Monday, September 9, 2019

Tirzah Goldenberg, Frontispiece, from Sefer Minhagim or Book of Customs: A Novella

Forerelish, image by Irene Koronas

Frontispiece, from Sefer Minhagim 
or Book of Customs: A Novella

If she’s a person of the book then she’s a person of the book, but the book should include a frontispiece, in all reality a map—here a heron rookery and there a red brick silo, here a boarding house for horses and there in the thicket of an open prairie merely a hundred persons gathered for age-old rhetoric against the Jews, a few notable cottonwoods, a commune, a grange with goods for barter and a wool farm. Why include a frontispiece insisting it’s a map? To begin with, the word itself is soft and bookish. Frontispiece sounds like that thin protective leaf at the front of some old books, the one you lift to see the frontispiece itself. It sounds like other anachronistic, triple syllabic words—for instance forerelish, what nobody would ever use in a sentence, except that she did actually find it in a book translated from the Yiddish, sounding there a little like horseradish, though it had nothing at all to do with the pungent root. All of Thomas Hardy’s novels let you forerelish the map before entering the village. You’re meant to imagine simple paths through woods and meadows, the distance from one curious dwelling to the next, and as you linger on the whole of that locale it’s meant to dawn on you in an instant that the tale in question has been delimited at the outset, here at the forefront of the book, whittled down to notables, or are they symbols. All the places she’s ever been begin to blend, as if grafted. A wind comes down from the mountains and tiny dwellings less fortressed, less fearful, brace against the impact. She shuts the book and blows out the bedside candle, listening until sleep to the foundations, off kilter yet sound, her washtub tumbling around in the grasses beyond the book and into the stables of itinerant horses.

In an ancestor’s apartment in Brooklyn, a well-worn Talmud bearing an ex libris at its heart refuses to begin on page one. In the beginning is altogether vague. The oral literature, rather, agrees to begin with elision by beginning somewhere else. A student of a sage, having committed a thicket of argument and folk wisdom to the heart’s genizah, kisses the front and back covers of the book, the beloved book. A descendant enters enchanted shtetlach by entering outright the openwork of the book.

—Tirzah Goldenberg