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by Avram Davidson

Devora Publishing


285pp/$24.95/October 2000

Everybody Has Somebody in heaven
Cover by Avi Katz

Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Avram Davidson was not a typical author.  It is therefore exceptionally fitting that Everybody Has Somebody in Heaven is not a typical collection of short stories.  Grania Davis and Jack Dann have collected almost all of Davidson’s Jewish stories (whether speculative fiction or not) in this collection.  Not content to let Davidson’s words speak for themselves, the central portion of the book is devoted to an “Avram Davidson Symposium,” in which authors such as Peter S. Beagle, Richard A. Lupoff and Barry N. Malzberg, are given the opportunity to reminisce about Davidson.

Since these reminiscences, apart from Davidson’s fantastic prose and verse, set this anthology apart from others, they are a good place to begin the discussion of Everybody Has Somebody in Heaven, which would also make a good title for a song.  The symposium consists of an introduction by Jack Dann, in which he introduces the participants, and short essays by the above mentioned authors, Carol Carr and Lisa Goldstein.  All five essays serve to focus on Davidson’s life and character rather than on his writing or any messages or themes contained therein.  All five of the essays are too brief in their consideration of Davidson.  Taken together, the symposium covers a mere sixteen pages, including the introduction, too short a span to consider a man’s life.

And yet, the entire 285 pages of Everybody Has Somebody in Heaven is a consideration of Avram Davidson’s life, both in his own words, the words of his friends who penned the symposium, and the introductions to the stories provided by Grania Davis and Jack Dann and others.  In the seven years since Davidson died, Davis has created a cottage industry of returning his works to print.  She oversaw the publication of his novella The Boss in the Wall as well as the reprint collections The Avram Davidson Treasury and The Investigations of Avram Davidson.  In conjunction with Wildside Press, Davis has seen that several of Davidson’s novels are once again available.  With luck, Davis’s future projects will focus on more of Davidson’s short stories which haven’t seen recent publication.

The collection demonstrates the wide scope of Davidson’s writing.  Opening with “The Golem,” an understated humorous piece about a retired couple facing a creature out of Jewish mythology, it moves on to a poem about the history of Judaism (“The Nephilim”) and a short work, hardly a story, about “Dan Cohen” and the true religiosity that comes from a man with firm conviction in his beliefs and the lack of the need to force those beliefs on others.

“Yochanan ben Zakkai,” the next poem in the collection, is an interesting understanding of halakhah.  The title character has an explanation about law for a non-Jew which differs from his explanation for Jews.  Yochanan explains that by discussing the reasons for halakhah, at best they are second guessing G-d.  In His own time, G-d may choose to reveal the reasons behind the law.

Small enclaves of Jews who were cut off from Israel at some point continue to appear, the latest are the Lemba in South Africa.  “The Land of Sinim” describes a similar Jewish enclave in China where the people have continued the customs which identify them as Jews without a complete understanding of why they are different.  As with many of Davidson’s pieces, it is sometimes difficult to tell where truth ends and fiction begins.

“The Countenance of the Priest” is a bittersweet story about a congregation in a small town which deals with the loss of members as they move away, die, or become assimilated into American culture.  Nevertheless, the story is a paean to the strength of Jewish tradition, demonstrated by both the continuation of the family of cohanim and the unique tune they use during the priestly blessing.

“The Waters of Eden” is a short poem commemorating the common ancestry of all humans, making a plea for peace.

Avram Davidson examines five prototypical Jews in “Who Knoweth Five?”  This collection of vignettes examines what it means to be American and whether assimilation can be defined by the person attempting to assimilate or by the society into which he is trying to be accepted.   The vignettes are made more poignant by the different reactions the various people have to acknowledgement of their Jewishness.

One of the questions which seems to continually arise in Judaism is the exact definition of what a Jew is.  Davidson tackles the question in “Rediscovery,” a story which looks at the way different Jewish groups trivialize and marginalize other groups.  In this particular case, Davidson looks at Sephardic and Ashkenazi, but the lessons learned can apply to a variety of other variations of Judaism.

“The Fisherman. . . A Tashlich Legend” is a short story of a man who meets the angel whose job it is to catch all the sins which have been discarded during Tashlich.  The man is shown an assortment of the horrible sins people have cast onto the waters, but is mercifully spared seeing his own sins.

Perhaps the strangest piece in the entire book is “Of Making Many Books,” an examination of the library of a fictional synagogue.  Davidson describes the books in a manner which intrigues the reader and makes him want to seek out the virtual knowledge contained in them.

Using the Biblical name “Caphtor” instead of the modern name “Cyprus” in “Caphtor and Other Places” is typical of Davidson’s erudition and delight in the archaic.  Detailing a trip to Cyprus and Smyrna, the story is a comedy of the absurd with a Greek chorus. 

“A Song of Degrees” is Davidson’s reminiscence of living in Jerusalem in the years immediately after Israeli Independence.  Davidson portrays the problems religious Jews had to face in their attempts, among other things, to maintain the Sabbath in a Jerusalem in which they were a distinct minority.  More importantly, Davidson discusses the weight of symbolism which Jerusalem and its locations carry.

Just as “Who Knoweth Five?” examines a variety of the faces of American Jews, “The Various Jews of Israel, or Six Sketches of Israel” is a look at Jews who live in Israel in the early 1950s.  Rather than point to individuals, Davidson plays with the stereotypes held of Jews who emigrated to Israel from a variety of countries and backgrounds.

“In Israel’s Green Pastures” is a story of four Israeli settlers who have become disillusioned with the reality of Israel.  Even as they talk about their plans to go elsewhere, however, each retains some of the optimism and idealism which initially drew them to Israel.

In “A Song of Degrees,” Davidson recounted a visit to the “Tomb of David,” noting it was an important as a cenotaph as a tomb.  In “The Tomb of Jethro,” Davidson builds his story around the alleged tomb of Moses’ father-in-law and the Druze religion which claims him as its founder.  Just as with many of the things in Israel, Davidson realizes that reality and historicism must take a back seat to symbolism and romanticism.

“On the Horizon” focuses on the plight of Moroccan, and by extension other, Jews of the Diaspora who desire to live in Israel, the land of idealism, who are not allowed to leave by their governments.

Once the idealists manage to arrive in Israel, they must try to form a homogenous society from heterogeneous sources. “The Ascalon Light” details a small group which tries to establish a settlement in Israel only to discover that things won’t always be easy (as has been demonstrated in other stories) and that differences between cultures will appear even when everyone is ostensibly working towards the same goal.

“Goslin Day” is a Jewish take on the story of the changeling.  In this case, everything which occurs on a specific day seems strange and out of place.  Eventually, Davidson reveals the cause is an influx of goslins, evil spirits, into the world.  The story is written in such a manner that it leaves the reader feeling slightly, almost imperceptibly, uneasy.

Although “Dr. Morris Goldpepper Returns” can be read and enjoyed on its own, it does not work as well as it would if the original Morris Goldpepper story had also been included.  This story is set after Goldpepper’s return to Earth and is a somewhat absurd piece in which Goldpepper plays matchmaker and sales agent in Texas.

As with many stories, “The Irregular Union of Mendel and Esther Slonim” examines the meaning of being Jewish, but also the idea of forcing one’s own views of morality on others.  The problems begin when Sandra Slonim discovers the common law marriage of her in-laws and insists on forcing her morality on them.  When her in-laws take this morality to what Sandra considers extremes, she tries to rein them in.

Davidson examines the idea that people have positions that they shouldn’t try tpo rise above in “Who Is Ethel Schnurr?”  Despite coming from a lower class background, Ethel Schnurr manages to find success, much to the chagrin of those who knew her and looked down upon her before she suddenly was thrust into the spotlight.  The question isn’t whether Ethel deserves her success, but rather does she deserve to be derided for her luck as it changes.

“On the Right is Michael” is set in a synagogue during the High Holy Day services.  Davidson makes it clear that the denomination of the congregation is not important.  Instead, the story is about the rediscovery of faith which has either been lost or has never truly existed.

“Shemiras Shabbos” is a short poem in praise of those who have the strength to adopt religious observances and maintain them in the face of secular difficulties.

As with many of the Doctor Ezsterhazy stories, “The Crown Jewels of Jerusalem, or The Tell-Tale Head” tends to ramble quite a bit as Davidson tells a pseudo-mythical detective story set in his created empire of Scythia-Pannonia-Transbalkania.  In this instance, Dr. Ezsterhazy is concerned with the appearance of the King of Jerusalem and the disappearance of the Crown Jewels of Jerusalem.  His enquiries are frequently interrupted by Davidson’s asides about the history of the empire, the jewels and the backgrounds of the variety of intriguing, unscrupulous characters Ezsterhazy comes into contact with.

Apparently excerpted from a private letter, “From A Letter to the Kleins” is an absurdist play in which traditional villains attempt to disrupt a family business for their own gain in Yorkshire.  What sets the absurd tone is the Yiddish, rather than Cockney, of the actors and the fact that they aim to disrupt a tzitzis manufacturing business rather than a traditional jewelry store.

“The Metaphysical Force” deals with a troublesome young boy coming to terms with his father’s sudden death through the discovery of religion.  However, as with such stories as “The Irregular Union of Mendel and Esther Slonim,” Jay Marshall Kay’s discovery of religion and faith troubles his family, who do not share his belief and want him to return to a “normal” life, overlooking the good his new faith has been doing him.

The final two stories in the collection are apparently chapters of an unfinished novel which the editors feel stand on their own as stories.  “Tanta Sora Rifka” continues the theme of assimilation as opposed to maintaining Jewish identity, especially when the Jewish identity is not entirely understood.  The final piece, from which the collection gets its title, “Everybody Has Somebody in Heaven” tells of Sora’s attempts to do the mitzvot she believes are required of her and hints at the difficulties she finds when she tries to live her life according to her faith.

Everybody Has Somebody in Heaven demonstrates many of Davidson’s skills as an author.  Although best known as a fantasist and mystery author, the stories in this book are mostly mainstream, although examining the questions of Jewish identity in the modern, assimilated world.  Many of the comments Davidson has to make can be equally applied to any minority trying to maintain their heritage, whether Jewish, Muslim, Asian, etc.  Because of this, the stories, even those which at first seem inextricably linked to a period, are timeless.

The Golem The Tomb of Jethro
Nephilim On the Horizon
Dan Cohen The Ascalon Light
Yochanan ben Zakkai Goslin Day
The Land of Sinim Dr. Morris Goldpepper Returns
The Countenance of the Priest The Irregular Union of Mendel & Esther Slonim
The Waters of Eden Who Is Ethel Schnurr?
Who Knoweth Five? On the Right is Michael
Rediscovery Shemiras Shabbos
The Fisherman. . . A Tashlich Legend The Crown Jewels of Jerusalem, or The Tell-Tale Head
Of Making Many Books From A Letter to the Kleins
Capthor and Other Places The Metaphysical Force
A Song of Degrees Tanta Sora Rifka
The Various Jews of Israel, or Six Sketches of Israel Everybody Has Somebody in Heaven
In Israel's Green Pastures

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