At a Park Slope Synagogue, Auster, DeLillo, Foer, and a brief cultural respite
Rabbi Andy Bachman was at the podium last night at Congregation Beth Elohim in Park Slope to introduce a reading by Paul Auster and Don DeLillo. But instead he gave the history of the Park Slope congregation he leads, from World War I to 9/11 and on to the present day.
Bachman summed up the shul’s important place in a neighborhood that, save for some uprooted trees and few smashed cars and broken windows, largely escaped the destruction of this week’s storm. But no neighborhood is an island. Bachman mentioned Jacob Vogelman and Jessie Streich-Kest, two friends with ties to the synagogue who were hit by a tree and killed in Ditmas Park while walking their dog in the storm on Monday. It was a sobering reminder that no matter where you are in New York, the devastation from the storm hit close to home.
But the show had to go on, and the event, part of a monthly series put on jointly by Congregation Beth Elohim and local indie The Community Bookstore, was a chance for many to gather and attempt to return to some sense of normalcy. The event, which promised DeLillo in conversation with Auster, as well as an introduction by another literary bigwig, Jonathan Safran Foer, was filled with more than 100 people. And there was no exclusivity; everyone who could make it out, it seemed, got a seat.
Yet there was at least one sense in which the event was curtailed. I was told earlier by one of the event organizers that per one of the author’s requests, photography was not allowed, a restriction reiterated to the audience by Rabbi Bachman. (My suspicions of who the camera-shy author might be were confirmed by another organizer, who said it was the wish of the notoriously withdrawn DeLillo, an author who spent most of the 1990s doing everything he could to stay out of the public eye leading up to the 1997 publication of his book Underworld.)
Introduced as a “member of the congregation” by Rabbi Bachman, Foer spoke next. The normally babyfaced but at the moment heavily bearded writer relayed an anecdote about the first piece of mail he ever received from a reader, long before he was the bestselling author he is today. The letter wasn’t exactly from a fan, though. It was from an autograph collector. Foer received an index card from the collector with a postage stamp bearing the image of William Saroyan (the concept the collector employed was sending celebrities stamps of other famous people in their field, and having them “cancel” the stamps with their own signatures). Foer admitted he’d never read Saroyan, so the exercise was stranger still, but he wrapped the tale up by saying that one day Auster and DeLillo would have their own stamps. He then lamented that for some time he’d been unable to find anything enjoyable to read, until he read Auster's latest, which he said prompted him to take a walk over to the author's home, knock on his door, and tell him in person that his latest book, Winter Journal had changed that. Better than an index card, certainly.
When Foer was finished, Auster and DeLillo made their entrance onto the stage to a hearty round of applause and sat between flags of the United States and Israel, right in front of where the Torah scrolls are locked up tight. Both were dressed in gray sweaters, both sported heads of gray hair (DeLillo’s edging toward white, Auster’s still balancing some pepper with his salt), and both appeared reserved and tight-lipped, which they would remain.
People have been worshipping in Beth Elohim’s massive sanctuary since the congregation moved from Downtown Brooklyn to its present location in 1910. When it was built, Jews of the Reform movement that the synagogue is connected with favored synagogue designs that resembled grand Christian churches, in the hopes of appealing to “modern” Jews. While the stained-glass windows and massive dome ceiling of the building are beautiful to behold, it’s a tough space sound-wise.
“I’m DeLillo, that’s Auster,” DeLillo said to laughs from the audience, but that was about the last decipherable thing the author did say. After a very brief preamble he read his story "Human Moments in World War III,” originally published in Esquire in 1983 and included in his 2011 short story collection, The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories. But buzzing from DeLillo’s wireless microphone, combined with the 75-year-old’s quiet and low voice prompted several audience members to call for the soundman to turn up the volume, to no avail. DeLillo read on.
When it came Auster’s turn to read, organizers sprung into action, switching out his clip-on mike for a wired one.
“Well, it’s not Broadway,” Auster remarked with a shrug as people scrambled to adjust his microphone. He grimaced as the soundman pushed the microphone mere inches from his face, but the audience laughed at the momentary chaos.
“I knew I came to the wrong place when I was a kid,” Auster said, taking a moment once everything had settled to look around the impressive Jewish house of worship. Thirty years ago Auster began his career with a memoir, The Invention of Solitude, and despite characters bearing very close resemblances to Auster cropping up often in his books (most notably in City of Glass) through the years, the 65-year-old’s most recent work, Winter Journal, stands as his second actual memoir.
He read from it a passage about his relationship, as a child, to his own body. More specifically, to his penis.
“How fitting that you should have a miniature fireman’s helmet emblazoned on your person,” he read, “on the very part of your body, moreover, that looks like and functions as a hose." It felt, at first, to be a somewhat incongruous story to relate in a house of worship, but it turned out to be quite a tender reading, at once lighthearted and somewhat moving. Once he’d finished his reading, Auster thanked the crowd and DeLillo shot up from his seat as both moved to leave the stage. That was it.
“I thought they were going to talk,” one older woman behind me said loudly. And though the event was billed as a “conversation,” where the authors would “discuss their work,” it was clear that some book signing was all that remained. Several more audience members echoed the woman’s disappointment.
But there was none of the up-in-arms dissent you sometimes see at events like this with disgruntled bookworms. Instead, fans lined up to get books signed by Auster, and others made ready to head out into the chilly night. Perhaps the mild feelings were on account of the rabbi’s sobering introduction, or DeLillo’s hushed reading, or perhaps just the knowledge that out there in the night, more urgent considerations awaited.