Who By Fire

Spechler_WhoByFireDiana Spechler's recently released novel Who By Fire addresses complex issues.  Thirteen years after his sister disappeared, protagonist Ash Kellerman flees to take on the life of an Orthodox
Jew in Israel.  His other sister Bits and his mother Ellie both try to bring him back, each in their own way. Alternating between these three characters, we see the traumatized family from diverse angles. Publisher’s Weekly says the book “raises provocative questions about religion, violence and the resilience of families and individuals,” and the Jerusalem Post calls it “a book that we could all learn from.”

Here’s the start of Chapter One:

April 12, 2002

I’m sitting in Friday evening rush-hour traffic, staring out the window at the Charles River, and listening to the news. A bomb detonated in Jerusalem. A man speaks in panicked Hebrew. Another man talks over him in English: “How are we supposed to live like this?” they say in overlapping languages.

It’s been eleven months since Ash clapped a yarmulke on his head, dropped out of college, went missing, and then one week later turned out not to be missing. Where he turned out to be was Israel, at a yeshiva, ready to spend the rest of his life studying Judaism. (Judaism! In Israel! A real pioneer, my brother.)

I call Ash from my cell phone and get his voicemail. Ash’s voicemail annoys me. It’s in Hebrew, for one thing, which is absurd considering he almost didn’t get to have a bar mitzvah because he wouldn’t learn his Torah portion. I don’t know Hebrew, but I can tell by the way he speaks it that it’s not right. It sounds distinctly American. In his message, he calls himself Asher. That’s what he goes by now.

Maybe he’s traveling. His last letter said something about traveling during Passover vacation. Is it still Passover vacation? I’m trying to remember that letter, but I can only remember the package that he sent with it: dried prunes, dried apricots, bright orange sticks of dried papaya.

On his voicemail, I say, “Isn’t this getting a little ridiculous? Isn’t it about time to come home?” I don’t hang up right away. I listen to the silence in the phone, half-expecting an answer and hating the feeling. You can waste your whole life half-expecting the impossible.

*  *  *  *

The phone is ringing when I get to my apartment, and I know it’s Ash. I can feel him sometimes.

But it’s not Ash. It’s my mother, calling from New Jersey because she just heard the news.

“I can’t reach him,” I tell her. “But I’m trying. Don’t worry.”

“Bits,” she says, “don’t do this. Don’t do this to me.”

“I’m sure he’s fine,” I say. “Don’t cry.

“You’re sure? Here I’m about to have an attack, and you’re sure! Call his yeshiva,” she says.

I sit on the kitchen floor and lean back against the stove, propping the soles of my feet on the refrigerator door that I’ve never decorated. My apartment, in general, is kind of austere. I’ve just never known whose pictures to display, what sort of artwork I love enough to live with. Looking out my window at Allston, at the Citgo sign flashing and the traffic I’m not sitting in and the umbrellas in a million different colors on rainy days…it’s enough for me. How much can a person ask from a place? “I’m not calling his yeshiva, Mom.” I tell her that we should keep the lines free, in case Ash calls us. You can still convince my mother that she needs to do things like keep the lines free. “Good Shabbos,” I say, even though that’s not the kind of thing I say.

My mother says, “What’s so good about it?”

Once I hang up, the gnawing feeling hits, like I’ve forgotten to do something or I’m supposed to be somewhere. It’s the feeling I used to get as a child, when my mother would stand at the kitchen sink, her back to me, screaming at the window, “Where is she? Where the hell is she? Just tell me that!” It’s an anxiety that my mother still ignites in me, although it’s not about Alena anymore; these days, it’s about Ash.

A familiar urge starts poking at me like a finger. Don’t call Wade, I tell myself. Don’t start cruising through chat rooms. Chat rooms are for weirdos. Sociopaths. Child pornographers. Do something else. Anything else. I drag the vacuum cleaner into my bedroom and turn it on, but I’m afraid I won’t hear the phone ring, so I turn it off. I should exercise. Exercise is supposed to be calming. But I’m not much of an exerciser. After ten pushups, I can’t go on. I lie on my stomach, listening to my heart beat through the carpet. I get up and pick up the phone.

Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins.  For more information on Diana and her book, visit dianaspechler.com. Find Who By Fire online at bn.com.