The Shovel and the Loom (Twee Koffers Vol)

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THE SHOVEL AND THE LOOM (Twee koffers vol)

Novel by Carl Friedman, 1993

The Shovel and the Loom (1996; Twee koffers vol, 1993) is Carl Friedman's second novel. Its protagonist, Chaya, is the 20-year-old daughter of Holocaust survivors, now living alone in Antwerp for the first time. A student of philosophy, she draws upon her reading to make sense of her world but finds the texts lacking. As the reader shares Chaya's philosophical quest, Friedman's point becomes clear: traditional philosophy is insufficient to make sense of the world after Auschwitz. Yet Friedman's novel does not provide an easy alternative; rather, the novel suggests that, like Chaya, each of us must wrestle with what it means to live after the Holocaust. That Chaya is Hebrew for "life" foregrounds further the difficulty of living after the Holocaust, trying to navigate between the demands of the past and the draw of the present.

Significantly the novel is told as a flashback, the older Chaya looking back on a photograph of herself at the age of 20. From the onset The Shovel and the Loom is concerned with history, with understanding how the past affects our identity. This broad concern with history and origins is foregrounded early in the novel through Chaya's intellectual questions: "Where do we come from?" she asks Mr. Apfelschnitt, a family friend and a Holocaust survivor. "Was a divine father or a slimy amoeba at our cradle? Why do we live? And if we truly aspire to good, how is it that we cause so much misery?"

The novel is not driven by Chaya's philosophical musings, however; to the contrary, Chaya's philosophical beliefs develop through the action of the novel, through the people she meets and the events she experiences. This too is central to Friedman's point that our beliefs cannot be developed in a closed room but must develop out of our experience in the world and our history.

Overlaying all is, of course, the Holocaust. Chaya's concerns with the past clearly stem from her experiences as the daughter of Holocaust survivors. The shovel and the loom of the novel's title reflect two different ways of dealing with the past. Chaya's father is obsessed with old maps of Antwerp as he searches for the suitcases he buried before the war. Chaya's mother, on the other hand, thinks her husband should let go of the past. A survivor of Auschwitz, she deals with her painful history by throwing herself into the present, specifically baking, weaving, and other crafts. As the child of these survivors, Chaya stands between these two responses to the Holocaust, trying to find her own way.

In need of a job to supplement her scholarship, Chaya finds employment as the nanny for the Kalmans, a Hasidic family with five children. The work is difficult, but she stays because of her love for the youngest son, Simcha. Simcha means "joy" in Hebrew, and for Chaya the boy represents the only spark of joy in the stern Kalman household.

Working for the Kalmans exposes Chaya to a depth of anti-Semitism she has not previously experienced. Every day she must contend with the anti-Semitic manager of the building where the Kalmans live; taking the boys to the park one day, she sees anti-Semitic epithets painted on the benches. Chaya does not know how to respond to such anti-Semitism. Again she is stuck between the shovel and the loom, between a return to tradition and an embrace of modern life. Should Jews respond to anti-Semitism by becoming more religious, as Mr. Apfelschnitt argues? Or is her father right, that Hasidic Jews invite prejudice by holding on to the ways of the ghetto? Chaya is not sure and sees her own beliefs somewhere in the middle.

Chaya cannot identify with the Hasidic lifestyle of the Kalmans; she finds the way of life stifling, particularly to women. Yet neither can Chaya abandon her Judaism, which exhibits a pull on her that even she does not fully understand. Indeed, her love for Simcha draws Chaya to the sacred Jewish texts, in her desire to better understand his world. Here again we are in Friedman's realm, where actions are led not by ideology as much as by emotion, by the connections we forge with others.

The Shovel and the Loom presents a brief and intense exploration of the complexity of Jewish life after the Holocaust. Chaya struggles with the issues particularly, as the daughter of Holocaust survivors, but the novel's concerns bear on all post-Holocaust Jews struggling to create life out of the ashes.

—Rachel N. Baum