Hebrew Fiction / A Journey of Flesh and Spirit

Haim Be'er imagines a charismatic Hasidic leader setting off for the East in search of both salvation and the wild ox that has come to him in his dreams.

El makom sheharu'ah holekh

Slopes of the Himalyas

(Back from Heavenly Lack), by Haim Be'er, Am Oved (Hebrew), 452 pages, NIS 89

In his new novel, Haim Be'er embarks on a literary journey beyond the physical and spiritual territory in which his previous works were set, a journey inspired by his own travels through Tibet. This is an intriguing choice because it represents an encounter between foreign landscapes and the home that is the Hebrew language - two spaces with which Be'er has personal familiarity.

Characters in Hebrew fiction do not tend to venture outside their own country. For those who do dare, the crossing of the border often functions as a predictable literary convention: A trip abroad means a time-limited immersion in an exaggerated fantasy of moral, sexual or emotional liberation, a phase in the Israeli character's initiation rite. And when the journey is to the Far East, the fantasy is a spiritual one. Most travelers to the East in Israeli literature, including the protagonists of this novel by Be'er, are pilgrims, not tourists. They reveal the way in which the Orientalist gaze that focused on Eretz Israel in the late 19th century is once again refracted in the Israeli gaze directed at Tibet, India or China - a gaze that projects fantasies onto a promised land, one that is both enchanted and condescending, seeing the observed terrain as a source of spiritual inspiration that is at once sublime and provincial.

Be'er's novel is located within this tradition and seeks to populate it with characters who lack prior knowledge of it. Four travelers, or pilgrims, go off into the wilds of Tibet during the period between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. They are led by Ya'akov Yitzhak, a Hasidic rebbe from Bnei Brak, known as "the Rebbe of Ustyluh," the name of the town in Ukraine where the sect had its origins. He is famous as a man of penetrating vision, a psychic and a clairvoyant able to diagnose physical and emotional ailments using both "kosher" and not-so-kosher means, like certain real-life Israeli rabbis sought out by the rich and powerful. But Ya'akov Yitzhak is, at heart, a spiritual man of the highest degree, a tzadik (righteous man ) and a brilliant Torah scholar. He has found himself thrust into the business of instant miracles and spiritual diagnoses by his clever advisers, who wish to see him gain in influence and to fill the coffers of his Hasidic court.

Before the journey, while he is still caught up in the greedy plots and corrupt machinations of his circle, the rebbe dreams three dreams, each of them featuring a grand and formidable wild ox. In the first, the ox drives his horns into a tangle of branches and calls out the rebbe's name. In the second dream, it stands on a cliff surrounded by mountains that have colored flags suspended between them. And finally, in the third, the ox - flanked by men with shaved heads, wearing red capes - is revealed to be the rebbe's ancient spiritual ancestor and the head of his dynasty: the Tzadik of Ustyluh, known as "the sacred Jew." This ancestor calls to the rebbe to come to the place of exile where he has been reincarnated and save him.

Golden yak

The landscapes seen in the dream, the rebbe later learns, are those of Tibet, and the wild ox is the golden yak, a rare beast indigenous to that country. Responding to the cry he heard in his dream, the rebbe secretly plans his journey. He is helped by his confidant and aide, a Haredi trader in blood diamonds, who showers him with money and respect and provides for his every need as he travels. Two others are recruited to join the quest: a Dutch guide to show them the way and an attractive young Englishwoman, a scholar who has spent time in China studying the golden yak and its habits. The four, along with an entourage of service providers, a driver and various assistants, embark on their dream-fueled journey toward the rebbe's meeting with the sacred yak, the reincarnation of his own leader. Their travels through the foreign land will change them forever.

Two dimensions drive this fictional travelogue: the novel is the story of a journey to an exotic destination, and - as such stories usually do - it describes in meticulous detail the many marvels of this strange land and its customs, lingering on the various prosaic stages of the journey. At the same time, this is also a fantasy about a miraculous revelation, which unfolds like a Greek epic converted to Judaism and peppered liberally with Hasidic fables, poetry and midrashim (exegetical literature ).

As the travelers draw near their destination and the moments of revelation proliferate, a solemn, mystical spirituality descends on the novel. The hero, who at the beginning of the book was still a rounded, conflicted character caught in an earthly vise of moral dilemmas, a man struggling with an unsatisfying marriage and idle children, now shakes all these off and displays his pure sanctity and sublime wisdom at every turn. There is no questioning his great sagacity; all the characters - including a Chinese scholar at the University of Beijing, a Tibetan spiritual leader and a saintly nun who lives in the mountains - are strongly impressed by it. As the rebbe comes closer to the revelation of the sacred, his early nuances of complexity disappear; the novel becomes endlessly entranced and serves him with awe.

The same air of sanctity also pervades the romance that blossoms between the rebbe and the lovely animal researcher. Their melodramatic love erupts inexplicably - she is enchanted by his deep wisdom and vulnerability, or perhaps by his "rosy infant's cheeks and reddish beard"; he is charmed by the bright woman, not only because she understands him and listens with interest to his preaching, by also by her seductive curves. Their love is filled with affectionate banter and moments of heated passion. Until their fellow travelers find out about the affair, their relationship unfolds in secret - they slip off at night from one room to another, steal glances at each other, pledge their undying love with the fervor of adolescents. The love story goes hand in hand with the miracles that accumulate as the rebbe encounters the holy beast, because this story marks the path to his spiritual transcendence and nourishes it. Eros and spirituality are intertwined, and carnal desire is as sacred as the Jew's yearning for his god: It is equally sure of itself, schematic, enthusiastic and absolute. All this is good and well: This is a novel for secular readers, who can enjoy a modernized Hasidic fairy tale and even find in it a moral that celebrates the kinship between romantic passion and spiritual transcendence. They are invited to imagine the stunning landscapes of Tibet and to savor the Hebrew in which all this is unfolded before them.

Expert juggler of language

And the Hebrew is indeed rich and abundant; Haim Be'er is a master of the language, which responds to his every whim in a range of registers and with numerous allusions to the Bible and the Talmud, the stories of the Jewish sages and Hasidic tales, along with the modern Hebrew of our own day. In this novel, too, he wields language like an expert juggler, until it conquers not only the rebbe and his jewel-dealing subordinate, but the words of the narrator and even the voices of the English scholar and the Tibetan sage; all submit to it, all speak in the same voice, digging their hands into the deepest reaches of the Hebrew language to pull out endless gems of flowery rhetoric.

There is one sentence, however, that disrupts this celebration of spectacular Hebrew and the epic, solemn journey of the characters. It appears as the novel's epigraph, a quote from Mendele Mocher Sforim's "The Travels of Benjamin the Third." Be'er dedicates his book to Mendele and even calls him "Grandfather." Just as the rebbe seeks his spiritual ancestor in the wilds of Tibet, so Be'er wants to be Mendele's heir; his novel journeys to "The Travels of Benjamin the Third."

But even the chasms that gape between the mountains of Tibet are not as vast as the difference between Benjamin the Third and his travels and the story of Ya'akov Yitzhak. And the comparison between them, which Be'er invites, is not to his advantage. It exposes the conceit of the novel and its weak spots. True, both heroes have wicked wives and a faithful traveling companion, but Mendele's Benjamin is passive, lost in fantasies, a somewhat helpless character portrayed with winning irony. Benjamin, after all, wishes to seek out the "redheaded Jews" who live beyond the mountains and across the oceans, but contents himself with wandering through small towns close to his home and sailing briefly across a filthy, sewage-filled river. The picaresque journey of the Mendele-style Jewish antihero is an amalgamation of excuses, panicked flights, digressions and delays on the road to nowhere. It is suffused with irony, at times compassionate and at others filled with a delightful satiric cruelty.

Haim Be'er's Jewish hero is a far cry from Benjamin: Lacking neither funds nor determination, he travels to the ends of the earth to free himself of his corrupt court and to find, with all possible pathos, his own dramatic salvation. But piercing self-humor and sacred spiritual redemption cannot coexist, although each belongs to an illustrious Hebrew tradition; this novel - a rogue grandchild - comes out in favor of the latter.

Be'er's novel is a work with the near-primal excitement of an unusual narrative and linguistic act, but a capricious embrace of pathos seems to smother it somewhat. Stories of spiritual journeys can potentially shed new light on local reality and explore its limits and limitations. In Be'er's novel, this potential finds an intoxicating linguistic fulfillment, but one that is schematic and at times didactic. The novel comes across as overly eager and ostentatious; sadly, it seems to get lost halfway through the journey.

Literary critic Omri Herzog is a regular contributor to Haaretz Books.