The book started with a simple dream Aryeh Lev Stollman had, in which two women take a small child to a gypsy fortuneteller. Stollman awoke in the morning and, afraid he would forget the dream, wrote it down. He began to build a story around it, which led in 1997 to his first book, "The Far Euphrates," which is now being published in Hebrew by Sifriat Maariv.
Stollman is a neuroradiologist at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City, and is also an author. He was born and raised in Windsor, Canada to an ultra-Orthodox family. His father is a rabbi who served an Orthodox congregation in Windsor (his parents have lived in Jerusalem for the last 15 years).
Stollman, a declared homosexual, left religion in his youth. He attended yeshivas from elementary school through high school and also in college. He earned a bachelor's degree from Yeshiva University and then studied at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine. He now lives in New York with his partner of 26 years, the composer Tobias Picker (whose work, "An American Tragedy" was performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York last December).
"The Far Euphrates" is narrated in the first person by a boy living in Windsor, Canada. His father is the rabbi of a congregation. The boy, Alexander, a daydreamer according to his mother, is the only child in his surroundings - his parents were unable to have more children and their neighbors, his parents' closest friends, have no children. Alexander grows up in their midst, and beneath the shadow of their memories of the Holocaust, he uncovers their deep scars from the concentration camps and this affects him and shapes his identity as a Jew and as a person.
Since then Stollman has written another book, "The Illuminated Soul" (2002), and a collection of stories, "The Dialogues of Time and Entropy" (2003). He has visited Israel more than 40 times. His paternal grandparents immigrated to Israel in the 1960s and he used to visit them. He visits his parents in Jerusalem once or twice a year and in a telephone interview he related that he also plans to visit this fall.
The Jewish family described in the book in effect could not create a new generation of offspring. Does this hint at the future of the Jewish community in the United States?
Stollman: "It's just idiosyncratic, it's just that family. It's not meant to be symbolic of life in Hutzla'aretz, [Diaspora] it's this family trapped in a tragedy. I know this subject is very controversial in the papers in Israel, but for me I think that both Israel and life in the Diaspora are intertwined, they are a part of something which is larger... We're part of each other; I don't think they are separate or one is more valid than the other. I know that Jews in Israel pay a much higher price now to live in Israel. I mean, we live very safely generally.
Don't you think it's ironic that a small community in a Canadian town seems a lot safer to Jews than contemporary Israel does?
"It is maybe right at this point of history, but the existence of Israel on some level makes it safe for us here. Maybe even on a psychological level. I don't know what the future holds."
How connected are you to Holocaust memories?
"I'm not a second generation, my parents are not survivors. I grew up in a very quiet, safe town in Canada, which is living in the present and almost unaware of history. And then when you find out about history, you hear about the Holocaust from people of the community, survivors, it's like a shock, that things aren't what they seem. That there's a possibility of great danger around you in the world. It is the shock of history, that you encounter even in the most peaceful times. It does affect the way we see ourselves as Jews and how we live, we can't avoid that. It's not really a Holocaust novel but it is definitely affected by the knowledge of the Holocaust."
United against gays
How would you define your association with Judaism today?
"I'm not Orthodox. I grew up as an Orthodox Jew; I'm not observant. It's like being sort of engaged - like owning the Jewish past, and looking forward to a Jewish future, a continuation of Jewish life, which is very difficult to define what it is, but I see myself as a part of that. It's a combination of everything. I'm very happy I had this Yeshiva education, I learned a lot and it certainly gave me some grounding."
What do you think about the rabbis' attitude toward homosexuals and lesbians?
"I find it a little horrifying. That's one of the reasons I removed myself from the religious world. I don't feel it has a place for me. It's an unpleasant situation. Some years ago there was something on the front page of The Times, all these religious leaders - rabbis, Christians, Muslims in Jerusalem - it was the only time I saw a picture of all of them together, and they all were against gays. It was amazing, otherwise they can't even sit together."
Did you ever discuss it with your father?
"Not really. We're very close. My parents accept my partner as part of the family, but it's hard to say we had a discussion about it, it was more like, 'Don't ask, don't tell.'"
In the book, the hero's mother makes a connection between the horrors of the Holocaust that her son discovers and his becoming different, and perhaps even his homosexuality. Is such a connection possible in your opinion?
"The mother thinks the shock of the discovery affects him and makes him go crazy. I don't think there is a connection; the boy's shock is connected to the discovery of the Holocaust. A little before I wrote the book, I went to Germany and in a bookstore I saw a book about Mengele's experiments on twins. I read it and it was terrible, a nightmare. It opened a window for me to learn about other aspects of suffering during the Holocaust that I wasn't aware of - the gypsies, twins and other groups in the population."
You named the book after the Euphrates River. Is that the lost paradise of the Jews?
"One of the things the book deals with is home, not only in the sense of state, city, family - and not only in the physical sense of a tangible house where you live. The B ook of Joshua states that 'on the other side of the river our forefathers dwelt' and it gave me inspiration about the concept of home, that it is even more ancient than the land of Israel. In the Book of Genesis, the home is the Garden of Eden. These are homes that it isn't possible to go back to, they've disappeared. People are always searching for home, but home is something very liquid, variable. What is home? Can you go back to it? Yearn for it? We build layers upon layers of a legendary home that you can never go back to."
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