In 1996, Joseph Licht, an accomplished fifty-year-old academic, is giving long and careful consideration to planning a menu for his reunion, each item chosen for the effect it will have on his guests' emotions as much as on their palates. Twenty years ago he left his wife, Rebecca, their five sons, his father, Manfred, and the farm where he grew up. Joseph abandoned his life of thirty years when he fell in love with Rabbi Yoel Rosenzwieg, a dynamic young teacher-scholar hailed by all as a Torah genius.
Joseph first meets Yoel at a lecture in Jerusalem, and almost immediately this young and impressionable man becomes captivated by the Rabbi's low-simmering peacefulness and rapid-fire sexuality. A surprisingly large man who looks more suited to a life of outdoor labor than to the scholarly and spiritual pursuits, it only takes an instant for Joseph to realize that his life will be forever shaped by his encounter with this physically dynamic man.
They both have an inkling of what will happen between them when they look at one another backstage after Yoel's lecture, though neither of them can truly imagine the experience. Even Joseph is shocked at the tingle and swell of arousal, his first inklings of a basic
but complex instinct he never thought he had. Meeting for secretive trysts at an unoccupied apartment owned by Joel's in-laws, the affair becomes so heated that it frightens Joseph to feel so out of control.
Secretly, however Joseph rejoices at this new rare friendship with a man with
whom he can feel completely at ease and yet who challenges him intellectually, who is free to speak his mind about the joys and rigors of Orthodox Judaism in the same breath as the glories of Western
culture. He steadily becomes Yoel's life force, filling whatever space he occupies with a pulsing energy that is spiritual and intellectual all at once.
This is a true friendship and a near perfect pairing of minds and interests, coupled with sexual attraction and lust that is like a "fire raging within." But there is a darker side to this relationship. Haunted by centuries of rabbinical commentaries and moral tales, the weight of centuries of leaning and tradition are rolled heavily to the side, even as Joseph and Yoel know that their affair represents "Sodom and Gomorrah revisited" and the curse of Leviticus: "an ultimate unleashing of God's unremitting fury upon mankind."
When Joseph abruptly leaves his wife and children, in the days that follow he slides from nervous hopefulness to quiet panic, but fully prepared to start a new life with Joel. But when Yoel suddenly commits suicide, Joseph not only grieves his loss but also wonders if he could have prevented it. Plummeting, changing and whirling, his life shattered, Joseph remains decimated by loneliness and fear, terrified by a choice gone wrong, strangled by silence and unmeasured time.
The core of Light Fell is how Joseph seeks to repair his troubled, complicated relationship with his five children, who have grown older harboring various animosities and misunderstandings about their father. Joseph has certainly loved his boys in return, in different measures and hopes; now, at fifty, he dreams of healing the wounds of the past through this reunion dinner.
His sons show a mixture of determination and unwillingness, the anxiety about the reunion weekend with their father crowding their waking thoughts.
Their reaction to their father's long-ago affair has become over the years a mixture of shock and solemnity. This is certainly an unusual love story that recounts
Joseph's thoughts as he is forced to feel his way through the perils and pitfalls of marriage, family and love, when overnight his whole world is turned inside out.
Author Evan Fallenberg moves back and forth between time periods, showing the setbacks and compromises that have shaped Joseph's life after the affair with Yoel ended so precipitously. He also presents different points of view, telling Rebecca's story, then returning to Joseph's, then on to the three eldest sons, Daniel Ethan and Noam. Finally, at dinner, how each party copes with this uncomfortable reunion is complicated by the inevitable incriminations as Joseph tries to explain his actions all those years ago.
The portrayal of secular Israeli life and how it can sometimes clash with fundamental Judaism is at the center of this novel. Yoel and Joseph's love affair meant so many different things to different people:
for his sons, it came to represent a perversion and a lusting, a destructive force, even as they reluctantly cling to their father's supposition that they can return to happier times.
For Pepe, Joseph's current boyfriend, it is a titillating string of tales, full
of youth and vigor, hot sex and adventure. For Rebecca, it represents her immature husband's escape from reality and responsibility,
while Joseph, steadfast to the end, maintains that the affair remains the ultimate personification of true love, "two souls only, bound at every point of their being."