Why Robert Stone Was One of Greatest Non-Jewish Jewish Writers
Robert Stone wasn’t Jewish, of course. He was a lapsed Catholic.
I am writing about him here because his sixth novel, “Damascus Gate,” was a retelling of the Shabtai Tzvi story, set amongst drug-addled wanderers in Jerusalem in the 1990s. It’s a book deeply engaged with Judaism, kabbalah, and the meaning of monotheism. It is also a book whose main character, a half-Jew from his father’s side, watches the Chosen people half-outside.
Stone was a man who was keenly aware of Judaism and thought about it much. In the time we were close—I was his student at Yale for three semester in the 90’s—it was never a surprise when he talked through a point from Gershom Scholem, or that he immediately understood the story I was working on about a Chasidic man losing his faith. It wasn’t a surprise that he found great meaning in Kabballah, either. Abandoned by his father and raised by his schizophrenic mother, and then in an orphanage, he likely found comfort in the vision of tzimtzum, the Kabbalistic doctrine of God having retracted at the beginning of time to make room for the world. For Stone, as for the Kaballah, the missing father-figure proved a primordial source of creativity.
Another Jewish quality was his commitment to wrestle with higher forces. I think often of our discussion about the inexplicable moment in Exodus when, on Moses’ way back to Egypt, God tries to kill Moses (or Moses’ son). It was a passage of Tanakh he had given serious thought to. And it’s not an entirely different scene from the close of one of Stone’s short stories, “Absence of Mercy,” in which the protagonist is drawn suddenly into a fight with a well-dressed older man on a subway platform. In Stone’s view, there are forces in the world that are mysterious, dangerous, attractive and holy that we have to grapple with.
Stone’s commitment to the spirituality of danger, and the dangers of the spiritual — a tendency that anyone who’s read his novels will recognize, and that likely is what led his friend Ken Kesey to call him ‘someone who sees sinister forces behind every Oreo cookie’ — is not necessarily a Jewish way of thinking. But I think it was a take on the Old Testament God, one who isn’t always there to make your life easy, who leaves us obligated to an often difficult path. (“[W]hat did your poor mama tell you?,” one character asks another in Stone’s story “Miserere,” a line I was reminded of reading David Ulin’s remembrance in the LA Times. “Did she say that a world with God was easier than one without him?”)
It was that sense of grappling, also, that made Stone committed to radical change from within institutions he held dear. One small example: his pride at having been the author to introduce the f-word to The New Yorker.
Of course, there are plenty of other qualities that have nothing to do with Judaism at all. His careful speech, his wise humor, his impish grin and pointed beard that made him seem like an oracle. His bearing and muscularity of diction that made you realize that, at some point in his life, he could have beaten the hell out of you. His understanding of literature as made up of the men and women who carry a long tradition forward — the Beats he knew; the heroes he met in passing (Delmore Schwartz’s apartment was in shambles when they met briefly, he once mentioned); the amazing trove of stories he had about every writer you’ve ever read.
Mostly I remember Stone as a humble man — a man who, as Thomas Beller wrote in the New Yorker, “was so much more jolly and good-humored in person than his prose would suggest.” When I turned to him for advice on a writing project when I was several years out of college, his first response was how he was honored that I would still turn to him for insight after all that time.
When I told him of the Jewish idea of living only to 120, Stone, who was about 60 at the time, thought for a moment and replied: “That means I’m exactly middle aged.” It was a typical Robert Stone response: he had found his particular stage of life in your religion’s life journey, and so shared his journey with you.
It’s a journey I’m glad we could take together.
Abe Mezrich is the author of the forthcoming book “The House at the Center of the World,” to be published this year by Ben Yehuda Press.