Every Rosh Hashanah, thousands of Hasidic Jews travel to Uman, Ukraine to visit the grave of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov, who died in 1810. They gather around the gravesite—which was rediscovered next to a Soviet housing project—to pray and recite psalms. They get drunk and dance ecstatically in the street in white robes. Every year, I fantasize about joining in this holy balagan. I am in awe of Rebbe Nachman’s tales—spoken stories which formed an entire genre of folklore—and his teachings on the spiritual dimension of depression have helped me through some dark times. But I know that I would not belong in Uman with the Hasidim. For one thing, I am not an Orthodox Jew. In fact, I am not even a Jew at all, according to Halacha. My father is a New York Jew with roots in Poland, Lithuania, and Romania, but my mother is a Methodist from a place that is actually called Christian County, Illinois.
I find my own religious experience best reflected in the opening pages of the The Magician of Lublin, a novel by Isaac Bashevis Singer:
He was half Jew, half Gentile—neither Jew nor Gentile. He had worked out his own religion. There was a Creator, but he revealed Himself to no one, gave no indications of what was permitted or forbidden. Those who spoke His name were liars.
Though I am not a pious Jew, I am a fiction writer. The closest thing I have to a rebbe is Singer. He was not a Hasidic rabbi, but he was the renegade son of one, and inherited the mantle in some confused way. One of his brothers became an actual Hasidic rabbi, but the other two siblings, I.J. Singer and Esther Kreitman, also became fiction writers. I know this because, as a disciple, I have read just about everything I can get my hands on by or about Singer.
In 1997, the New York Times documented the multiple typos on Singer’s gravestone. Most notably, he was described as a “Noble Prize Winner,” which was true, though not the point the text was meant to make. The Times article mentioned that the grave is situated in Beth El Cemetery in Paramus, New Jersey, which is less than fifteen miles outside of New York City. Singer’s only son, Israel Zamir, proclaimed his disgust with this location in his memoir, Journey to my Father:
In Israel, Singer’s grave would have become a pilgrimage site for Yiddishists, intellectuals, tourists of all kinds. But this godforsaken place would attract no one. There would never be anyone to pay homage to my father in New Jersey.
I didn’t see why this should make a difference. Many pilgrimage sites—such as Nachman’s grave, for instance—are scattered in godforsaken places. American soil is no less holy than Ukrainian soil. Furthermore, Singer was a champion of a diaspora language and literature. He belongs with us in exile. Beth El is closed on Jewish holidays, but the day after Rosh Hashanah, I made my pilgrimage to Paramus.
I did not eat before leaving my house in Brooklyn, and found myself wandering around Midtown, looking for something cheap and vegetarian. Truthfully, there were several viable options, but I couldn’t make myself choose or ingest anything. Self-mortification is not really a part of Hasidic practice, but wandering Manhattan in a daze is certainly part of being a disciple of Singer. I drank some coffee and found my way to Port Authority, where I somehow purchased a ticket for the wrong bus line. The driver, a haughty minor official with epilates and a clipboard, scowled at me, but relented and let me on the bus anyway. We passed through the boroughs and towns of Bergen County. These sprawling suburbs seemed like a strange final resting place for a man from the dense Jewish quarter of Krochmalna Street in Warsaw. Of course, by the time Singer was interred here, in 1991, the Jewish community of Krochmalna—which lay within the Warsaw Ghetto established by the Nazis five years after Singer fled Poland—hadn’t existed for almost half a century.
The driver let me off on the state highway. From there I walked some three miles down a busy road, dodging cars and minivans. It was the first week of autumn, but the weather was still hot, and I had to drink lots of water. I stopped at a TJ Maxx to use the restroom. None of the shoppers knew that I was on a pilgrimage. They just saw that I was a sweaty, bearded man walking determinedly across the parking lot. Later, I found myself in a pedestrian walkway which was enclosed on three sides with chain link fencing, like a corridor through a prison yard. The last stretch of my walk took me through a wooded subdivision, a simulacrum of a small European village.
It had not occurred to me how I would find the grave in the vast cemetery—actually two connected cemeteries—and I momentarily panicked when I found no directory or personnel to help me. The only other people in the cemetery were construction workers, who were building some sort of above-ground mausoleum. This seemed strange to me, that the dead should not be buried in the earth, but the cemetery’s website reassures visitors that above-ground mausoleums are permitted by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. Jokes in Spanish blew towards me, and I recalled the veneration of saints that I had seen in churches in Chiapas. Though I had entered the cemetery on the wrong side, I ended up having no problem finding Singer’s grave. I was drawn to the correct row by some sort of magnetism. Along the way I had picked up a rock—well, a piece of chipped asphalt—and I now placed it on the top of the gravestone.
The only other Jewish pilgrimage site I had visited was the grave of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, in Queens. A religious friend took me there, and instructed me on what to do. You read from the book of Psalms. You tell the Rebbe your problems and worries. You write a letter to him, then tear it up and throw it in the stone receptacle surrounding the graves of the Rebbe and his father-in-law, the previous Rebbe. The fragments—handwritten in English, Yiddish, Hebrew, Russian, French, and other languages—pile up, and bleed together into a multi-colored papier-mâché mountain when it rains.
Having no other guide, I decided I should start from these established Lubavitch rituals, adapting them to Singer’s sensibilities. Figuring he’d rather hear a good story than lines of scriptures, I sat down on the grass and read to him from Nachman’s tales. I was sure that Singer would enjoy these, even if he’d quibble with the particular renditions I’d brought. After a few tales, I put down the book and spoke to him directly, asking his advice on the manuscript I was working on (a work which builds on the tradition of Singer and Nachman, among others), on the publisher who had expressed interest in it, on the Russian woman who encouraged me in my writing, despite my obvious flaws and delusions.
Singer is eternal now, but he was my age once. “At thirty,” he wrote in a thinly fictionalized story, “A refugee from Poland, I had become an anachronism.” He struggled to have his folkish stories accepted by the Yiddish press, and he frantically sought to avoid deportation. His situation was infinitely graver than mine—I have the privilege and security of being born in America, and no great destruction looms over my loved ones—though New York publishers, Coney Island women, and the task of creating stories were common concerns. I could hear Singer laughing at me through the ground. He was amused by me.
Before I left, I took out my pen and paper. I had come to the old writer as a disciple of our craft, and the only thing to do was to write him a story. My scribbling began with the face of a girl I knew once, and soon a complex tale unfolded, full of mystery, and sadness, and the passage of time. When the story was done, I ripped it up into tiny pieces. It was my offering to the old master, and to him alone. “A dank,” I said, using the phrases I’d learned from my grandmother. “Zayt gezunt.” It didn’t make sense to wish a dead man good health, but I only had so much Yiddish to offer. I didn’t want to litter the freshly mowed grass of the suburban cemetery with the scraps of my story, so I tossed them down a sewer grate on my way back to the city.
Ben Nadler’s novel, “The Sea Beach Line,” was recently published by Fig Tree Books. His other works include “Punk in NYC’s Lower East Side 1981-1991,” and “Line & Hook” (a collaboration with the visual artist Alyssa Berg). More about his work can be found at bennadler.com