In about the year 2000 or 2001, I decided to write a series of stories or vignettes, loosely based on the life of Deana's husband, my grandfather Isaac. Aiming for as much sweep as possible, without filling up too many pages, I set these stories at twelve year intervals. The story I include here is set during my childhood, and was inspired by a photograph of Isaac with my cousin Jonny.
In 1976, at Hanukkah time, Haffman’s daughters came for a long visit to his new house near Washington, D.C. with their husbands and children; it was the first in a series of annual Hanukkah gatherings.
On the wall opposite the desk where Haffman sits, writing his reminiscences, there is a photograph, taken by his wife a few years before. The picture shows him with his oldest grandson; together they are lighting the candles of a menorah. It is beautiful black-and-white photography, there are infinite shades of darkness and light in the glow of the candles, the shadows, the glint of the menorah, Haffman’s grey and white mustache, his grandson’s fair hair. The photograph is somewhat well-known, too; Haffman has seen it on other walls besides his own. And no wonder. Looking at this picture, he thinks, one cannot help but be moved by the love between the old man and the young boy, and also by the flickering yet enduring tradition embodied in the Hanukkah candles. The aroma of latkes and hot oil, the intonation of the prayers for candle lighting, hover around the edges of the frame. Here we find, summed up eloquently, the beauty of an entire way of life, an entire set of rituals and values.
Or rather, Haffman thinks, we find the appearance of such a beauty. Because, as he continues to gaze at the photograph, Haffman, whose mind is always leaping from the particular to the universal, from the details of his own life to the great patterns of the world, begins to feel a gnawing suspicion: that here, the love of the grandmother, combined with the intuition of the artist, have created with a trick of the eye only the illusion of a tradition, of a way of life. In other words, by composing such a convincing scene, by giving form to a picture which by its nature is lasting, static, continuous, and thus endows the scene it portrays with the same quality of permanence, of normality and everydayness, his wife, Haffman fears, has been guilty of a falsification—namely, that this scene is representative of their lives, their beliefs and habits, and also representative of modern life as a whole, which in reality, contrary to what the photograph claims, is more disconnected from tradition than rooted in it, both in a general way, in terms of a period in history, and also as reflected specifically in his own life, which has been devoted perhaps to a kind of spirituality but not, certainly, the one portrayed here, despite his upbringing as the son and grandson of rabbis. It is not that being Jewish has no importance for Haffman and his wife; it is only that that importance is embodied more in an ethical attitude and in a certain kind of self-identification than in faith and daily prayers. Therefore, an accurate representation of their lives, Haffman decides, ought to show him with his grandson, together reading the newspaper, discussing the events of the world, or else walking toward the bus that will take him to the office where he works as a sociologist.
But is it true, he wonders, contemplating this arid vision (arid from an artistic viewpoint) that art, even a realistic art such as photography, must devote itself to the quotidian, the typical, to a revelation of the precise patterns of everyday life? Is not one of the other chief missions of art to capture beauty, hopes, dreams, remarkable events, utopian visions, which God knows occur only rarely in real life, and which must be clung to, savored, perpetuated in exactly the way that photographs perpetuate the fleeting instants they portray? In fact, the meaning and beauty of this photograph on his wall reside in its demonstration that, while modern life is, on a general level, disconnected from tradition and devoid of spirituality, brief moments do indeed exist when we are still vouchsafed that sense of wonder, of devotion, and also of community that were commonplace in the lives of our ancestors. As he has already recognized, then, the menorah in the photograph is symbolic of tradition, but it is a vestigial, comforting tradition rather than the continuous, all-encompassing one he had first imagined.
Haffman looks back down toward his desk, satisfied, his head full of visions of his ancestors, his childhood. But a nagging doubt troubles him. If this is indeed what the photograph signifies, then it signifies as well that the whole of his life has been nothing but a succession of mistakes, a turning away from something healthy, integral, living, toward a foreign and empty alternative, a misguided and tragic attempt to conform to the habits of the new continent on which he arrived as a baby at the expense of centuries of certainty and wisdom. But no!--this is precisely that typical delusion of the old, the unimaginative, the immigrant, that mourning for a lost and golden paradise, that he has on innumerable occasions recognized impatiently in others, and for which he has no use.
Haffman looks back up at the photograph once more. Perhaps, he thinks, the problem is in the way he is approaching the act of looking at it, of interpreting it. He has read somewhere that the language of art can refer only to itself, not to any outside world, because that outside world exists only through perception, the kind of perception of which art is the preeminent example. Although he is unsure whether this confusing theory represents a sensible way of looking at things, Haffman believes in giving all theories a chance in practice before rejecting them. Therefore, he searches in the shadows of the photograph for something that might be symbolic only of something else in the photograph. His gaze focuses on the shammas, the candle which is used to light all the other candles and which, when placed back in the candelabrum, stands a little way apart from them (although here it is still in his grandson’s hand.) Between the shammas and himself—a self which includes that self contained in the photograph along with the shammas—there is undoubtedly a connection: in its relationship with the other candles, its anteriority and apartness, he is able to recognize something of himself, of his own relationship with his grandchildren, or at least with the younger ones.
Over the last few years, Haffman is aware, he has grown somewhat remote from other people. When his grandchildren come to visit, he greets them with a “Who are you?”, a humorous but ultimately distant gesture. When his house becomes full of noise, puzzles, made-up games, experiments with strange and exotic foods—tofu! sushi!--he surrounds himself with a wall of paper: newspaper clippings, notecards and yellow legal pads on which he writes notes about biblical history or about his theory of unresolvable contradictions; and also with a wall of acts, sighs of fatigue, self-sacrifices, through which only in unguarded moments are his tenderness and his affection allowed to slip through.
The reasons for this distance are a mystery to him; what interests him right now is that, in this photograph, he sees three different visions of himself: there is the old man with the young boy, and there is the shammas in the young boy’s hand, so close as to be touching; and there is also the shammas that will, after all the other candles have been brought to life, be placed at a distance from them.
Haffman calls out to his wife in tremulous tones, to ask her which is the vision she meant to portray, whether the significance of her photograph is that it warningly prophesies a future isolation disguised in the warm glow of a beautiful present; or whether she meant it as a comfort, a reminder of happier times, in this time of loneliness that she could already foresee. But she doesn’t answer. He gets up, wanders all over the house, looking for her. Then he remembers: last week, their grandchildren were there, she photographed them all; she is in her darkroom, developing pictures.