Feb 16, 2020
נישט דאָס געדאַנקען, נאָר דווקא דאָס פֿאַרגעסן איז אַ תּנאַי פֿאַר אונדזער עקזיסטירן. (שלום אַש, דער מאַן פֿון נצרת, 9)
Not the power to remember, but its very opposite, the power to forget, is a necessary condition of our existence. (Sholem Asch, The Nazarene, 3)
Why would an internationally best-selling author move to the tiny town of Bat Yam? This rather judgmental question was clearly bothering Zalman Shneour when he wrote to a friend discussing Sholem Asch’s immigration from London to the coastal town of Bat Yam, Israel in 1955, then a small suburban town just south of Tel Aviv. Shneour, formerly a friend of Asch, could not comprehend the motivations behind such a move, settling for an explanation that Asch moved to Bat Yam so he might have “a Hebrew address for Stockholm.” 1 1 In a letter from Shneour to Yosef Lichtenbaum, 12.27.1955, box 793, 96742/1, Shneour Archives, Gnazim, Tel-Aviv, Israel. Referencing the location of the Nobel Prize committee, Shneour was searching for ulterior motives, viewing Asch’s move to Israel as motivated by prestige, an attempt to anchor his prose in a nation state, a physical address where the acceptance letter from the Nobel Prize committee might arrive. Literary pettiness aside, this letter attests to the strangeness of Asch’s move to Bat Yam at age seventy-five, for what would prove to be the final two years of his life.
Asch’s arrival at the small house at 50 Arlozorov Street in Bat Yam was to be his final move in over two decades of travels. Ever since World War II forced Asch and his family to leave Villa Shalom in Nice, they moved over and over again: Stamford, Connecticut and Miami Beach, Florida in the 40s, Los Angeles and London in the early 50s. By the time they reached Bat Yam, Asch and his wife Madzhe were searching for a place to settle down.
Asch’s longing for stability in Bat Yam is visible in the construction of his sanctuary-like home there, which was reopened as a museum in April 2019, part of the Museums of Bat Yam (MoBY). 2 2https://moby.org.il/building/sholem-asch/. The house functioned as a small museum from the early 60s until it was closed in 2008 for renovations, which ended up leaving the house closed for a decade. In anticipation of this opening, the curator of the house museum, Leoni Schein, invited me to give a talk at the opening ceremony about Asch’s life and writings. Though I was familiar with his work in both Hebrew and Yiddish, his short Bat Yam period was more of a mystery to me. Like many, I knew Asch for his bilingual beginnings in short stories, for his popular plays, and for his epic novels. So when visiting the house for the first time, prior to the opening night, I was enamored, awed, by the treasures this small, unassuming house contained. Today, this carefully curated house holds the original restored furniture as well as some of Asch’s extensive art collection. Visitors to this quiet and modest home will likely experience the same surprise, even bafflement, that Shneour expressed when he learned of Asch’s move. The small home, nestled between buildings, feels like a marginal place. In 1955, when Asch moved there, it was one of few homes along a dirt road in what could only generously be called a town. But past the gate, the Asches constructed a comfortable, elegant environment, now restored thanks to the work of curator Leoni Schein and the entire staff of MoBY, a project overseen by Hila Cohen-Schneiderman, MoBY’s chief curator.
The home consists of a small living room with a beautiful bust of Asch, an even smaller kitchen with the original appliances, a bedroom (which is now the office and archive of the museum), and a study with Asch’s bed, desk, and typewriter. All the rooms are filled with stunning art: sketches and drawings of Asch and Madzhe made by Marc Chagall, paintings by Moïse Kisling, and a beautiful series of portraits by Sidney Gelfand adorn the hallway connecting the rooms. 3 3 Asch was a very close friend to many artists who frequented his homes and who describe him as a wonderful host and friend. Chagall and his wife Bella were especially close to the Asches, and several of the drawings in the Bat Yam house are personal mementos by Chagall to the Asch family. For more see: https://www.yiddishbookcenter.org/2019-pakn-treger-translation-issue/postcard-marc-chagall-sholem-asch The art demonstrates the importance Asch placed, in this and all homes he lived in throughout his life, in surrounding himself with beauty, curating his surroundings, and making his life pleasing and comfortable. But perhaps the artifact that tells the story of the house best is the intricate design for the surrounding garden, planned and sketched by the landscape architect M. Victor. 4 4 Hiring this specific architect to plan the garden of the house is yet another indicator of the fact that no expense was spared in the design of the Asch house. Victor, a Tel-Aviv based landscape architect, planned many gardens, most famously the garden surrounding the residence of Israel’s second president, Ben-Zvi, in Jerusalem. This plan, which is part of the house archive, is a vivid reminder not only of Asch’s close attention to his home’s design, no expenses spared, but also the house’s truncated life; the garden was never fully realized, and the plan remained in the archives for future use, now being implemented by the Museum staff.
I hope this potential of the dormant garden plans will someday be realized by the curators of this house museum, just as Asch scholars may realize the possibilities the small house archive holds, including newly accessible and unresearched materials. The Bat Yam house archive offers a new prism through which to consider Asch in his Israeli period, a time when he returned to translation of his work and found a growing interest in biblically inflected writing. Meanwhile, the newly reopened and carefully restored house demonstrates just how much thought Sholem and Madzhe Asch put into this house in 1955. In the opening passage of Der man fun natseres, Asch writes that it is not the capacity for remembrance that defines us as humans, but rather the capacity to forget, דווקא דאָס פֿאַרגעסן איז אַ תּנאַי פֿאַר אונדזער עקזיסטירן. He continues to note, later in the paragraph, that echoes of what seems to be forgotten reverberate in the lives of those who cannot forget.
Asch’s house is such an exercise in the limbo of remembrance and forgetting. The art calls to mind Asch the collector and curator, the desk Asch the writer, and the potential he saw in this house, in Bat Yam, a potential only partially realized in his life. Yet despite this richness, his time in Bat Yam, and his house there, have been overlooked for some time, as the small house has fallen into disuse and atrophy. Hopefully, this is all about to change: Cohen-Schneiderman and Schein aim to realize the hopes for the house that Asch himself was unable to achieve before his death by turning the Asch House museum into a center for the written word. Asch hosted several literary events at the house in the short time he lived there, and these carried on for some time after his death. The MoBY staff hope to ignite this legacy by having the house host reading circles, lectures, and a residency program for writers, programs that are all underway.
Queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick champions the idea of “beside” to promote non-teleological views of space and narrative. 5 5 Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick. Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003, 8-9. I’d like to imagine Asch, too, enjoyed being “beside.” If there was any constant in his incessant movement and upheaval, it was his lifelong desire to be just adjacent to important cultural centers. His consistent choices bear out this claim: not Manhattan or Brooklyn, but rather Staten Island. Not any of the arrondissements of Paris, but rather Belleville. The hills beside Nice, just off the riviera. The quaint Hibiscus Island in Miami. The relatively marginal Stamford, Connecticut. In light of the other locations he lived, Shneour should not have been so surprised Asch chose Bat Yam. Asch’s home was always off to the side, and moreover, his home was always his writing desk, where he needed silence. Bat Yam, beside Tel Aviv, suited Asch. The only home he ever built from the ground up was located on the riviera of the young state of Israel. The unfulfilled promises this home held and holds – only two years in this house, the garden that never fully materialized, the numerous manuscripts left unfinished in the archive –tell the story of the potential this home held for Asch and still holds for visitors and scholars of his prose and life. The resonances of what is forgotten are gathered in this house, echoing off the walls, calling for the realization of this potential.