Saturday, February 28, 2009

Miller's Lucky Talisman

On the dust-jacket of the 1961 edition of Sunday After The War, is a black and white portrait of Henry Miller (below), photographed by Larry Colwell. One detail about this photo has always intrigued me: no, not the weird pockets that droop like sagging breasts—it’s that low-hanging object on a chain around his neck. I wondered if that garish piece of folk art had a story and meaning behind it.

Henry Miller met the Palestine-born Jewish painter Bezalel Schatz in December 1945, at a birthday party held in Henry’s honour in Big Sur [1]. Schatz, known to all as Lilak, proposed an art-book collaboration idea to Henry, which would become the lofty limited edition publication, Into The Nightlife [1]. Henry and Lilak became great friends. When, in 1952, Henry married Eve McClure (ref.)--the sister of Lilak’s wife Louise--they also became brothers-in-law, although at a distance: Lilak had moved to Israel several months earlier, after nearly 15 years in the U.S. [7].

It seems to me that Lilak sent Henry his lucky talisman directly from Israel in 1951 or early 1952 [2]. “I received this gift at a very low ebb in my life and [from] that moment I received it my ‘luck,’ so to speak, turned. I attribute this good fortune more to the spirit in which my friend sent it than to any magic inherent in the words,” wrote Miller to Elmer Gertz in 1962 [3].

The talisman in question was a rectangular, thin, silver tablet on which was written archaic Hebrew text. The words had been translated by numerous Jewish friends, but always with slight variation [4]. Henry understood it to be a “well-known Hebrew prayer which the rabbi recites on special occasion in the synagogue” [4]. Although Henry never wrote its meaning down, he remembered it as such:

God bless you and protect you. May the radiance of His vision illuminate your countenance. And may He instruct you in his ways.

I am absolutely not an authority on this subject, but a bit of research suggests to me that this is a variation on a prayer spoken on Purim, that goes:

May the Lord bless thee and guard thee. May the Lord let His countenance shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee. May the Lord lift up His countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.

Henry was also under the impression that this silver amulet was 400-500 years old [5]. “[It’s been] so worn down by contact with the skin of everyone who’s worn it or touched it that the characters are almost effaced” [6].

He was also led to believe that it had been crafted by the Jews of Yemen. The Yemenite Jews were a subject of interest for Miller in 1950-51. When Lilak was still in Big Sur, he and Henry “had long talks about these wonderful artistic Jews [of Yemen]. He [Lilak] has painted a few—years ago” [7]. Schatz had indeed made portraits of Yemenite Jews, back in 1937, before he left the then-Palestine for the U.S. that same year [8]. One such etching from 1937, below, is entitled “Yanny Yemenite,” posted on the website for Beit Chevarim synagogue.

In 1950, Henry was also hearing about the Yemenite Jews from J. Rives Childs, who had recently been on an “ambassadorial mission” in Yemen and had sent information and souvenir spoons from Yemen as a gift for Henry’s daughter, Valentine [9]. In Books In My Life (1952, p. 254), Miller referenced “the wonderful Yemenite Jews who have in Yemen (Arabia) one of the most interesting capitals in the world — San'a.” Henry had been impressed with photographs of San’a found in a 1947 issue of National Geographic (but which he’d only seen in June 1950) [10].

The Jews of Yemen are thought to have migrated to that Arabic region in the time of King Solomon, to acquire gold and silver for the Temple of Jerusalem. They established a unique Jewish culture of their own over the following centuries. Shortly after the establishment of Israel in 1948--and the resulting heightened hostilities between Jews and Arabs--the Jewish population in the Muslim republic of Yemen suffered an anti-Jewish backlash. The resulting exodus in 1949-1950 (under the nickname Operation Magic Carpet) brought 50,000 Yemenite Jews to Israel, virtually emptying the population from Yemen. (all of these references from Wikipedia and the Jewish Virtual Library). It seems likely that these world events brought the Yemenite Jews to Miller’s attention.

The Yemenite Jews had a reputation as silver-smiths (ref: – see several examples of their work at the Anahita Gallery), and brought this trade with them to Israel. “There are thousands of these talismen floating about in Israel and elsewhere,” wrote Henry in 1962 [4].

When Henry reunited in Spain with his friend Alfred Perles in 1952, one of the first things Alf noticed was Henry’s talisman: “He could have been taken for a mildly eccentric tramp” [11]. Perles observed that Henry was quite serious about the medallion’s “miraculous qualities. He claimed he hadn’t had a day of bad luck since acquiring it. ‘I never take it off,’ he said. ‘Not even in bed,’ Eve confirmed with a wry smile. ‘I’m full of black and blue marks.’ ‘That’s a by-product of passion.’ Anne laughed. ‘That talisman also probably makes for virility.’ Henry laughed” [12]. (Miller would later write that Perles’ account should be “taken with a grain of salt” [3]).

Nearly a decade later, Henry was still wearing the Yemenite talisman. “I’ve worn it for a very long time,” he explained to his friend, Brassai, in 1960, when it had become exposed after he undid his shirt buttons on a hot day. “Rightly or wrongly, I think it will bring me luck” [6].

In preparation for understanding his client for the legal defence of Tropic Of Cancer in 1962, lawyer Elmer Gertz read Perles’ book and was intrigued by the account of Miller’s talisman. A query about it to the publisher of the Henry Miller Literary Society resulted in a direct response from Miller himself, on January 3, 1962—from which much of the information in this posting comes. By this date, Henry no longer wore the talisman, “because I am tired of answering the foolish questions people put to me” [4]. Instead, Henry carried it in his pocket [4]. And a good thing, too, because the legal proceedings begun in 1962 had the good fortune to lead to the veil of obscenity finally being lifted from the novel once and for all in 1964 [13].

[1] Miller, Henry. My Bike And Other Friends; p.19; [2] Gertz, Elmer, and Henry Miller. Years of Trial and Triumph; p.3. Miller writes, “this brother-in-law who sent it to me…” (emphasis added). Schatz relocated to Israel in 1951. This timeline seems consistent with the fact that Miller describes the talisman heralding an era of better fortune than the one he was leaving—his marriage to Lepska ended in 1951-52, and his marriage to Eve was to occur in 1952, which at the time he would have considered good fortune; [3] Gertz, Elmer, and Henry Miller. Years of Trial and Triumph; p.3; [4] ibid, p.2; [5] In Brassai’s 1960 account of a conversation with Miller in 1960, he quotes Miller as saying “400 years” (Henry Miller, Happy Rock; p. 83)—in the Gertz book, Miller is quoted as saying “500 years” (p. 2); [6] Brassai. Henry Miller, Happy Rock; p. 82; [7] Childs, J. Rives. Collector’s Quest; p.22—letter from HM to Childs, May 10, 1950; [8] Biography at the Schatz House in Jerusalem, online; [9] Childs, J. Rives. Collector’s Quest; p.48; [10] ibid, p.29; [11] Perles, Alfred. My Friend Henry Miller (paperback, 1962); p.161; [12] ibid, p.163; [13] Elmer Gertz Collection, Southern Illinois University.


Anonymous Eric L said...

Wonderful detail, RC. Now, if we can only figure out where he got those supercool sunglasses.

6:54 pm  
Anonymous Inbar said...

I'm from Israel and it's funny you're posting this great story now because in a week or so from today it will be Purrim. I can't read the third word but in general the translation is correct, only that Henry wore the talisman (at least in this picture) the other way around (i mean that now i should theoretically read it with a mirror).
[pardon my english]

7:24 am  
Blogger RC said...

Thanks for confirming the translation, Inbar. If the letter are backwards, this may because the photograph itself was "flipped" when printed for the cover.

1:30 pm  
Blogger David Marc Fischer said...

Based on the translation, it sounds like a Benediction that comes at the end of many services, not just Purim.

The blessing actually has a kind of mystique about it. I believe that, traditionally, congregants are supposed to avert their eyes from the prayer-giver, who reaches out his hands in a way that inspired Leonard Nimoy's "Live long and prosper" salute. The hand gesture is associated with the Kohen tribe. For more, read here.

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