For many of us, the books we read are at the center of our spiritual life. Texts open new worlds, give us new language, and invite us to explore new practices and participate in ancient communities. Recently, I sat down with novelist Moriel Rothman-Zecher to discuss his new book Before All The World (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), which was named an NPR Book of 2022 (“Books We Love – 2022”).
Reading Before All The World felt like watching a globe spinning inside of another globe. The central story of the novel—following the relationships between two survivors of anti-Semitic genocide in Europe and a Black man in Prohibition-era Philadelphia—is encased in a surrounding murmur of angelic voices. Through fluid movement between in-scene drama and these angels’ condensed poetic commentary, Rothman-Zecher creates a beguiling impression that the events in the book are becoming a myth as they happen—with story and legend spinning around each other in hypnotic synchrony.
The novel’s singular voice interpolates Yiddish words and conversational rhythms and a variety of neologisms: “Unlike the other boys in kheyder, he didn’t care to talk about amerike’s feelings, or her headsized globulent jugs of money.” This voice is so distinctive—and so winning—that, after I finished the novel, it seemed a bit like the voice of an old friend: one that I missed, one that could make me happy as soon as I heard it again.
Moriel Rothman-Zecher was born in Jerusalem, and he published his debut novel, Sadness Is a White Bird, in 2018, receiving the National Book Foundation’s “5 Under 35” honor. He and I spoke over Zoom.
—Alec Gewirtz, co-founder of The Nearness
I want to talk for a few minutes about the book’s title, Before All The World, which references the notion that our actions occur before all the world, in a kind of moral theater, with the world perhaps capable of passing a kind of moral judgment on us. It’s similar to the religious notion that we live in God’s moral theater, judged for each of our actions. For me, outside a traditional theistic framework, my actions feel very quiet and local, hardly “before all the world.” So I suppose my question for you is: in what sense do you think that we act “before all the world”?
I feel very moved by that question. That’s the discourse that I hope to be a part of with this little contribution, this little book. I think that the title of the book is meant to be read with skepticism rather than as a kind of like blustering declaration. It’s meant to be read as—not that I ever actually considered this—but it’s meant to be read as being followed much more by a question mark than by a period or an exclamation point.
In terms of our actions, I will say that on some level, there's a way in which writing these two novels, each one has changed me a little bit. And I’ll say this with a question mark: I think that I’m a little bit less secular at the end of writing this book than I was at the beginning, which is weird for me to say, because, at the same time, another part of this book for me is a kind of celebration of secular atheistic Yiddish culture, the secular godless ethos of parts of Yiddish poetics and communism. And, of course, Nietzsche has a few cameos as one of the thinkers who influences Gittl, our main character and narrator.
My favorite art and my favorite theology doesn’t wilt in the face of contradictions but rather sings with them. The word amoebic comes to mind—in the sense of, floppy. It’s a floppier question than an intelligent atheism or dogmatic theism acknowledges. The moments when the malokhim [angels] stop various characters and challenge them are not necessarily meant to be read literally. I don’t think a reader of this book will come away and say, “Ah, that is actually what happened. That is definitively what happened in the frame of this world.”
But they’re also not necessarily not what happened. There’s no like a winking frame of, like, “Da, da, da. And it was all a dream.”
So, I think that the title is an offering, an invitation to the characters, to myself as an author, to readers who pick the book up, to entertain the possibility that we exist in a moral universe.
Super interesting. Thank you for that answer.
Some of my favorite moments in the book are ones that are marked—crowned, really—by a repeated phrase: “this was a moment in what the world did not deserve to be destroyed.” The phrase almost puts a seal on a wonderful scene, in a way that I found really bewitching. Could you talk about repetition in the book, whether in this phrase or in others?
I think that for me, the repetition goes back to Torah and one of the main branches of interpretation of the Torah, the Mishnah, which literally means repetition.
There’s the idea that we learn through repetition. We find new things through repetition. We deepen through repetition. We change through repetition. And similarly, I think the poetry that I’m most drawn to oftentimes plays around this sense of repetition. This connects to the book's meta-ideas that challenge the linearity of time, the notion of history being less important than the present and the future being more important than history.
I think that the repetition for me is a way of saying that the idea here is not to make progress and dash into the future of newness and of the unknown and for every sentence to be brand new. A friend of mine, Uri Agnon, who’s a writer and a composer, had this lovely idea that he shared with me when I was working on my first book. He talked about how some of the older generation of Hebrew writers would often repeat the same word two or three times on the opening page of their book and about how there’s this mode in contemporary prose of needing to find a new synonym for everything. You can't say the same word again, you just said that same word six sentences ago. I think that this is a helpful guideline if the repetition is accidental. If you haven't done the work to think about different ways to describe the same thing, then sure, do the work, use a new word. The Thesaurus is a brilliant tool. And language is an expansive delightful playground where there are many ways to slide and hop and spin. But I think that there is something to be said for circling back again and again and again to similar phrases, to the same words, to the same sentences.
And I think about how I have a four-year-old daughter who is unsurprisingly story-obsessed, to the extent that I can’t ever remember, in entire life, her saying, “I don't want to hear any more stories right now.” Usually it's the opposite. Usually, she’s yelling and saying, “You can’t be done with that story. Tell me another story. Tell me another one. Tell me another one.”
But she doesn't want a new story every time. She doesn't want to hear brand new content. If there's a story that works, there was a story I told few weeks ago called “The Famous Elephant Story.” Elephants are kidnapped by a dinosaur and taken off into the desert and then rescued by other elephants that trapped the dinosaur in a metal cage. Whatever. I’m not saying that work was a work of genius. But point being, she wanted to hear that story again and again and for weeks and weeks until she eventually said, “Okay, enough, let’s do a different story this time.”
There’s a poetry teacher of mine, Craig Morgan Teicher, who once told me this aphorism, attributed to Richard Howard. What he said is that prose proceeds and verse reverses. Whereas prose is going to push you over the edge of the page onto the next page because you want to find out what happens next, the idea is that you get to the end of a poem and you are drawn back to the beginning, drawn back to reinvestigate the title, drawn back to the opening line. So another one of the debts that this book owes to poetry is the way that it tries to reverse itself at various points.
I have to read you something about this, if that’s all right with you. It’s a passage by G.K. Chesterton a child wanting to hear a story over and over again. I find it deeply moving: “Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, ‘Do it again’; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening, ‘Do it again’ to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”
I know. I was literally tearing up as you were talking about your daughter because I was remembering that paragraph.
If time is just a line then, of course, the older we get, the more zombic we become vis-à-vis children. For me, there was something very permission-granting the first time that I read an interview of a writer who said how much they enjoyed writing. There’s maybe this Puritanical American idea that true value can only come from misery and suffering and hard labor. Before reading that interview, I think that I felt guilty that I really enjoyed writing. I was like, “Oh, does this mean that I can't be a serious writer? Does this mean that I'm not doing it right? Does this mean that something's wrong?”
For me, in a lot of ways, art, poetry, writing is a resistance to that zombie-ism. It’s play.