Blessing on the Moonis
an allegory of the experiences of European Jews during the Holocaust,
and its creation was a deeply personal odyssey for Skibell, who lost
at least eighteen relatives in the Holocaust and who patterned and named
the character Chaim Skibelski
In so many ways, life could so easily be a banquet, but we ruin it for each other, Skibell says. It says in the Talmud that when a human being walks down the street, a
host of angels precedes him saying Make way, make way for the image of God. For whatever reasons, we as human beings find
it hard to look at each other and keep that
in mind and not
do damage to
each other. . . .
Making Sense of the World
Skibell examines the Holocaust with infinite humanity
By ANDREW W.M. BEIERLE
THE NARRATOR of Joseph Skibells novel, A Blessing on the Moon,dies on the first page.
It all happened so quickly. They rounded us up, took us out to the forests. We stood there, shivering, like trees in uneven rows, and one by one we fell. No one was brave enough to turn and look. Guns kept cracking in the air. Something pushed into my head. It was hard, like a rock. I fell. But I was secretly giddy. I thought they had missed me. When they put me in the ground, I didnt understand. I was still strong and healthy. But it was useless to protest.
Thus begins a journey both magical and macabre during which Skibells protagonist, Chaim Skibelski, rises from the dead to seek spiritual enlightenment and, ultimately, peace. Along the way he encounters his dead fellow villagers, slain members of his own family, and the talking, disembodied head of the German soldier who killed him.
A Blessing on the Moon is an allegory of the experiences of European Jews during the Holocaust, and its creation was a deeply personal odyssey for Skibell, who lost at least eighteen relatives in the Holocaust and who patterned and named the character Chaim Skibelski after his own great-grandfather.
What got to me personally was working with the characters of my great-grandfathers family, says Skibell, who this fall joined the faculty of the Creative Writing Program. I had pictures of them all over my desk, and I would just find myself weeping.
Critics have praised Skibells literary debut as a tour de force, and the book has received the Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Steven Turner Award for First Fiction from the Texas Institute of Letters.
Chaims journey illuminates the horror of history through the energy and wisdom of fantasy and myth; scene after scene is rich with emotion, humor, and invention, Patrick Giles wrote in the New York Times Book Review. Daring in its haunting, often painful honesty, dense in thoughtful observation and unsparing incident, the novel aims for literary status while at the same time proving itself an unlikely page-turner. An act of commemoration, . . . A Blessing on the Moon is also a confirmation that no subject lies beyond the grasp of a gifted, committed imagination.
A Blessing on the Moon is one of those books people tell other people about. There is a very human response to this book, says Lynna Williams, director of the Creative Writing Program. I think telling stories is part of what makes us human. There is a gravity to what writers do, a sense of why it matters to be a writer and what the stakes are. The ability to tell a story like Chaim Skibelskis is part of what a writer can do. One of the things we want to give our students is a sense that writers are people who can help make sense of the world.
THREE OF THE FOUR REAL-LIFE SONS of Chaim Skibelski survived the Holocaust by moving to America and settling in Lubbock, Texas, where Skibell was born and reared (the fourth perished along with his parents, his four sisters, and their children). Skibell received his bachelors degree from the University of Texas at Austin in 1981, and from 1993 to 1996 he was a James A. Michener Fellow at the Texas Center for Writers, where he earned his MFA in creative writing. From 1996 to 1997, he was a Jay C. and Ruth Hall Fellow in Fiction at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and it was there he completed A Blessing on the Moon.
A playwright as well as a novelist, Skibell has seen his work produced at theaters in Austin, Fort Worth, Los Angeles, Tampa, and Seattle. He also has written for film and television, and one of his responsibilities at Emory will be to inaugurate a screenwriting class.
Although Skibells grandfather and great-uncles never talked about it, the Holocaust was an invisible backdrop to his childhood.
When I was growing up, my grandfather and two of his brothers were living in my town. They never talked at all about these people, and as a normally sensitive child, I picked up on it. That silence was very palpable for me. As a child, I assumed that there was some sort of shame in it. Instead, I realized later that it was just horrible, horrible grief.
As an adult and a writer, Skibell has developed a response to the Holocaust that is extraordinarily sensitive and complex and which focuses less on the large, historical event than the people caught up in it.
I grew up with all these demonic Nazi images, but in the process of writing this book, I discovered that behind this bank of demons was this group of ghostsliteral ghosts, my grandfathers sisters and parents. The easy iconography of the Holocaust, which is everywhere today, has kind of blotted out the presence of these very human figures, these people. My relatives.
Skibells own highly developed moral sense even allowed him to imbue a Nazi soldier, the very soldier who had killed Chaim Skibelski, with a sense of humanity. The soldier had himself been killed, decapitated by a peasant, his head secured to his body with a scarf. Like his victim, the soldier must wander the earth. In one of the most moving and memorable scenes in the book, Chaim Skibelski carries on a long conversation with the helpless, disembodied head, caring for it and refusing to allow it to become carrion for scavenging birds. Eventually, the soldier begs forgiveness for what he has done.
Little head, Skibelski says, when you killed me, you took everything. My home, my wife, my children. Must you have my forgiveness as well? Such bizarre events are commonplace in A Blessing on the Moon. The dead rise. Animals talk. The village rabbi is transformed into a crow and becomes something of a spiritual guide. Skibell says his inspiration for these scenes comes from Jewish folk tales.
I had been steeping myself in these stories for so long that it wasnt strange to deal with these elements or to think about them narratively. There are a lot of folk tales about the dead talking and people having to deal with things like this head.
Jewish lore and literature informs the entire book.
In the cartography of the Jewish afterlife, there is something called gehenna, which is where you purify your soul from whatever damage has been done to it over the course of your life, Skibell says. In some ways I think that is where Chaim is.
Skibell projects a jovial, almost impish persona. It is hard to believe that only fifty years, three generations, separate him from the horrors he describes in A Blessing on the Moon. But the very real historical fact of the Holocaust is something he lives with every day.
In so many ways, life could so easily be a banquet, but we ruin it for each other, he says. It says in the Talmud that when a human being walks down the street, a host of angels precedes him saying Make way, make way for the image of God. For whatever reasons, we as human beings find it hard to look at each other and keep that in mind and not do damage to each other. . . .
As I was working on this book, I realized that if it werent for the war, most of [my relatives] would probably be alive today. Their children would certainly be alive today. In some cases, their children wouldnt be much older than me. It would have been a totally different life: Oh, we have this family in Europe. Lets fly over and meet your cousins. . . .
But its gone.