An obsessive endeavor, regarded by most as utterly pointless. Yet the practitioner is convinced, against all reason, that he will thereby bring a measure of salvation to the world. He weaves stories into a fabric that, in defiance of death and oblivion, will, he believes, outlast time. This impulse can be traced back to a troubled adolescence, the experience of being different, the rejection of organized religion and familial expectations as he discovers, or is discovered by, a secret spiritual world which he seeks desperately to communicate to others. He is accompanied by voices which no one else can hear, at times encouraging, at times prophesying his inevitable failure.
This could be a description of the novelist’s lonely fate, certainly the high-wire emotional experience of the aspiring writer working on a first novel. But it also describes the messianic mission of the protagonist of Moshe behipukh otiyot (Moses Spelled Backwards), the 2008 debut novel by Israeli writer Dvir Tsur.
Moshe-Ephraim is a young Israeli who believes he is the messiah. He is accompanied by a mystical psalm-chanting parakeet and the Wandering Jew. These two companions sporadically assist him in his urgent mission: the weaving of individual lives and stories from around Israel into a strange tapestry that, when completed, will both trigger the end of time and allow a chosen remnant of humanity to live beyond it.
To most everyone outside of this bizarre trinity, Moshe-Ephraim simply suffers from mental illness, which first manifest itself at his bar mitzvah ceremony and has resulted in repeated and lengthy confinement to a mental institution. His Iraqi immigrant parents try as best they can to endure their son’s erratic behavior and the social scandal that results from it. The neighborhood store knows to expect his frequent purchases of thread for his compulsive work.
Moshe-Ephraim’s peregrinations across Israel to collect lives for his Weave bring him into contact with Holocaust survivors, Zionist pioneers, baalei tshuvah (newly religious Jews), and Mizrahi immigrants. Messianic figures from Jewish history make appearances—Jesus, the Baal Shem Tov, Shimon Bar Yohai, David Alroy, Shabbetai Zvi, Aaron David Gordon—all refracted kaleidoscopically through Moshe-Ephraim’s fractured consciousness. The novel reprises the emergence of Christianity and Islam from Judaism, in the first case through memories of Moshe-Ephraim’s childhood friendships with an Arab Israeli Christian family, and the second through his interactions with his Muslim landlord. These miniature versions of history and theology are not presented as satire, but as the force of the protagonist’s fiery conviction that his life reflects all these developments, at least in synecdochal form. And Tsur relates all this in a prose that often borders on poetry in its intensity and lyricism, especially when it conveys Moshe-Ephraim’s obsessive yet disjointed meditations on his saving mission.
One searches for a message in all this, or at least for a position on the phenomenon of messianism. And at many points the novel seems to critique the messianic impulse, implying that messianism (and Zionism too) is a quixotic, irrational endeavor, often indistinguishable from the desire of young males to avenge or compensate for past insults, social and erotic. And yet Moshe-Ephraim is presented as too idiosyncratic for his adventures to be the last word on messianism or any other redemptive impulse, with the exception of his own project.
What Tsur has done here is to write a novel about writing a novel. And not just any novel, but what any messianically inclined first-time Hebrew novelist might dream of accomplishing: the Great Israeli Novel. The Wandering Jew, a reality principle and voice of internal doubt, tells Moshe-Ephraim to give up:
The time has come for you to live the life you’ve been given, that’s the bit you can do. Stop bothering with a world that doesn’t exist. You’re exactly like the one I was punished for. Detached from the world and from time, certain that you have some claim over the lives of others. Deciding who will live and who will die. Shoving them into the weave and waiting. And you can always stick in more and more names.
Why bother with a world that doesn’t exist? Why take up the impossible mantle of messiah—or novelist? Moshe behipukh otiyot is not the Great Israeli Novel. Yet its tatters of thread and flights of lyric prose, are, like Moshe-Ephraim’s quest, its own answer to the question.