A Blessing on the Moon

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9781565121799: A Blessing on the Moon

Joseph Skibell’s magical tale about the Holocaust—a fable inspired by fact—received unanimous nationwide acclaim when first published in 1997.

At the center of A Blessing on the Moon is Chaim Skibelski. Death is merely the beginning of Chaim’s troubles. In the opening pages, he is shot along with the other Jews of his small Polish village. But instead of resting peacefully in the World to Come, Chaim, for reasons unclear to him, is left to wander the earth, accompanied by his rabbi, who has taken the form of a talking crow. Chaim’s afterlife journey is filled with extraordinary encounters whose consequences are far greater than he realizes.

Not since art Spiegelman’s Maus has a work so powerfully evoked one of the darkest moments of the twentieth century with such daring originality.

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Review:

Chaim Skibelski rises from a pit of slaughter, leaving his dead townsmen and family behind, and returns to his home--now occupied by non-Jews. "In front of every house were piles of vows and promises, all in broken pieces. How I could see such things," he wonders, "I cannot tell you." So begins this magic-realist fiction, which is also a keen allegory of European Jews' war and postwar experience. "You think they can't kill us as often as they wish?" the narrator cries, and his distrust seems right. Though Chaim and the Rebbe are the only ones to have escaped the sudden roundup, they too, it soon becomes clear, are dead. The Rebbe has been transformed into a crow while Chaim's body seeps with blood and half of his face is missing. But if he's dead, why isn't he in the World to Come and why can some Poles and one German soldier see and hear him?

In his first novel, Joseph Skibell has created a fantasia both hideous and beautiful, a combination of mysticism, nightmare, and even humor. After Chaim and the Rebbe dig up other putrefied victims, the sorry, brave group moves painfully away from the village. Freezing days pass, perhaps years. "If you were the Rebbe, floating high above us, what you would see would be a great river of blood cutting a swath through the frozen winter hills." The author anatomizes the pilgrims' differences, cultural and religious, with love and wit. They are disputatious even in death--their debates threatening to overwhelm what holds them together. Though the phrase tour de force has been much abused, A Blessing on the Moon is exactly that: a daring fiction that shouldn't succeed on any level yet works on many.

From the Author:

Recommended Reading from Joseph Skibell - So many important Jewish books are now available in English, paring down a list to recommend was not an easy task. But here are a few remarkable books of stories, philosophy, and history from the Jewish tradition:

In Praise of the Baal Shem Tov, translated and edited by Dan Ben-Amos and Jerome R. Mintz, and Meeting With Remarkable Souls: Legends of the Baal Shem Tov, by Eliahu Klein, are two collections of stories, one classic, the other contemporary, about Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer (1700-1760) or the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism. A master of dreams, healing, and heavenly ascension, the Baal Shem Tov, thought to be a simple beadle until he revealed himself to be an extraordinary teacher at age thirty-six, changed the face of Judaism through his assumption-challenging acts and philosophies.

Nine Gates to the Chasidic Mysteries, by Jiri Langer. In 1913, the nineteen-year-old Langer, a friend of Franz Kafka's (he taught Kafka Hebrew), left his assimilated family in Prague to live among the Hasidim of Belz in Galicia. Long after his return, he composed this delightful collection of tales about a luminous handful of Rebbes and their Hasidim. (One of my favorites concerns Moyshe Wolf, a pious Jew, who sues God before a Rabbinic court--and wins!) Classified as a "monstrosity of art," the book was burned by the Nazi occupiers eighteen months after its publication.

Other excellent story collections include a quartet of books by Howard Schwartz: Elijah's Violin and Other Jewish Fairy Tales, Miriam's Tambourine: Jewish Tales From Around the World, Lilith's Cave: Jewish Tales of the Supernatural, and Gabriel's Palace: Jewish Mystical Tales. These two-hundred-plus tales come from all sorts of sources and from all over the world, and Schwartz retells them with beguiling simplicity and panache.

To Heal the Soul: The Spiritual Journal of a Chasidic Rebbe, by Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, translated and edited by Yehoshua Starrett. A remarkable and inspiring document. Parts of Rebbe Kalonymus Kalman Shapira's journal were composed inside the Warsaw Ghetto. In 1943 he placed his manuscripts in a tin container and buried them in the ground beneath the Ghetto, where they were found after the war. An account of a remarkable soul's encounter with his Creator, the journal also outlines, in a simple and straightforward style, meditative and other techniques for mastering one's life, clearing one's mind, and putting one's yearning and remorse into action. The Holy Rebbe died in Treblinka on November 2, 1943.

Shivitti: A Vision, by Ka-Tzetnik 135633. Yehiel De-Nur signs the accounts of his years in Auschwitz with the number the Nazis tattooed onto his arm. In this memoir, De-Nur undergoes LSD therapy in Holland in the mid-'70s as a treatment for the lingering torments classified as "Concentration Camp Syndrome." This small book--wild, anguished, hallucinatory--is a shattering experience filled with De-Nur's precise descriptions of his inner world, the remembered horror of the camps, and the visions induced by his therapy.

The Place Where You Are Standing is Holy: A Jewish Theology on Human Relationships, by Gershon Winkler with Lakme Batya Elior. A deep reexamination of the covenantal aspect of relationships (with God, self, other, our children, and the earth) in the light of rich texts from the Talmud, Midrash, and mystical teachings of Judaism by a contemporary rabbi working within the Jewish Renewal movement and his partner, a psychotherapist. A doorway into the wisdom, grace, and beauty of the Jewish path of heart, the book is a practical, down-to-earth, and inexhaustible guide for conscious living.

Jewish Views of the Afterlife, by Simcha Paull Raphael. This highly readable, scholarly overview traces the unfolding history of the Jewish conception of the afterlife from the earliest writings on. Raphael includes a practical guide for anyone facing the death of a loved one.

9 1/2 Mystics: the Kabbala Today, by Herbert Weiner, is a rollicking first-person account of an American rabbi's sojourn through the secret and revealed paths of Jewish mysticism, right at the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. In this charming classic from the '60s (expanded and updated in 1991), Rabbi Weiner encounters everyone from Martin Buber and Gershom Scholem to Timothy Leary and the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

The Essential Kabbalah: the Heart of Jewish Mysticism, collected and translated by Daniel C. Matt. A professor of Jewish mysticism at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Matt culls through reams and reams of Jewish mystical works to present the core ideas of Kabbalah in a comprehensive and beautifully translated selection.

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Book Description Algonquin Books, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, U.S.A., 1997. Quarter Cloth. Book Condition: New. Dust Jacket Condition: New. First Edition. First edition, stated first printing. 256 pp. Author's first novel. When Chaim Skibelski is murdered by the Nazis, along with the other Jewish citizens of his small Polish town, his story is just beginning. Rising from the mass grave, Chaim wanders the countryside, often accompanied by his rabbi, who has turned into a crow. He visits his home, now occupied by a Polish family whose dying daughter is the only one who can see him. He meets a talkative head that belongs to the soldier who may have shot him. He visits a grand hotel that caters to the dead with mysterious comforts, and ultimately helps Zalman and Kalman, two eccentric holy men, search for the fallen moon. His afterlife is not the typical peaceful eternity but a remarkable journey, in a wise and surreal novel. New in new dustjacket. Bookseller Inventory # 008582

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Book Description Algonquin Books, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, U.S.A, 1997. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. Dust Jacket Condition: New. 1st Edition. Signed by author on title page in black fountain ink. Signed by author on title page in black fountain ink.Highly imaginative and effusively praised first novel by the author of THE ENGLISH DISEASE, A CURABLE ROMANTIC, MY FATHER'S GUITAR & OTHER IMAGINARY THINGS, and SIX MEMOS FROM THE LAST MILLENIUM. Mint, new, unread copy, in new, mylar-protected dust jacket. Scarce in this condition. L137. Signed by Author(s). Bookseller Inventory # 021893

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