| Week 12
Modern Jewish Short Stories and Diasporan Culture
In this lecture I will try to accomplish two tasks almost simultaneously. On the one hand, I would like introduce possibility of using the short story as a vehicle for studying Jewish culture and, on the other hand, I would like to raise the question about the viability of diasporan Jewish culture. In particular, the paradoxical question emerges whether most of the authors we shall study are in fact writing from a culture that is Jewish. In other words, just because an author is Jewish, or even writes about Jews, does that mean that the author reflects Jewish culture. This question further begs the question of what is exactly Jewish culture. Many of the writers are from the United States and the question has regularly been asked whether there is an American Jewish culture. A few of the authors are from other diasporan countries, notably Russia and Germany, with further stories in the anthologies by British and South African writers, though there are other authors who could be studied from every country in the world, including Latin America, Canada, France, and many other places, and similar questions could be asked about these writers as well. Some of the authors are from Israel, where the question can be asked in reverse, just because they come from a culture that is primarily and consciously Jewish and write in Hebrew, does their work represent an extension of Jewish culture.
For purposes of convenience, I will discuss short stories from two of the most popular anthologies of Jewish short stories, Great Jewish Short Stories, edited by Saul Bellow, and The Penguin Book of Jewish Short Stories, edited by Emanuel Litvinoff. Because several editions of each book have appeared, I won't give specific page numbers. Most of the stories in these books, representing almost some sort of canon, appear in many other anthologies as well as in the basic works of the authors mentioned. I will occasionally mention other stories and other writers as well.
The retelling of hasidic tales by non-hasidic authors further distanced the images of Hasidim from reality. In particular, western writers for their own reasons often accentuated the antinomian tendencies of the Hasidim rather than their strict adherence to Jewish law. In Mayer Levin's retelling of Nachman of Bratzlav's "The Rabbi's Son," (Bellow) the tensions between traditional rabbis and wonderworking hasidic zaddikim are shown. The problem is, however, that despite the attempt to make a clear distinction between the obsessive observance of the rabbi and the wild, questionable observance of the zaddik, in this story the rabbi too believes in omens, dreams, and divine and demonic intervention in mundane matters, and the zaddik, with his Christ-like mediations between the holy and the sinful, is actually not unobservant after all. The story ends with the anti-hasidic rabbi, whose beloved son died before his father allowed him a meeting with the zaddik, which may have saved his life, making a pilgrimage to the zaddik. (To save a few letters, I have used the term "Christ" consciously to refer to the supernatural, divine aspects in Christian tradition; "Jesus" is a convenient term for the person. My point here is that the Hasidim were interested in the zaddikim as divine intermediaries and their views, like Jews in every period and location, were influenced by contemporary Christian beliefs.)
This ending is very similar to that of "Elie, The Fanatic," by Philip Roth. While this story is not in the collections mentioned above, it is in Roth's first collection called Goodbye, Columbus and Five Short Stories, perhaps the most exciting and controversial modern Jewish stories written. Invariably when I have taught versions of this course, students have gravitated towards Roth. While I will speak about him in his proper place, a brief comparison between Nachman of Bratslav and Philip Roth will put our theme in perspective. In "Elie," a Hasid and Holocaust survivor, Leo Tzuref, wants to establish a residential yeshivah in a suburban New York community. And Eli Peck, a Jewish lawyer, opposed this move ostensibly on the basis of the zoning laws, but actually on the appearance of the Hasidim, especially their hats, to modern suburban Jews trying to integrate into a once restricted community. Unable to grasp either the nature of the Hasidic community or the experiences they endured during the Holocaust, Elie becomes obsessed with the way that the Hasidim dress and tries to convince them to change their ways. His obsession, similar to the rabbi in Nahaman of Bratslav's hasidic story who lost his son, became incapable of dealing with his own pregnant wife. The Jews work themselves into a frenzy against the fanaticism of the Hasidim (reminding me of a local bumper-sticker Yamutu Hakanaim, Death to the Zealots), including accusing them of inventing the idea that the biblical Abraham was going to kill his own kid for a sacrifice. The story ends with Elie dressing up in the Hasid's clothing and walking through the town to the astonished reactions of the townspeople. One neighbor called him and said, "Eli, there's a Jew at your door." To which he responded, "That's me."
In "The Judgment," as retold by Martin Buber, the zaddik, here the Baal Shem Tov himself, as we saw earlier in our discussion of medieval German Jewish pietism, served as a liaison between the living and the dead. Here not only are many of the classic hasidic themes in place such as
Modern German Jewish Literature
Key to Heine's presentation of Jewish history, based on his reading of Jacques Basnage's History of the Jews and various medieval chronicles, is what we would know call the lachrymose conception of Jewish history, Jewish history being the shortest distance between two massacres. Heine contrasts bleak external circumstances with Jewish piety and Spanish Jewish skepticism with Ashkenazic Jewish piety. He, like the translators of the hasidic stories often get matters of Jewish law and legend wrong: to marry witnesses are required, holiday candles are lit before not after sunset, mixed choirs were not allowed by traditional Jews, David did not build the Temple, but Solomon, and the king would not have entered the Holy of Holies.. The rabbi and his wife fled an anticipated blood libel leaving not only all their possessions but also his students and the rest of the community to fend for themselves. Earlier the rabbi had married his wife, seemingly without her consent, and then fled from her for seven years to study in Spain.
The novel is not fully developed, but contains many points of interest relevant to German Jewish culture in the time of Heine more than to medieval Germany. As we saw with several later Hebrew poets, Heine, most famous for his Lorelei, was enchanted by the ancient German legends of the Nibelungs, Astarte, and the Rhine River. Like so many other works of Jewish literature, this story too touches on the Akedah, noting that had Abraham actually killed Isaac "there would be more goats and fewer Jews in the world." It also describes a custom of not only dipping the finger in the wine during the recitation of the plagues, but sprinkling the wine on the children. Like many German Jews, especially those involved in the Wissenschaft des Judentums, Heine saw Spanish Jewry as a model for his time, identifying with the Spanish Jews, and with lapsed Jews, many of whom returned to the fold only for major events such as Passover. He also saw the baptisms of Spain as emblematic of the situation in Germany, "Water-you well know what I mean-water is your misfortune and you will sink." He even has one lapsed Spanish Jew express the idea that even had he lived in the biblical period he would have felt the narrowness of living in Jewish kingdoms and left to live among the Phoenicians or the Babylonians. Heine, who once noted that the three volumes of the Zeitschrift fuer die Wissenschaft des Judentums did not do as much to save Judaism as kugel, puts similar sentiments into the mouth of one of the characters: "I love your cooking much better than your faith. It lacks the proper sauce."
As we have seen many times in this course, the editor's introductions are rarely adequate and often misleading. A particular case in point is Bellow' introduction to Stefan Zweig (1881-1942) which leaves out some of the most important aspects of his life, especially in terms of his relationship with Jewish culture. His entry into the world of Viennese literature was paved by Theodor Herzl who as literary editor of the Neue Freie Presse, published one of his essays. The war in no way interrupted his activities. After the Nazis came to power, he wrote the libretto for an opera by Richard Strauss, but they suppressed it and he soon left for England. Zweig had little to do with organized Jewish life, but did see himself and many other prominent Austrian writers as Jews. He wrote several stories on Jewish themes. One of the most prominent writers in the first half of the twentieth century, Zweig and his second wife, distressed over the fate of Europe, committed suicide together in Petropolis, ouside of Rio de Janeiro.
Zweig's story "Buchmendel," situated during the first World War, may reflect more the culture of the Jews than Jewish culture. Jacob Mendel, who had left the world of traditional Judaism, "the worship of the harsh and jealous Jehovah," for the world of antiquarian books, "the more lively and polytheistic cult of books." He reads with rocking motions acquired in Galician talmudic academies, a training that left him void of other culture and unable to adjust to the mundane world. His devotion to his trade is described in religious terms, like a man at prayer, engaged in a solemn ritual. After his disappearance, when the author inquired after him at the cafe where he had conducted his business for almost forty years, he invoked Exodus, "there had arisen a new king over Egypt which knew not Joseph." Finally the Toilettenfrau, was able to report to the narrator Mendel's story. Lost in his world of books, Mendel did not register as an alien in Vienna at the start of the war. Continuing to make inquiries to enemy countries about bibliographic matters the censors arrested him and sent him to a concentration camp for two years, an experience which, despite his eventual release marred him in a manner which must have been similar to what Zweig experienced with the rise of the Nazis. When the cafe was sold, the new owners were not pleased with "this dirty little Russian Jew." It was the Catholic Klofrau who, although she never read a book in her life, was most concerned about his welfare, but unable to locate him, settled for having a mass said for him.
Modern Yiddish Literature
One of the most powerful criticisms of Jewish life was offered by I.saac Leib Peretz (1851-1915) in his story "Bontsha the Silent," "Bontsha Schweig," a name that now is as much an epithet as the name of a specific story (which appears in both Bellow and Litvinoff). My reading of this story about the ultimate Jewish victim has rarely been easily accepted by students who want to see in the story a paean to piety rather than a strident critique of Jewish passivity. After describing his suffering almost excessively, I think the point is made at the end of the story when he is judged in heaven, "You never understood that you need not have been silent, that you could have cried out and that your outcries would have brought down the world itself and ended it. You never understood your sleeping strength." When offered his reward in Paradise he asks for breakfast every morning a hot roll with fresh butter. At which point there is shocked silence and then bitter laughter. I think that this reaction is negative and critical.
As proof of this view I offer his story "The Golem," also found in both books, which seems to be about the incredible powers for revenge among the Jews. When operative, however, here in the form of killing all the gentiles, the Jews are concerned that with their demise they will be deprived of gentiles to serve them on the Sabbath. Such a reaction I think reflects a Kulturkampf, a conscious Neitzschean attack on traditional Jewish values.
Peretz, however, also began a neo-hasidic trend in Yiddish and Hebrew literature, idolizing rather than criticizing the hasidic masters. A famous example of this is the story, "If Not Higher." This story, like the story by Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav, shows the tensions between Hasidim and their opponents, here designated as a Litvak, a Lithuanian rabbi obsessed with the study of Jewish law. To find out what happens to the famous zaddik who disappears each year on Friday before the High Holidays, he hides under the rabbis bed. This is a situation filled with sexual suggestiveness, which Peretz exploits, describing the groaning going on in the bed, but describing it as sorrow for the people Israel. The plot shows the zaddik dressing as a Russian peasant providing an old woman with fire wood, during which time he recited his penitential prayers. In the course of his investigations, as in the Bratslav and the Philip Roth story, the rabbi becomes a disciple of the zaddik.
Yiddish literature reached its peak in the prolific work of Sholom Aleichem, the pen name of Sholom Rabinowitz (1859-1916). Born in the Ukraine, he received a traditional Jewish education and then a secular one. He spent time in Odessa and the US. Like the other major Yiddish writers he also wrote in Hebrew. Despite his voluminous productivity, range of accomplishments, and his elevation of Yiddish literature, in his day Sholom Aleichem struggled and suffered from lack of recognition.
The story "Hodel," anthologized in both readers (why they both had to repeat stories rather than draw on different selections the rich corpus of each author is beyond me) is part of a larger cycle of stories about Tevya the dairyman and his daughters, which became the basis of both some of the earliest Yiddish films as well as the American Broadway and Hollywood extravaganza, Fiddler on the Roof. A comparison between these different works constitutes a fascinating study beyond the scope of this introductory presentation. The main features of the "Hodel" story are the narrator talking to Sholom Aleichem, Tevye's warped quotations from Jewish tradition, and the tensions between modernity and tradition, both in terms of marriage customs and learning, "You can go around bareheaded . . . but if you know what Rashi and the others have said, you are a man after my own heart." The story with all its pathos of Tevya coming to grips with his daughter's choice of a mate who will take her far from home, ends with one of the most famous lines in Jewish literature, long separated from the story and his own mother's tragic death, "And now let's talk about more cheerful things. Tell me, what news is there about the cholera in Odessa."
Yiddish literature received recognition with the awarding of a Nobel Prize in Literature to Isaac Bashevis Singer (b. 1904) in 1978. Singer was raised in a traditional Jewish family in Warsaw where he received a Jewish religious as well as a secular education and also spent three years in a village with his grandfather. He arrived in the US in 1935 where his work was serialized in the Yiddish Jewish Daily Forward and gradually appeared in English, sometimes as the original language, especially for sophisticated, less Jewishly literate audiences such as the New Yorker. In addition to short pieces he produced many long epics. Singer's works regularly draw on the forces of folklore and the demonic. "Gimpel the Fool" draws on classic traditions of the literature of the fool (Erasmus) and the grotesque (Rablais). Moving from goat turds to cemetery weddings to family violence and adultery to discussions of the existence of God, the story mixes serious social critique with frivolousness that reflects literary trends rather than positivistic data on Jewish life. "A Friend of Kafka" evokes a similar surrealistic mixture of reality and fantasy, including many names such as Chagall, Stefan Zweig and Martin Buber. Our encounter with Kafka is mediated by Jacques (Jankel) Kohn, a former actor in the Yiddish theater, an image rarely associated with serious endeavors, though he offers some fascinating insight along the way: "Jews Remember too much. That is our misfortune. . . . If our literature would only reflect this insanity, it would be great. But our literature is uncannily sane. . ."
Singer's brother, Israel Joshua Singer (1893-1944) was also a popular Yiddish writer. His story "Repentance" (Bellow) sets up a comparison between two rabbis, the joyous Rabbi Ezekiel, whose followers omitted most traditional Jewish fasts and enjoyed the Day of Atonement, and Rabbi Naphtali, "a weakling and a pygmy of a Jew." Passing judgment on these two polar opposites, Singer offers a critique of morose Jewish life by ending the story with Rabbi Naphtali dying of gloom.
Russian Jewish Literature
Modern Hebrew Short Stories
Aaron Appelfeld (b. 1932), a Holocaust concentration camp survivor who settled in Israel, was one of the first Israeli writers to deal with the Holcaust, like the poet Uri Zvi Greenberg, without actually mentioning it. "Badenheim 1939," part of a longer novella, presents life in an Austrian resort outside Vienna after the country was annexed by the Nazis. The meandering description touches on the requirement of Jews to register as such with the Sanitation Department and the attendant reactions of various Jews and former Jews. Despite ghettoization of the Jews, there is never a realization on their part of the issues involved nor does the author explicate them.
One of the most powerful stories in these collections is Amos Oz's "Setting the World to Rights." Oz, a contemporary Israeli writer, a kibbutznik who confronts the issues facing a kibbutznik, and by extension, Israeli society. The story is about a kibbutznik filled with hatred, overwhelmed by the inability of his ideals and those of the state to sustain him in a world of corruption and degeneracy. One of the central metaphors of the story that of whoredom, borrowed from the biblical indictment of all that does not confirm to its strict canons of morality, is applied as a critique to the State of Israel. The story ends with the subject spending a night with a whore and then killing himself.
Other important Israeli writers not included in these collections are Asher Barash, especially his historical stories "The Last in Toledo," "Before the Gate of Heaven, and "In Marburg"; Devorah Baron, one of the few women writers of modern Israel.
The United States
Not only has Roth exposed the vacuousness of suburban Jewish life, especially cinderblock synagogue schools, but he has explicated the conflicts and tensions among Jews and captured their verbal and intellectual patterns better than anybody else. After having worked in religious schools, my all time favorite Philip Roth story is "The Conversion of the Jews." Indeed the story was a veritable beacon of light as I found my way through the reality of contemporary Jewish education. Roth, who grew up in suburban New Jersey wrote this story when he was twenty-three years old. In this story Roth manages to pack all the issues that trouble modern Jews: Christian theology (despite all denials and institutionalized contempt, all Jews are fascinated by
One of the classical scenes of suburban Jewish identity offered by Roth is the discussion between the mother and the grandmother of the hero of the story, Ozzie, about whether there were eight or nine Jews on a plane that crashed based on the list of fatalities published in the paper because of the contested name of "Miller." Utlimately, Ozzie's posture was not so much driven by rebellion, which it may have seemed, but by genuine piety. If God were as omnipotent as the rabbi claimed, then why could He not have a virgin conceive.. Moved to great spiritual depths by his mother's lighting Sabbath candles, his questions and the rabbis objections to them provoke her to slap him in the face for the first time in his life, a reaction that will be repeated by the rabbi himself Ozzie accused him of not knowing about God. The story reaches a climax with a wounded Ozzie running to the roof of the synagogue threatening to jump unless the rabbi and the assembled crowd below expressed their belief in Jesus Christ. It concludes with Ozzie asking his mother to promise that "you'll never hit anybody about God."
In a way, the standoff between Ozzie and the rabbi is very similar to the previous collisions we have seen in Jewish literature between rabbis and zaddikim. Ozzie represented a spontaneity and an honesty towards religion and community which may have been the reason that so many rabbis and community leaders expressed such revulsion for Roth and his work. For fascinating reading about Roth, I highly recommend, at the suggestion of at least one student, his own collection of essays in Reading Myself and Others.
Cynthia Ozick, whose fame has greatly increased, writes the "Pagan Rabbi" using a man's voice. The story begins with the fact that a prominent rabbi had hanged himself in a public park. The story then traces the spiritual odyssey of the rabbi by one of his colleagues who learned, with little patience or empathy, that the rabbi had acquired all sorts of pagan, pantheistic tendencies. Rather, however, than seeing such a development as abnormal, I think that we have seen enough developments in modern Jewish culture to indicate that Jews had developed many pagan tendencies.
Finally, Grace Paley (b. 1922), provides a hilarious collection of voices in dialect in "Goodbye and Good Luck." "With me, we will raise up the sands of Palestine to make a nation. That is the land of tomorrow for us Jews." "Ha-Ha, . . . I'll go tomorrow then."
While I may occasionally mistake Hebrew continuity for Jewish creativity, the fact remains that Jews have flourished in a range of languages.
During this course, the 2,400 subscribers plus those who are getting the lectures indirectly constitute evidence of thriving Jewish culture around the world. The range of serious learning that students have brought to our discussions both from very traditional Jewish backgrounds, liberal Jewish backgrounds, and Christian backgrounds, shows that Jewish culture can flourish and that Jews and Jews and Christians can engage it critically and analytically. Students in this course constitute many teachers, professors, rabbis, filmmakers, writers, and I am happy that people have both sought my input on various projects and given me their input to this project. As questions and criticisms come in I continue to update my files, but paradoxically continue to distribute the unchanged version as requests for back issues come in. Feel free to contact me over the summer should you need missing lectures.
As a result of doing these courses, I feel as if I have found a voice and a medium to teach which is new and exciting, for students who would never meet in the same classroom. Maybe the beauty of the virtual classroom is that it brings together students and teachers who would not meet in any other circumstances. It has been said that any teacher who can be replaced by a computer should. With these courses I don't think that we are replacing traditional learning sites, but creating new ones. In addition to the standard evaluation forms, I would be interested in receiving any additional feedback from students. From these courses I have been invited to join other virtual study programs and some real ones too, and am continually working to make the courses better. Students continue to visit in Jerusalem; next week I will receive my fourth visitor from the third continent.
Where to go from Here: One of the best books written introducing the Jewish textual tradition is the collection of essays in Barry W. Holtz's Back to the Sources. Each chapter provides further direction for additional reading. On Jewish literature the journals Prooftexts and the Association for Jewish Studies Review have provided consistently innovative studies on various authors, works, and genres. For Yiddish stories, see I. Howe and E. Greenberg, A Treasury of Yiddish Stories. For recent Jewish fiction I would highly recommend the novels of Naomi Regan.
As I finish up this lecture, Dana International, Israel's trans-sexual singing star, has just finished performing Dunash ibn Labrat's sabbath hymn Deror Yikra and collapsed on stage unable to hand the medals to this year's Swedish winners. Israel participated in a contest with many nations, such as Spain and Germany, that once tried to obliterate her, voting for her singers. Germany, after years of denial, has finally recognized the rights of its Turkish citizens and not only moved towards citizenship rights, but entered a song in Turkish instead of Gerrman.