Our Names Do Not Appear
by Judy Lev
Lioness Press, 336 pp.
Reviewed by Janice Weizman
“In the ‘pilgrymage of the soul,’ coined by William Caxton in the fifteenth century,” Judy Lev writes in her memoir of lifelong trauma, “rather than travel east or west, north or south, the soul pilgrims dive deep into their personal stories. The sacred center, rather than being a piece of contested geography, becomes the heart of one’s story, a rare weave of fact and fiction, a cradle of intermingling fibers that hold and rock the soul between comfort and tolerable discomfort.”
Our Names Do Not Appear is a record of Lev’s pilgrimage of the soul, the remarkable testimony of a quest that began when, as a small child in 1951, the family was visited by a Rabbi, who had come, at the request of her parents, to explain to Lev and her sister that Joey, their baby brother had died. This is Lev’s ground zero, the origin story that directs and shapes her psyche, a lifelong spiritual journey that has reached its culmination in the publication of this book.
Even apart from this pivotal event, Lev’s life has not lacked drama. After moving to Israel from her native Cleveland in 1967, she married a fellow immigrant with who she had three children, divorced, wrote for the Jerusalem Post, worked at the biblical park Neot Kedumim where she developed educational programs, went back to school to do an MFA, and opened her own studio in which she hosted seminars and taught creative writing.
Lev is today 78 years old, and though the loss of a baby brother is an undeniably tragic event, a reader might wonder about the choice to cast it as the defining subject of a memoir. But this is precisely Lev’s achievement. In her recollection of the way that the unspoken, unresolved mystery surrounding her brother’s life and death shaped her psyche, she shows what it means to carry lifelong trauma when there is no closure and no resolution. The way in which, when it is repressed and denied as it was in Lev’s childhood, it has the power to become an obsession, an abyss that lies at the heart of the world. In this sense, the title Our Names Do Not Appear, expresses Lev’s outrage, her pain not only for the brother whose name does not appear in the various official documents she digs up in the course of her story, but for all of those whose deaths remain unrecorded and unremembered. A Beckettian protest against the intolerable obliteration of one’s ever having existed.
If memoir is an exercise in structure, then Our Names Do Not Appear is a virtuoso example of how one might tell a story whose key event one cannot remember. The first part of the novel gathers a group of disparate episodes and memories taken from various periods in Lev’s life – all of which show the way the event pervaded her spiritual and emotional existence. In the long second section, Lev envisions the story of Joey’s birth and death from her father’s point of view. In order to do this, she writes from a close third-person perspective, imagining her father’s thoughts, his internal voice, the way he would have talked to himself. It is a perspective that allows her to see herself through her father’s eyes, the eyes of an adult, and to reckon with her worst demons. For example:
He put the gearshift into reverse and maneuvered the icy driveway. Motor running, he jumped out to lower the garage door and then jumped back into the car. At the bottom of the driveway he stopped and looked down the street toward Buckeye Road. There were his two little girls walking home from school. Elizabeth was seven and a half, in second grade, and the little one was already five and a half, in kindergarten. How the time had flown by. Lately, the little one had stopped asking him for a story she could share at show-and-tell. They were sweet little girls, the way they walked home together holding hands and looking at the sidewalk, scanning with their sweet eyes for cracks below the ice. “Step on a crack, you break your mother’s back,” or something silly like that, they’d chant at home. He drove in their direction, hoping they wouldn’t notice the family car. Later, would they notice Joey was gone?
But it is in the final section of the book that Lev truly reckons with the roots of her trauma. In a series of stories recollecting encounters with her mother that took place either when her mother visited her in Israel or on trips back to the States, Lev records the slow but certain understanding of how at the root of her obsession with Joey lay years of primal, unresolved conflicts in their relationship. Ultimately, she comes to see her mother in her flawed humanity, a woman who could not give what her children most needed. And it is this insight that enables Lev to finally put the story of her brother’s death behind her.
During the time in which she has prepared our lunch, I have travelled a journey that cannot be drawn by a narrow red line on a map of the world. I have come to an understanding about myself and my mother. I can read her now. I see who she is. When she sits at the table opposite me, I am overwhelmed with compassion.
This is a book that will fascinate anyone interested in the mysterious power of trauma that remains unclear, raw, spanning years into the future, pervading every corner of lived life. A book that emphatically shows that it’s never too late for healing, resolution, and redemption.