Aleph-Bet: An Alphabet for the Perplexed

In “Aleph-Bet: An Alphabet for the Perplexed” (Six Gallery Press), writer Joshua Cohen, a literary critic for the Forward, and artist Michael Hafftka reinterpret the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, in form and in function, in manners both mundane and mystical: The letter hey becomes a hat; the letter yod is said to represent a young girl….

This excerpt is from the second of the book’s three texts, entitled “Shabbos Dinner, with Letterforms.” Each of the four letters of the author’s Hebrew name (Yosef) is used to describe a member of his family — at table on a Friday night, waiting to begin the Sabbath meal. The last letter in Yosef, Fey Sofit, or the Final Fey, here represents the author’s mother. The third text in Aleph-Bet is an essay on the origins of such Sofiyot, or the final forms of Hebrew. The art featured here is from the book, with the exception of the Fey Sofit, above left, which was created by Hafftka in a version special for the Forward.

My mother, is turned away. At the opposite head of the table, at the foot across from my father. And there facing the doubly opposite walls, in-turned, which are that of the hallway toward the door, the front. Opposing. Her head turned atop her body and an arm, the same arm that on her mother would have been numbered, the same arm that on her father would have been tattooed, only if — an arm the same as her other, which hangs limply by a hip and with its hands and fingers clutches at her skirts in an occasional fitting of nervousness, though in the kitchen, toward which a foot is pointed (as if the indicating arrow of the scale she’ll fail, she thinks), the food’s already all prepared, and kept warm steadily; the oven is working, there’s no leak from the range. She rubs the fabrics of her hem together as if divining, or summoning. One expects smoke from her, or fire. Her other arm — the arm apparent — is hung over the back of her chair, is crooked: like the border between Slovakia and Ukraine, just north of the Hungary where her own mother’s from, the lower reach of the Beskids, at the fringe of Ruthenia, which was known as Subcarpathian Rus and, too, as a host of other things not so flattering, under historically different regimes of names that numbered in the many, all of them curvy, treacherously bumped. To shatter the femur’s spoke, bringing the cart of the crotch to ruin. A great arm, plump in the fist, thick in the forearm, then skinnier toward the joint, as if withering, though it’s only an effect of the light from above as shined from a sconce fixed between the two white moons of smoke detector and that for carbon monoxide: a great stretch, winnowing, wicking… from Imperial Bohemia and its Prague, where her greatgrandfather had attended the rabbinical seminary, then down through Moravia, Silesia, thinning into Slovakia when it was still Czechoslovakia in the year she left, her mother, my grandmother turned away, on into the Carpathians and further, lost to the darkness.

A narrowing up from the hand, topped with a slight fingery turn — like the way Shore Road goes through the Point, then angles into the circle for the Ninth Street Bridge by the 24-hour diner and the daylight liquor store, to the east, which is irrevocably behind us.

She’s facing the same door that her husband is facing with their daughter, generations on, upon his head: the door they expect me through, though now grown I’d ring, though now grown old I’d knock, and though I still have my key, there under the mat below where my shadow would darken the dark, and with the mezuzah, which contains all the letters, above, enjambed; and then between them, down the hall — the door’s common glass that holds her reflection, her sitting slouched and turned numbly and strange on her spine, with that arm of hers handing over the back of her chair, impatient, almost wretched. Her frown. A bob. She should have never cut her hair, but her friends did if she has any friends and not just neighbors, and so she did, and so as theirs is short, hers is, too. It seems she’s far away, diminutive, and final: as if the table has opened up its thousandfold foliage, leaves, accommodation ripped out from under, upzoned and sprawling, a great wooden mechanism unfolded upon rusty hinges, stripped screws and languidly warped so as to convex or bow like petals through the pressure of my brother’s elbow, Sunday brunches’ worth of generous use — seating my mother further, less relatable than ever. Still, there, and in the glass, too, this is her, my mother, that is, in her reflection, un-reversed, a mirror truer than the eight of them upstairs. A woman older than she has to be, who sits uncomfortably, only halfway here, turned away, cheeked as if slapped by a fan blade.

Why not pull the chair out, if not properly then only for effect. Why this discomfort, the cumbersome coccyx twist of the spine displayed, like how she used to wear her hair when young, which was long, and freely frayed, this she’d say through her mouth that’s been without lipstick for hours until last hour with her husband home: why this uncomfortableness, which has one more syllable than a hand has fingers upon which to count them out. With the last one — the nesting “ness” — which is the quality of being, existence’s condition palming off adjective to noun, set aside for me, as me, if ever. Though it would’ve cooled by then, unfilling.

Why so awkward, Mom. I should have called you Ima. You should have asked to be called what it was you desired. And not this guessing, groping, on both of our behalves. How she’s pulled, pushed — halved herself: between letting me alone, leaving me, as she has the food, the chicken and the soup with the chicken, and demanding me here and with her, served up, with them, to them… as me, the prodigal son, the dreamer-brother; I can do whichever. Her hand dangles, droops, its fingers flicked with their manicure, which is chipped, bitten wet and soft — the wilt of her arm that’s slowly sleeping. Needling once cooked, cleaned then laundered amply, now dead weight, leftover. As if saved up for the week ahead. Extra flesh for the synagogue Sisterhood — that’s if she remembers to save herself, bag and then bring with. Blessed Art Thou, Lord our God of the Universe, Who Hath Given us the Meat of our Bodies. Amen, let’s say. Her forefinger tapping out the tuneless words, their syllables, contorting — chironomy — to the ecstasies and painful thrashings of their individual letters, to the prayer she’d said not an hour previous, half, the blessing over the candles, that of the brachot still to be said, over the wine, husbanding the Kiddush, the challah bread, and then — they’re waiting. Still. Or else, she’s ticking off, as if a timer, the kitchen’s clock, or that upon the darkness of the oven slash microwave unit, my name. Which is not my name, tonight. Nor that at tomorrow’s sunset, which is when Saturday would end even if this Shabbos never does. I don’t want that name anymore. I don’t need it. I won’t make it home again.

*Joshua Cohen was born in 1980 in southern New Jersey. His books include a collection of stories, “The Quorum,” and a novel, “Cadenza for the Schneidermann Violin Concerto.” Another novel, “A Heaven of Others,” will appear next year. *

Michael Hafftka was born in New York City in 1953. His work has been widely exhibited in the United States and abroad, and is in the permanent collections of major museums, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Museum of Modern Art, The National Gallery, the Brooklyn Museum, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Carnegie Museum of Art. Recently, the Yeshiva University Museum has acquired Hafftka’s major 1985 painting “Jerusalem – The Hill,” which previously had been exhibited in New York at the Jewish Museum. Hafftka is currently planning a show for 2009 in Denver at the Mizel Center for Arts and Culture.

This story "Aleph-Bet: An Alphabet for the Perplexed" was written by Joshua Cohen.


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