Avi Stein­bergs first book, Run­ning the Books: The Adven­tures of an Acci­den­tal Prison Librar­i­an, is now avail­able. He will be blog­ging all week for the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ings Vis­it­ing Scribe.

I was on a roll with my man­u­script, a prison library mem­oir, of all things, and then Kaf­ka rolled into my life. Or rather, I rolled into his. At about the time I was fin­ish­ing up my final edits for Run­ning the Books—my fledg­ling first book — my life fell into the abyss described by the good Dr. Kafka:

What are you build­ing?” asks the man.
I want to dig a sub­ter­ranean pas­sage,” the sec­ond man shouts back. And con­tin­ues, Some progress must be made. My sta­tion up there is way too high. We are dig­ging the Pit of Babel.”

Direct­ly under every proud edi­fice, under every act of cre­ative ambi­tion, is a pit that will — that must! — take the mis­sion in pre­cise­ly the oppo­site direc­tion. My pit was, appro­pri­ate­ly, locat­ed in Tel Aviv.

I was liv­ing in Jerusalem last year, mind­ing my own busi­ness in the Val­ley of the Cross, that cozy nook, when sud­den­ly I got wind of some excite­ment from the coast. A riotous legal con­tro­ver­sy was unfold­ing over an archive of lit­er­ary doc­u­ments, includ­ing some unde­ter­mined amount of unseen work by Kaf­ka. Accord­ing to local reports, the papers were stashed in the Spin­oza Street apart­ment of a noto­ri­ous Tel Aviv cat lady. (The num­ber of cats in the woman’s apart­ment, like the num­ber of Kaf­ka doc­u­ments there, is unknown and pos­si­bly unknowable.)

The details of the case were of soap opera com­plex­i­ty. This cat lady, it turned out, was the daugh­ter of the sec­re­tary — and prob­a­bly lover — of Max Brod, Kafka’s good pal. Brod escaped Prague for Tel Aviv in 1939, and lived there until his death. The cat lady claimed that the papers, which may be val­ued in the mil­lions of dol­lars, were her inher­i­tance from her moth­er, who received the stash from Brod as a gift. The Israel Nation­al Library stren­u­ous­ly dis­agreed with the cat lady — while the Deutsch­er lit­er­ary archive in Mar­bach, Ger­many total­ly dis­agreed with the Israel Nation­al Library. And every­one dis­agreed with Kaf­ka, who, in about 1921, had polite­ly request­ed that these papers be destroyed. And so a legal bat­tle royale was going down in the Big Orange between the fol­low­ing par­ties, all of whom were entan­gled in shift­ing alliances with one anoth­er: the cat lady and her legal team; the cat lady’s sis­ter and her legal team; the respec­tive legal teams of the Ger­man and Israeli archives; an attor­ney from the State of Israel; and the court-appoint­ed execu­tors for the estates of the cat lady’s mom and Max Brod, respec­tive­ly. Nobody who’s being hon­est with him­self real­ly knows how many lawyers are involved, not even the judge. This infor­ma­tion, like the num­ber of cats and Kaf­ka doc­u­ments in Spin­oza Street apart­ment, is hid­den some­where in the Pit of Babel.

Look­ing for a break from my prison mem­oir, I decid­ed to make a trip to Tel Aviv. I fig­ured I’d take in the court pro­ceed­ings as a form of enter­tain­ment. Com­pared to watch­ing a Beitar Yerusha­lay­im soc­cer game — whose fans’ inter­minable chant Jerusalem War-fare!” gets old after about fif­teen min­utes and becomes pan­ic-induc­ing after half-an-hour — the Kaf­ka tri­al seemed like a fun diversion.


Giv­en the space con­straints of the blog form, and the lim­i­ta­tions of human rea­son­ing, not to men­tion pro­pri­ety, I will say only this about what hap­pened next, once my life inter­sect­ed with Kafka’s. My life wasn’t ruined, per se. There’s a cer­tain clar­i­ty to ruin. No, my life sim­ply van­ished, uncer­e­mo­ni­ous­ly sucked into some vent in the Tel Aviv Dis­trict Court, and hasn’t been seen since.

In the­o­ry, I’m wrong. A lot has hap­pened in my life since then. I fin­ished my book edits. My strange mus­ings about Kafka’s final will were quot­ed in The New York Times. I moved back to the Unit­ed States. My prison book came out and wasn’t a dis­as­ter (in a dream of mine, the great sage and per­pet­u­al best­selling author, Rashi, had fore­told a pub­lish­ing fias­co — thanks, Rashi).

On the sur­face, things seem fine. My body gets out of bed and does nor­mal things. It brush­es its teeth. It goes places like the gym, the super­mar­ket, din­ner par­ties, and aquar­i­ums. It finds its way into pet shops to play with cats. It gets excit­ed when it receives the lat­est issue of Cat Fan­cy mag­a­zine. It walks down the street, stops in front of mas­sage par­lors, which is doesn’t enter. My body talks to disc jock­eys about the authors who’ve influ­enced its writ­ing. But it’s like none of it is hap­pen­ing. None of it feels real.

The real me is still sit­ting in the back row of the Kaf­ka hear­ing, as untold hordes of black-robed lawyers shout at each oth­er end­less­ly and accuse their oppo­nents of des­e­crat­ing the mem­o­ry of the Holo­caust. Each in turns looks at me, lit­tle old me, with sus­pi­cion. All the while, the judge sits there, appear­ing mas­sive­ly hung over, her chin propped up on her palm, observ­ing the pro­ceed­ings with life­less eyes. Two feet behind her, vis­i­ble through a win­dow, a giant wreck­ing ball swings by. Then it swings by again, in the oth­er direc­tion, the force of its motion rat­tles the win­dow hor­ri­bly. A drill bears down above me, send­ing a small cloud of plas­ter onto my lap. The court’s offi­cial clock has stopped at 5:32. I swear this was how it was.

I regret to report, this is still how it is for me. And for all I know, how it may always be. Half a year lat­er, I can make a pre­lim­i­nary assess­ment: I nev­er real­ly emerged from that court­room. Maybe I was always there. It’s hard to say, so I won’t spec­u­late just yet. But I might add, for the record, that what­ev­er hap­pened in there I don’t blame Franz Kaf­ka. With all of his might, with his very life, he tried to warn me.

Avi Stein­berg will be blog­ging for the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil andMyJew­ish­Learn­ing all week.