By Evan Fallenberg
Soho Press, 229 pages, $22.
Three times in the Babylonian Talmud we find the Aramaic expression nafal nehora — “light fell.” This is the light of a powerful physical beauty that behaves almost like matter, seemingly pulled down by gravitational force — a light that may kindle overwhelming desire. Sometimes the combination of beauty and desire reminds us of the ephemeral nature of life. In one story, light falls from a woman hidden in an attic, inflaming the passion of Rabbi Amram who, in a pre-Freudian moment, shouts, “Fire!” rousing his neighbors to come and save him from sin. In another story, Rabbi Yochanan visits his poor, ailing friend, Rabbi Elazar. The famously beautiful Yochanan raises his comely arm, thereby illuminating the darkened sick-house. Suddenly, both rabbis weep to think that such beauty will one day become dust in the earth.
Evan Fallenberg’s elegant first novel, “Light Fell,” is itself full of substantive light. Light that is sometimes bent or deflected by the gravity of law and tradition, a difficult luminosity that in Fallenberg’s deft hands remains metaphorically complex. The novel’s protagonist, Joseph Licht has grown up and then lived on the religious farming community Sde Hirsch with his wife, Rebecca, and their five young sons, Daniel, Ethan, Noam and the twins, Gideon and Gavriel. Early in his marriage, Joseph spent several years completing his doctorate in English literature at Harvard University, finally returning to the moshav. One day, Joseph goes to Jerusalem to hear the young polymath Rabbi Yoel Rosenzweig, a scholar who draws enormous crowds to lectures by combining profound knowledge of the Torah with the literature and knowledge of the secular world. Joseph hopes to be able to meet and ask the prodigiously learned rabbi questions about his own book on the English romantics and their rebellion against the neoclassicists. The rabbi and Joseph meet briefly. They become friends and soon lovers. Of course, given who they are, their lives are turned upside down. Joseph leaves his wife, sons and moshav to start a new life in Tel Aviv — he wrongly anticipates — with Yoel. Tragically, things do not work out as Joseph had hoped. Joseph cannot bring himself to move back to the moshav, nor is he welcome there anymore.
Twenty years later, when the novel begins, Joseph is preparing a Sabbath reunion with his five sons and only daughter-in-law. He has become a sophisticated, urban aesthete. His menu for the meals includes not only a refined chicken soup with rice vermicelli but other dishes, as well, such as a light Corsican ratatouille and a South American recipe of fish, mustard, wine, peanuts and coconut. Though he now lives a pampered life with his wealthy Brazilian lover, Pepe, Joseph himself lovingly waxes and polishes the wood-and-stone dining room floor transported to his Tel Aviv luxury apartment from a castle in Tuscany, Italy. Another Aramaic word comes to mind in thinking of Joseph: an istanis, one who is fussy in personal habits, in the need for cleanliness and in the refined physical things of life. Joseph skirts but never falls into a gay cliché; he is too complicated for that. He retains a large portion of the boy and man he was before the enormous changes in his life.
In his moving and often subtle novel, Fallenberg is expert at providing living portraits of numerous characters both central and peripheral to Joseph’s life, including a brief but extraordinary scene with Yoel’s widow. Joseph’s five sons are almost a cross-section of Israeli society and attitudes: a plumber, a settler, an army officer, a model and a yeshiva student. And there is Joseph’s only daughter-in-law, Batya, the daughter of an ultra-Orthodox rabbi and the victim of a terrible crime; a woman who desperately loves her husband, Gideon, Joseph’s newly ultra-Orthodox son, a man who at times treats his simple wife disdainfully.
In our modern world, where science, religion and politics merge and confound, it is difficult to answer the question of when desire might be an acceptable engine of love or a reasonable force for the choices we make in life. How much of what we recognize as good in our world might actually be engendered by such desire? The hardest kernel of this inquiry is the role of human choice in such matters. Joseph Licht has had to make choices that to some are not quite choices. Yes, one can make the choice for staying with one’s family even after irrevocable self-discovery. But what if the cost is losing forever your very own self, or a part of yourself? Perhaps there are no good answers to these questions, only actions and consequences.
In the absence of answers that might suit everyone and every experience to the questions of desire, love and choice, how might such situations be ameliorated? From Fallenberg’s wise novel, it seems that some resolution might be achieved through forgiveness and a recognition of the amazing complexity that is every individually created man and woman. Joseph can see this intricacy and variety in each of his sons, and they, too, in varying degrees — some with ease and others with difficulty and after long periods of bitterness — come to understand these things of their father. What some might disdainfully call “desire,” others may understand as one of the mysterious sources of love, and an unexpected reminder of the terrible brevity of our lives. Would that such understanding might fall everywhere.
Aryeh Lev Stollman is a neuroradiologist and the author of two novels, “The Far Euphrates” and “The Illuminated Soul,” and a story collection, “The Dialogues of Time and Entropy.”