Leg­ends of Our Time

Elie Wiesel An Un­pub­lished 1957 Essay Trans­lated from Yid­dish by Chana Pol­lack.

Forward Magazine - - Contents - By Elie Wiesel

Once more, I find my­self ready to hit the road. My suit­case is packed, type­writer ready, and my heart is open to new ex­pe­ri­ences, fresh en­coun­ters, brand-new tales.

You, my reader, and I are turn­ing to­gether the pages of this dusty photo al­bum, where I’ve noted both hu­mor­ous and tragic mo­ments of unique in­di­vid­u­als that had I not met, my life would have been that much poorer. Let’s pro­ceed, so that I may tell you some more true yet fan­tas­tic sto­ries about peo­ple whose lives are not as gray as ours.

My ed­i­tor’s telegram ar­rived this morn­ing. “Get go­ing!” the cable or­dered, at which point a feel­ing of in­ner peace spread within me. Since my ac­ci­dent last July [Ed­i­tors note: a car struck and se­ri­ously in­jured Wiesel in New York in 1956], I’ve hardly left my ho­tel room, not to men­tion New York. I could hardly wait to once again feed my wan­der­lust. A few years ago, when I was in In­dia, I had a con­ver­sa­tion with a holy Yogi who 30 years ago had sworn an oath not to move from his seated po­si­tion. I trav­eled 10 hours by plane to meet him. The lore sur­round­ing his oath­tak­ing in­trigued me. I wanted to find out what force kept him planted in his one spot and, on the other hand, what drives me end­lessly from one place to the other — from one coun­try to an­other.

We talked for sev­eral hours, and as I bade him farewell he shared this para­ble with me:

“Close your eyes and imag­ine your­self alone in the desert, sur­rounded by sand, sand and more

Every life is full of leg­ends. You just need to open your eyes and be able to see them, or to see them in just the right light.

sand. You’re thirsty and there’s no wa­ter. What to do? You keep mov­ing for­ward. An­other hour. An­other day or two. You have no other op­tion but to keep on go­ing. And as you move on, you’re even more tor­tured by thirst. It’s as though flames are charg­ing through your veins. It seems a con­fla­gra­tion has bro­ken out in your brain. Your throat is parched and your tongue is swollen.

There’s no wa­ter, and you reach a break­ing point. You’re in cri­sis from all the agony, and be­gin hal­lu­ci­nat­ing that wa­ter is ev­ery­where and the sand has dis­ap­peared. There’s not even any sky, only wa­ter. You imag­ine you’re bathing in it, swim­ming and laugh­ing in wa­ter — and you’re thrilled. Your trou­bles have dis­ap­peared. And you move on un­til you ar­rive at an oa­sis. And there you see a green tree with a spring at its base. And you stand still next to it, peer­ing at your own face as it’s re­flected back. You fall on your knees, bend­ing across the spring as though you’re the first man cre­ated on earth, us­ing your tongue to moisten your lips with real wa­ter.”

I feel most at home when­ever I find my­self be­tween heaven and earth, on the bor­der or, to cite W. Som­er­set Maugham, “at the ra­zor’s edge.” I fre­quently ask my­self this: Why am I so de­lighted when I say good­bye to close friends and set out to ac­quaint my­self with the un­fet­tered stranger (and some­times the strange un­fet­tered) folks?

I don’t know why.

Each in­di­vid­ual has the right to his own ob­ses­sion, his per­sonal ‘“hobby.” One is a stamp col­lec­tor, an­other loves get­ting drunk, a third plays cards. As for my­self, I love seek­ing out leg­ends.

And not all leg­ends are rooted in an­cient times. Leg­ends are born daily. You meet peo­ple like these when­ever you live out­side con­ven­tional norms.

I flip through my photo al­bum, ob­serv­ing Fran­cois’s [French ed­i­tor Fran­cois Wahl’s] long, nar­row face. His great-great grand­fa­ther was the fa­mous Rabbi Saul Wahl, but when we met he had no idea of his Jewish lin­eage. His par­ents had con­verted when he was 6 months old. They never told him the truth about his own Yid­dishkeit, and had even at­tempted to have him en­ter the pri­est­hood. Later on, when he un­cov­ered his own se­cret, he was be­side him­self. He wanted to re­turn to Ju­daism, and in a short while he be­came one of the lead­ers of the Is­raeli Un­der­ground move­ment in Europe.

[Rav Mordechai] Shushani is an­other ex­am­ple. If there is a ge­nius, it’s him, with his steel-trap mind, and the sharpest com­pre­hen­sion abil­i­ties I’ve ever en­coun­tered. Flu­ent in 30 lan­guages, he’s mas­tered cul­tures and whole bod­ies of knowl­edge. He car­ries him­self so mys­te­ri­ously, so much like a kab­bal­ist.

No­body knew his name or where he lived, or how he sup­ported him­self. He would sud­denly, un­ex­pect­edly, knock at my door and stay for six or seven hours. Dur­ing those hours he’d un­cover the hid­den mean­ing of cer­tain con­cepts, the hid­den souls of sim­ple words. I don’t know where he is any­more. Friends from Paris write me that he’s in Is­rael. If that’s true, I’ll go find him now. I’ve got a few ques­tions. But let’s not get off topic.

I sup­pose I could meet up with Fran­cois and Shoshani, were I to lead a quiet, nor­mal life — get up at 7 daily, get to work by 8, lunch around noon, home by 6 and in bed by 11. I’m happy to be pack­ing my bag. The French have a say­ing, “Ad­ven­ture awaits at every street cor­ner.” Clearly ad­ven­ture can be found. En­thu­si­asm and at­tune­ment for the mys­ter­ies of life are also pos­si­ble from home.

And truly, every life is full of se­crets and leg­ends. You just need to open your eyes and be able to see them, or to see them in just the right light.

Search­ing for leg­ends while re­main­ing at home is a dif­fi­cult and some­times thank­less task. I lack the en­ergy. Not ev­ery­one can en­dure drink­ing wa­ter from a spring and main­tain­ing a crys­tal­like con­scious­ness. It’s eas­ier con­struct­ing worlds atop desert sands. It’s eas­ier to write than to leaf through pages of an al­bum.

For the time be­ing, I close it. Maybe we’ll re­visit the al­bum some­day with fresh eyes, but for now, I’m head­ing out. If I should hap­pen upon new leg­ends, I’ll share the tales. Mean­while, be well.

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