In the Days of Simon Stern
IN THE DAYS OF SIMON STERN
Novel by Arthur A. Cohen, 1973
In the Days of Simon Stern is a richly textured, fantastical narrative describing the coming of the Messiah in the aftermath of the Holocaust. Combining serious theological reflection with elements of farce, Cohen's novel represents a statement of faith in the ongoing possibility of redemption. At the same time it qualifies this faith by underscoring the dangers inherent in premature efforts to "force the end." In an illuminating analogy Cohen has described his novel as an attempt to "transcribe for full orchestra what the aggadah had scored for the small voice." Like the aggadah— the homiletical stories told by the rabbis of the Talmud—Cohen's work is a fiction that participates in Jewish tradition by offering a commentary on fundamental theological questions.
The story is narrated by a blind scribe named Nathan Gaza who describes himself as a "proclaimer of visions" and an "impresario" for the world's redeemer. His story recounts the life and adventures of Simon Stern, who comes of age in New York City during the years of the Great Depression. Before Simon's birth in an East European shtetl his parents bring him to America, where he becomes a brilliant student of Jewish Law—and an even more brilliant entrepreneur. Working his way up from a janitor in the real estate company of Baumgarten & Fitzsimmons, Simon takes over the operation and becomes, by the outset of World War II, a real estate tycoon worth $60 million. Simon's biography suggests a burlesque version of the rags-to-riches Horatio Alger story. Rather than embracing a life of opulence, however, he decides to marshal his resources toward the salvation of a remnant of European Jewry.
Simon's transformation is prompted by a visit from a mysterious personage who recounts an extended parable entitled "The Legend of the Last Jew on Earth." It describes a mass conversion of the Jews during a modern version of the Spanish Inquisition. Only one Jew, Don Rafael, has the tenacity to withstand the pressures to convert, and when he is murdered by the Inquisition the memory of his deeds inspires a mass return to Judaism. The parable underlines the possibility for spiritual rebirth, even under extreme duress, and it prepares Simon for his own errand to the Jews. Simon attends a rally in Madison Square Garden where he hears Chaim Weizmann describe the mass murder of European Jews. Immediately thereafter Simon decides that it is time "to begin the work of redemption." Amassing an eccentric group of assistants Simon drafts (while sitting in Ratner's restaurant on Delancy Street) the "Ratner's Declaration of Conscience," in which he describes his plan to build a sanctuary for a selected group of survivors from the Nazi death camps.
Modeled upon King Solomon's Temple, the sanctuary will provide "an enclave in which to cultivate the resources of stubbornness." Simon travels to Europe to collect a remnant of European Jewry. Together with a thousand survivors Simon and his assistants return to New York and take up residence in the "Temple," which covers an entire block on the Lower East Side. (The facade retains the appearance of a conventional tenement building.) Not long after their arrival, Janos Baltar, the one evil character they have allowed to join the group, smuggles into the compound $2 million worth of ammunition and attempts to stimulate an insurrection. The ammunition sets off a gigantic explosion, destroying the Temple and killing Baltar. The survivors flee "to the city beyond," Simon moves uptown, and Nathan writes the narrative.
The account of these events is filled with allusions to Talmudic and Biblical texts, Greek mythology, European literature, and Jewish history. For example, the name Simon Stern recalls that of Shimon Bar Kokhba, who in 132 C.E. led a doomed rebellion against the Roman emperor Hadrian ("Bar Kokhba" means in Hebrew "son of the star"; "stern" means star in both German and Yiddish). Many of Bar Kokhba's contemporaries, including Rabbi Akiva, saw in him the coming of the Messiah. Another key allusion links the scribe, Nathan Gaza, to the historical Nathan of Gaza, who in 1665 proclaimed the messiahship of Sabbatai Zevi, setting off the most notorious episode of messianic fervor in Jewish history. Yet while these historical references associate the character Simon Stern with false messianism, the novel's narrator insists otherwise. At the end of his tale, he writes "I have told you the story of a fulfilled moment." The implication is that Simon Stern's action on behalf of the survivors of the Holocaust reflects a step toward redemption, even if ultimate redemption remains deferred. This conclusion is anticipated by Nathan's running discussion throughout the novel of the difference between Greek tragedy and Jewish literature. Whereas the former reflects the doctrine of implacable human fate, the latter reflects a faith in the human ability to turn toward the divine and alter the terms of fate.