L’Chaim and Lamentations is the new short story collection by Craig Darch, Ph.D., Humana-Sherman-Germany Distinguished Professor of Special Education at Auburn University. Darch, who has taught at Auburn for the past 37 years, has long had a research interest in Jewish history and culture. His personal library of Jewish books contains more than 3,000 volumes. This is his first work of fiction, and it’s a good one.
“Although pockets of the South have been rich in Jewish history, there remains a real lack of knowledge of Jewish culture here,” Darch said. “In Alabama, towns like Montgomery and Selma have a powerful history of Jewish civic support and influence, though this is rapidly waning. I hope my new story collection might call attention to some of this forgotten lore, and open readers’ eyes to the accumulated trauma and weight of what it means to be Jewish in the modern world.”
In addition to his prolific academic scholarship in the field of special education, Darch earlier wrote a biography of Auburn’s hall of fame track coach Mel Rosen. Its theme was not only how hard it was for a New York Jew to get a high-profile job in the Deep South, but how ultimately Rosen — or anyone — could thrive at Auburn.
“Auburn in the final analysis usually does the right thing,” Darch said. “We came here in 1982 from Oregon and thought we’d be here perhaps three or four years. But these have been the best years imaginable. The students are smart and interested in what we are doing. Auburn is the quintessential Southern university, but it is also much more than that. Auburn is truly a special place.”
Darch was born in Chicago, and at age six moved to South Bend, Indiana, where he experienced a thriving Jewish culture.
“We attended synagogue in South Bend and continued to travel to Chicago to see my grandparents, where we frequented the famous Jewish deli called Ashkenazi,” he recalled. “I remember always seeing the same three old men in there. I wondered about them, about their lives. Now, through fiction, I can give them names and their own story.”
That story, “Who’s the Old Crone?,” is the most humorous and uplifting of the book’s seven tales. Set in a Philadelphia delicatessen — Schwartzman’s Nosh — we learn, among other things, that the three old men are Rabbi Fiddleman, retired from his bankrupt and boarded-up synagogue, his loyal sexton Pincus “the Kvetch” Eisenberg, and Mendel Nachman, a famous cantor who late in life lost his voice and with it, his reason for living. All three are penurious Romanian refugees who spend their days in the deli exploring theology, eating as much as possible, and kvetching about the cost and quality of the food.
Adding to the trio’s permanent presence is a mother and daughter who constantly fight (“You’re not fat! You’re zaftig!”), a mysterious old crone whose appetite is matched only by her attitude, and the deli’s hapless employees. Just when everything had become as bad as it could be for each of the characters, the Unseen Power (also called the Powers That Be, or You-Know-Who, or the Hard-of-Hearing One) makes everything right in a hilarious but life-affirming denoument.
Other stories are not so happy. We see generational and cultural confrontation in “Kaddish for Two,” where a grown son struggles to assert his sexuality against his unyielding father who can only scream about the “Abramovitch Curse” and declare his son dead to him. In an even darker story, a Holocaust survivor encounters a young neo-Nazi family on a nocturnal commuter train. In spite of his terror he believes he sees goodness in the young mother. But in a brutal, even violent turn, Wasserman realizes that her future is doomed. “No, my little shiksa, things won’t be all right.”
Humor informs sadness and despair in the stories, as well. In the opening entry, “Sadie’s Prayer,” we meet a pair of lonely but mismatched Jewish roommates. One traditional and mourning her deceased husband, one communist and advocating anarchy, they nevertheless show that kindness and caring can overcome conflict and poverty … at least long enough for a bowl of matzo ball soup and a glass of Manischewitz.
“The Last Jew in Krotoszyn” is set in post-war Poland, where dying Ruta Singer tends the Jewish cemetery in the face of violent anti-Semitism. But even here, life is affirmed as she nurtures the Protestant girl Magda to carry on her work for the future. For her reward, Magda sees something in the twilight that is one step beyond this world. In this scene, Darch’s imagination, passion, and art fold into one.
Whether set in crumbling 1920s tenements of bygone modern America, or living with the broken dreams of their Eastern European heritage, Darch’s characters bring to life what it means to be part of that ancient race and the consequences of its diaspora. They speak in distinctly Jewish voices, lamenting their lives and history, even as they triumph over tragedy. L’Chaim!