‘To Be a Man,’ by Nicole Krauss: An Excerpt

End Days

On the third day of the fires, after they jumped the borders and entered the city, the rabbi called to find out if her parents’ judgment of divorce had arrived. The telephone woke Noa. It was barely past seven, but the rabbi had probably been awake since dawn, his world a more ancient place. She put him on hold while she got up and searched through the stacks of mail that had piled up since Leonard and Monica left. Under the bills and advertisements, she found the thick brown envelope from the California State Supreme Court.

“Hello?” she said into the phone. “It’s here.”

Her finger must have slipped, because now the rabbi’s voice flooded forth on speakerphone, magnified and amplified, with instructions on how to deliver him a copy, so that the get— the Jewish divorce agreement—could be finalized and officially registered. She copied down the address. The rabbi was leading a trip to Poland, flying tomorrow with a group of thirty-five. Before he departed for the camps and ghettos, he wanted to get this squared away. “That everything should be in order,” he told her. And so the paperwork in Noa’s hand was needed immediately. Today if possible; tomorrow morning at the latest. The rabbi made no mention of the fires. They had nothing to do with him, burning now and here.

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Come summer, Noa’s family, too, had always gone back in time. Back three thousand years, to the Iron Age and its successive disasters. Leonard liked to say that they were profiting from other people’s tragedies. Her father never failed to deliver this line every June, when the new team assembled for his welcoming remarks, so that she came to associate the arrival of summer—of stifling heat, of heaped-up time—with the coopting of a distant suffering. Archaeology, Leonard liked to say, is the reverse of building up: as the work descends, it undoes and destroys. And though Noa always looked for a tinge of regret in his voice, she never found it. Once, when she was ten, she had been present at a discussion between him and his second-in-command, an archaeologist named Yuval, who had a three-legged dog. Yuval was agonizing over a small intact wall that he didn’t want to destroy. “You think you’ll ever remember this wall?” her father demanded. Yuval rubbed the sweat from his forehead with the back of his dirt-caked hand. “Knock it down,” her father ordered, and trudged off into the shattering sunlight.

Leonard had been excavating Megiddo since before the girls were born. Megiddo, called Armageddon by the Greeks, prophesied in the book of Revelation as the place where armies will gather to battle at end times. But its past went back millennia. Over the course of twenty years, Leonard had dug down through the centuries until he’d hit on the tenth, BC, when, according to biblical history, Israel to the north and Judah to the south had been joined together by King David. Megiddo, Leonard liked to say, was the playground for the big questions about the United Kingdom of Israel. But it had been her playground, too, as every year she had spent the summer watched over by the students, who took turns entertaining her and Rachel until they were old enough to entertain themselves. Then they would spend their days reading paperbacks on the dry lawn at the kibbutz where they lived during the excavation, or swimming in its pool, where chlorine stung their eyes and blurred their vision.

But now Rachel was doing an internship in New York, Monica was in Europe taking care of her own ailing mother, and Leonard had returned to Megiddo alone. Alone, too, Noa slid open the patio door and sniffed the air. The acrid smell of burning was at odds with the buoyant morning sun that drifted through the leaves. Just past seven meant that in Megiddo it would already be five in the afternoon, the hour they began washing the load of pottery shards exhumed that day. At five thirty sharp Leonard would arrive, and the team would pour out basket after basket for his inspection, which he would rapidly sift through, deciding what should be sent to Reconstruction, and what should be discarded. She’d watched the procedure countless times when she was younger, positioning herself near enough to snatch a rejected piece off the table, a terra-cotta handle or enameled shard that she could salvage from the trash.

Having raised two daughters and been through thick and thin, Leonard and Monica had separated amicably in early spring. The explanation they gave to those who asked and many who didn’t was that after twenty-five years of marriage they were ready for new adventures. What these adventures entailed neither would say, but it was clear to Noa that their terrain would be human rather than geographical. Liberal and evolved as they were, neither saw any great tragedy in their uncoupling, for they would always be friends, Leonard and Monica explained. So amicably did they separate that they had brought Noa and Rachel to the ceremony for the get, required for a Jewish divorce. Brought the girls, as they had once brought them to see a healing dance performed by the San tribe in Namibia, and the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace. Monica, impeccable as always, wore a floral dress. Rachel came home from college specially, arriving from the East Coast the day before. The divorce had come as a surprise to them both, but only Rachel was convinced that something had happened to instigate it. Noa would have liked to believe that—to believe that only recent events had been hidden from them, rather than a fundamental truth that went back many years. On the drive there, she listened to their parents run though a litany of stories about how they’d met and the early years when the girls were babies, just as the canonical stories about Leonard’s mother had been recited at her shiva the year before.

Her parents had let lapse their membership at the synagogue soon after Noa’s bat mitzvah, at which she sang tunelessly of Jacob’s dream to a roomful of dry eyes. So a rabbi had to be rustled up who could undo the Orthodox wedding they’d had at the insistence of her mother’s Viennese parents a quarter century before. His hole-in-the-wall synagogue had once been beautiful, but over the years had fallen into disrepair. The roof had problems, said the young rabbi who let them in, when he saw Monica peering up at the peeling plaster and the stained-glass skylight covered with plastic sheeting. His sparse blond beard barely covered his cheeks; he couldn’t have been much older than twenty and did not seem experienced enough to unravel her parents’ long and complicated marriage. Rabbi Shemkin was on the way, the young rabbi explained, he was only the assistant. This last statement he directed at Noa, as if sensing her distrust.

The four of them sat in a row on a hard bench in the sanctuary while the young rabbi arranged a table and chairs. A back door stood open to a room where children’s toys and books were strewn across the floor. They didn’t believe in tidying up, these people, Leonard said. Order would be found only in the world to come. He absently tapped his foot while Monica commented on the stained glass. He was wearing nice shoes, and he hated nice shoes, preferred to stride through life in his rough hiking boots dusted with the Iron Age. The nice shoes that stiffly held his feet were a nod to a disagreement between her parents that had grown like a stalactite over the years, fed by a distant, mysterious source until it had come to hang like a dagger over their heads.

At last Rabbi Shemkin arrived in his black suit, followed by a fat, slovenly scribe wearing a tallis draped over his white shirt and clutching a ragged portfolio under one arm. Behind him trailed a tall and skinny rabbi with a biblical beard, who would serve as a witness.

“Good!” Rabbi Shemkin exclaimed, clapping his hands together. “Everyone is here.”

Leonard moved to take a seat next to Monica at the table, but Rabbi Shemkin clucked his tongue and motioned to the place opposite Noa’s mother. Clearing his throat, Leonard strode to the other side of the table. Noa stood with Rachel until the young rabbi hurried forward and ushered them into the front pew.

“Jesus,” Rachel muttered under her breath when her flip-flop snagged on the leg of a chair.

Photocopies were passed out with a script for Leonard and Monica to read. Jews had been performing this procedure for two thousand years! the rabbi announced with a smile. Two thousand years of acrimony! Noa added mentally. The scribe opened his portfolio and removed a large feather. With a retractable blade he began to sharpen the nib, the keratin scrapings falling into the folds of his shirt. When Leonard announced that he had a few questions, the scribe plucked a whole handful of feathers out of the portfolio and set to work on these. What kind of feathers were they? Monica asked politely. Turkey, the scribe reported. The tall, lanky witness purred appreciatively, and concurred that turkey was the strongest. The scribe took out a piece of paper and a board strung with gut. Whose gut? Noa wanted to ask. When he pressed the paper over the board and rubbed it with his hand, the page was creased with straight lines. These were used to guide his careful writing of the Hebrew letters that would undo what their parents had decided, without consulting them, that they no longer wanted done. While the scribe wrote, her mother made conversation. She would feel the need to make conversation at a beheading, too. Did she hear him say that his father had been a scribe before him?

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“Four generations.”

“And maybe before that, you don’t know,” said Rabbi Shemkin. “Before that they were butchers.”

“First they were slaughtering animals,” said the witness, observing the scribe’s work, “and now they slaughter people.”

“No,” said the scribe, not lifting his eyes from the lettering. “Now we’re helping people get on with their lives.”

When the writing was complete, it was checked and double- checked and read aloud twice by Rabbi Shemkin and the witness. Then they sat waiting for the ink to dry.

“It’s a hundred percent humidity today,” the witness said, shaking his head at the window. The bunch of keys on the ring clipped to his belt jingled whenever he moved. His tie clip was also a key. What he needed with all of those keys was anyone’s guess.

The scribe blotted the page. At last the paper was folded lengthwise, and twice horizontally, and one end was tucked into the other. Monica was asked to stand with Leonard opposite her.

“Cup your hands,” Rabbi Shemkin instructed her. “And you,” he said to Leonard, “repeat after me: ‘And now I do release, discharge, and divorce you to be on your own, so that you are permitted and have authority over yourself to go and marry any man you desire.’”

Noa held her breath. Next to her, Rachel sniffed.

“‘No person may object against you from this day onward, and you are permitted to every man.’”

She thought she heard Leonard’s voice quiver with “every man,” but wasn’t sure. Turning to Rachel, she saw the young rabbi with the blond beard staring at her, and only slowly did he avert his blue eyes.

“‘This shall be for you from me a bill of dismissal,’” Rabbi Shemkin continued, “‘a letter of release, and a document of absolution, in accordance with the law of Moses and Israel,’” and Leonard repeated that, too, now full-throated. He was difficult and commanding, it was true. His injuries were such that, just when it was most needed, he failed to see beyond his anger or pain to that of others. Once upon a time it had charmed Monica that Leonard darned his own socks. In one of the stories they’d liked to tell, Monica woke in his bachelor apartment to find Leonard bent over the sock, sucking on the ends of the thread as his mother had taught him to do. But over time Monica stopped being able to see the light that came through this small break in the stubborn monotony of character.

Following the rabbi’s instruction, Leonard laid the rectangle on top of Monica’s cupped hands. It was too big to fit into her palms, and reflexively she clamped her thumbs down so it wouldn’t slip.

“No!” the rabbis all shouted together.

Apparently the wife wasn’t allowed to move her hands to take the paper: it had to be given. The barbarity of the whole thing seemed not to bother Monica. Perhaps it seemed to her a fitting end to the rest of her wrongheaded marriage. She seemed to Noa already not there. Though where her mother had been, always, was a place that she, too, had found unreachable. Leonard gave it again, and this time Monica held her hands very still, as if she were receiving a stunned bird. Then she was made to hold the paper high over her head. Monica’s arms shot straight up, the hands clutched around the paper folded according to some ancient Jewish origami.

After it was over, they drove to the Italian place Leonard and Monica liked. Leonard’s opera albums filled the CD changer in the trunk; Pavarotti flowed forth. Noa had one more year left of school, and over their salads Leonard and Monica told her that in the fall they would take turns living in the house with her until she graduated. This was a nebulous plan, it being only May. As for the summer, they gave Noa the choice of going to Megiddo with Leonard, or Vienna with Monica. She protested: last year she had spent her summer working at a florist shop, and she planned to do the same again. She was saving money to travel to Brazil, Peru, Argentina, maybe as far as Easter Island, after she graduated from high school. Why should she have to change her plans just because her parents had decided to upend their lives? She would be bored in Megiddo, and claustrophobic in her grandmother’s apartment crowded with heavy furniture, the silk curtains permanently closed to keep out the sun. An argument ensued, but Noa stood her ground. She would be perfectly fine on her own, she insisted. Rachel wasn’t listening, busy texting her boyfriend in Boston. In Rachel’s features Leonard and Monica had found an early harmony, unlike in Noa’s, where, after puberty, Leonard had prevailed. She’d also inherited Leonard’s height, which made it easy for her parents to see her as older than she was. Besides, practical as they were, Leonard and Monica had always believed in treating their children like adults. So why make a show of treating her like a child now? She dug in until her parents gave up. If they felt guilty about the divorce, or following the course of their own desires, they hadn’t sustained it for long. Leonard left for Israel in mid-June, and Monica a week later. Jack and Roberta Berkowitz, her parents’ oldest friends, were enlisted to check on her, which Roberta did, calling from the aisles of Whole Foods to see if Noa wanted to come for dinner, or if there was anything that she needed. But there never was.

In the kitchen, Noa boiled water for coffee. The only remaining full-time occupant of a house that would be sold in a year, she rearranged things as she saw fit. The Sumerian fertility jug that her parents had bought together the year they’d met, she put in the hall closet behind Leonard’s tennis rackets. Fat and earthy, it had a foreboding air. She also took down the photos from the fridge. Rachel and Noa, Leonard and Monica, smiling glibly at the top of a mountain, or in the golden light of the desert, now possessed a false quality. The whole house, it seemed, had been organized around principles that were no longer true, and now these arrangements seemed disingenuous. Maybe that was why Noa had stopped sleeping in her bedroom after her parents left, and taken to sleeping on the sofa instead. This had bothered Gabe. He didn’t like having the poster of Goya’s old man staring down on his nudity. He called him Old Egghead, and blamed him for ruining things. But two weeks earlier they had broken up, and she left Old Egghead on the wall. Lying on the sofa under his purview, Noa could see the dining room table where her family had always celebrated Passover, Thanksgiving, birthdays, and other special occasions, accompanied by friends and family. Her cousins called her uncle and aunt Daddy and Mommy, something she had sometimes envied. But close as she was with her own parents, those two words possessed a kind of intimacy, a silliness even, that didn’t fit Leonard and Monica, and would have made her embarrassed to utter. One summer at the kibbutz when she was seven or eight, Noa had taken to calling her father Abba, but when they returned home at the end of August the name had been left behind with the other toys, stones, and knickknacks they had collected over the summer, which could not fit into the suitcase, or would not be needed back home.

While she was eating her cereal, Noa’s cell phone rang. It was Leonard, who had been following the news: more than a hundred thousand acres already, the fire crews pushed beyond exhaustion, no sign of containment. Strong winds had carried the embers into the city, and thousands had been forced to evacuate. He’d already called the Berkowitzes; Jack would come to get her. But Noa wouldn’t agree to it. She was in no danger, she argued. The fires were far enough away. To change the subject, she asked how things were going at the dig. Worked up about the lab results of some burned bricks, Leonard eagerly launched into a description of the newest developments. The tests had revealed that the formation the bricks had been found in was not original; that they had been reused after an older city had been destroyed. When bricks are burned, their magnetic north at the time of the fire is preserved forever. This is a fact she had known since she was young, but now she let her father go on about it while she drank the milk left in her cereal bowl, washed the bowl, and set it to dry upside down on the rack. Having pulled the carpet out from under the existing paradigm of tenth-century archaeology, as he liked to say, Leonard was now trying to get to the bottom of the question of who had destroyed the late Iron Age city. Noa had meant to tell him about the call from the rabbi, but before she could, Leonard was called away by his second-or third-in-command, his expertise required. He would call her back later, he said, and they would discuss then what would be most prudent.

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