kaplans, as she would see it I was the ignorant son of an illui a prodigy, the word comes from a root that means above ascendant one who rises, he rose at any rate right into my mother’s head; according to the accounts I can remember this gifted child’s intelligence was so great his memory so remarkable that they sent him Montreal to study with a master, he came back illuminated. And I who’d spent my whole childhood listening to my mother speak of him, I almost started to believe I was the product of a supernatural being evanescent beyond recognition; my mother fell in love with a dancing mystic who left at the end of summer in ‘44, who might have returned and left again in ‘48, you have in front of you the only tangible trace of his passage here on earth, so said my grandmother and my mother who ran the hotel after Yudl died, it closed down not long after the appearance in ‘48 of this mystic who was no longer a mystic whom everyone but my mother struggled to recognize, this apparition who returned it seemed just to bless me; he left behind a suitcase with only his tefillin inside said nothing about it not a word it was my mother who decided it was for me, what was the point of this legacy this souvenir? That I should become devout as he no longer was? My mother called it a pledge instead a promise to return, each of us could think what we wanted. We wondered who in the city or elsewhere had told him there was a son, someone who had recognized him or who’d been with him the whole time? My mother decided he came back to bless me since that’s all he did apart from spending a few hours with Sem who couldn’t talk anymore and could say nothing of their meeting. For me what remains is a vague memory of his hands clasping my head his lips moving, he never appeared again, my mother and my grandmother sold the hotel, in the early 50s we came to Montreal. If you go to La Macaza you won’t see the hotel it burned down in ‘86, nothing is left of this story, once more one of erasure forgetting, a handful of papers filed in the archives are the only testament to the little Jewish colony of the Pays d’en Haut. Then came the deaths of grandmother and mother I was fourteen nearly fifteen when I became an orphan, alone in the world, I was placed with my cousin Simon Briansky on Hutchison Street, who never believed the story about the blessing.
he blessed you that’s when I recognized him listen to me I told you he danced I’ve told you again and again because I don’t know how to tell it I don’t know how to tell you how he danced you listen to me we’ll talk more about it someday we’ll talk about it and I’ll tell you if I can tell you how he danced don’t tell me I’ve already told you I’ve never said a thing except just this which I keep telling you and telling you again that he danced and I’ll tell it until I know how
She won’t leave me alone! I have her voice inside my skull, a record playing on repeat!
The humidity presses close we can feel the storm, the sky is clouding over, can he tell me, who is the man buried under the name of Barabbas?
I must tell you now that at seventeen I wanted to become a forestry engineer I had big ideas about renewing forestry practices, I knew about wood, if La Macaza had a charcoal kiln it was because they sent timber down the Rivière Rouge and because Dodi wanted to do something other than grow potatoes on his rock-strewn acres; until my mother died she and I would go back in the summers, the hotel had been sold we didn’t want to stay there but Dodi’s daughter still had her house and she rented it to us, from the age of twelve I worked in La Macaza, people gave me little jobs. There was log driving on the Rouge until 1970 I knew all the drivers who’d come down walking running on the logs, when my parents were children the Eagle Lumber Ltd sawmill was still part of the landscape, a hundred times my mother told me how my father danced on the logs one night coming down the Rouge, I don’t know if he did it once or twice or a hundred times, she talked about it so much I feel as if I saw it myself she told me about him all the time told me how he came back from Montreal in ‘44 the summer of ‘44 illuminated; a hundred times she repeated that he danced on the logs one night in early summer, maybe it was only once that he danced on the river logs I can’t be sure anymore, my mother told me about it so many times I see him dancing eternally on the water: in the night he dances with a torch in each hand everyone saw him it was a spectacle, not even twenty years old a great bear of a man all in black with his tallit over his head, they saw him coming down the river in the light of the moon and his torches he danced upon the current his head covered by his prayer shawl, he danced upon the dead trunks of trees and everyone saw.