Kaddish in 103,000 words

by Brian on August 16, 2020

in A Parent in Israel,Reviews

When my father died 11 years ago, I wasn’t sure what to do about Kaddish. Saying the mourner’s prayer three times a day, as many traditional Jews do, didn’t seem like something I could – or would want – to take on. 

Instead, I wondered if there was something else more personally meaningful that could serve as an alternative to Kaddish for my father

My father worked for 35 years as a feature writer and editor for the San Francisco Examiner, where he covered arts, culture and show business for California Living and Image magazines. Over his career, he interviewed such figures as Victor Borge, Phyllis Diller, Leonard Nimoy, Buddy Hackett and Carl Sagan. 

But my father’s dream was to publish a novel. Every night after dinner, he would retire to his home office where he would diligently type away on his IBM Selectric, crafting his fiction until it was time for the evening TV sitcoms.

He worked on one novel after another, but never managed to land an agent or a publishing contract. He had just finished a draft of his latest work when he died of cancer at the age of 81.

In 2009, self-publishing was still mired in the stigma of “vanity.” Nor were eBooks much of a thing – Amazon had only debuted the first Kindle a year earlier. 

My father never considered going the indie route – if he couldn’t grab the attention of a traditional New York publisher, he wasn’t interested.

But I knew how to work with Amazon and Kindle Direct Publishing. I had already been corresponding with a number of book designers and layout artists. 

What if I were to edit my father’s last book and publish it for him, posthumously?

My father left a nearly finished version of that book, The Bell Tower, on his computer, which my brother, Dave, emailed to me following my father’s death. 

I spent the next nine months deeply immersed in the world he’d created. The Bell Tower is a semi-autobiographical novel that takes place in a fictional small town in the American South, where the protagonist, like my father, worked as a radio announcer while searching for love.

I knew my father had started his career in radio, but I didn’t know much about the place he’d lived. Now that he was gone, I couldn’t ask him how much of what he’d written in The Bell Tower was true. The radio part seemed accurate enough – I had experience spinning discs for my college radio station – and the details of the tight-knit, gossipy, small-town Jewish community were well-constructed.

There were some passages I was less comfortable with, in particular several racy scenes which I debated whether to leave in or not. And I was curious to what extent the woman with whom my father’s alter-ego in the book was obsessed reflected past romances my father may have had before he married my mother. 

The trickiest part of editing the book was the ending – it was weak and I struggled with what to do with this final section.

I soon found out why.

When I finished the edit, my brother discovered a second draft of The Bell Tower that addressed the wobbly conclusion – albeit not for the better. In fact, in order to fix the plot holes in the first draft, my father had changed the folksy nature that characterized much of what I enjoyed in the first place.

But now I was in a quandary. Should I stick with a first draft he clearly didn’t intend to be released – or work on the revised version that wasn’t as good?

I decided to go with the original with a changed ending; it was the only new writing I added.

And then, as I do with my own work, I put it aside in order to come back later with fresh eyes.

Except that I didn’t touch it again for ten years.

Perhaps I was still uncomfortable with the idea of putting his book out into the world without the permission he certainly couldn’t give. And yet, if he knew how easy it is (from a technical point of view, at least) to self-publish nowadays, would that have given him the professional satisfaction that alluded him for so long?

Michal Govrin helped me make my decision. 

I met the celebrated Israeli poet, novelist and stage director at a Shabbat dinner in 2019. It took her twenty years, she told me, before she had the courage to edit the autobiography of own father, a Zionist pioneer and kibbutznik who literally helped drain the swamps. 

“It’s wonderful to do this kind of project,” she emphasized, “to get to know your father in this deep and intimate way. I believe he would have wanted it.”

My brother and my mother concurred.

I finally published The Bell Tower. My father even has his very own Amazon Author page. My layout designer was so taken by the endeavor, she threw in a free print design, so it’s available in paperback as well as electronic format.

Dwelling in the imaginative world my father fashioned gave me new insights into his feelings on religion, his own parents, and following one’s passions. The fact that, like my father, I had originally hoped to launch a career in radio before turning to writing, only made the narrative of The Bell Tower more resonant.

I stopped saying the traditional Kaddish before the first year was over. But in many ways, I’ve never stopped saying it. It’s just taken me ten years and 103,000 words to convey it properly.

Walter Blum’s novel, The Bell Tower is available on Amazon at https://amzn.to/36qFMWG.

I first wrote about The Bell Tower for The Jerusalem Post.

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