It is around Pesach of 1895 that I begin to grow dis-enamored of our tiny pond of a Yid-lit scene. By the High Holidays, my disaffection can clearly be seen by everyone. Here we are, at the very center of the Haskalah. I'm breaking bread at regular intervals with the two great Yiddish writers of our time, three if you must count Shaya. At one point, Shaya only let me read select passages of Tatiana. It turned out to be a very good book, but he achieved nowhere close the success Shalom and Yitzhok led him to believe was his. For all intents, Shaya wrote a roman a clef biography of Galina's family before she came to Warsaw. There were astute observations on every page about the Russian serf system, the civil service bureaucracy, the Orthodox church and the effect of vodka on the Russian peasant. Except for some casual anti-semetism, Jews, Jewishness and the Jewish condition are nowhere to be found. It is a fact that had not escaped the eagle eyes of Yiddish critics even if it had escaped Shalom Aleichem. The critics were led by Shalom and Yitzhok to expect a volume full of insight into Russia’s relationship to its Jews. Even if their priorities are misplaced, I can't say that I blame the critics for their disappointment that the book is about something else entirely. Yet it was Shaya taken to task for ignoring the plight of his own people, not his promoters. That's just unfair.
And it's from Shaya’s shabby treatment that I begin to perceive the rot in this new attempt at civilization which we’ve mistakenly undertaken, even if Shaya doesn't. We did not leave 2000 years of Rabbinic tradition behind to be a cog in the wheel of other people’s agendas. For all we know, neither Shalom nor Yitzhok even read the book. They simply needed a new work to rally people for the Dreyfus trial. Shalom must have had Shaya’s manuscript siting on his desk in Odessa for a year. Yet it remained untouched until it served his purposes to use it.
To be sure, Shalom and Yitzhok are fine writers. But my initial enthusiasm for Shalom’s work has been replaced by utter frustration at its repetition. His work is genuinely funny, sometimes hysterically so, and sometimes even moving. Yet I feel as though the jokes and stories have become numbingly repetitive, as though I’m watching a reliable but uninspired sitcom (though I have no idea what a sitcom is). Yitzhok’s work can be quite inspired, but the candle in the wind flame of his work does not hold up next to the incandescent bonfires of our Russian competitors - not that they’re much aware of our competition. Next to the great passages of our Bible, their work gathers all the inspiration you can derive from a wet match. It's an unspoken truth of which everyone seems aware yet no one dares to mention. Even as I begin to voice a small sliver these concerns, and I can feel a dread distance growing between me and my comrades for the capital crime of uttering them at all. `
Shaya seems perfectly content to be accepted as a second-tier Yiddish writer. He is hard at work on his new novel - this one about the transition of a young man from the world of the shtetl to the world of assimilation. He tells me he has no time for women anymore. All he wants is to be known as the Yiddish Shakespeare. I don’t dare tell him how misplaced an expectation that would be for anyone.
Rivke wants to get married. In every conceivable way, I am not ready. She was always controlling, and in a previous lifetime I found that incredibly attractive. But her overbearing manner is turning me sour. I’m paid to write, I have a steady job as a journalist in Warsaw with many chances for promotion, soon I’ll be expected to write books that will be published and reviewed. And according to Rivke I should be satisfied with this. How dare she.
But our biggest fight had nothing to do with career matters. It occurred on a day I returned home to find her brandishing a letter from my mother. I knew that this is a letter I should have burned immediately. But my mother and father write me almost daily with entreaties to come back to Gizl. How could she have found this one if she didn't read them all? In this letter, my mother not only assures me that the Rabbi’s daughter is happily married to my cousin Beryl, and not only expecting her third child, but also that her first child was Beryl’s with whom she’d been carrying on simultaneous to me.
Rivke can hardly be a new hand in this sort of situation, but she swears she always knew better than to ever be put in the family way. I suppose I believe her. Even if I didn't, what choice do I have? But to describe her as livid would be akin to describing King Saul as proud. She refuses to hear any explanation that the child was not mine, and in an atypical moment tells me that we have tempted evil and God shall punish us for living as we do in such sin.
And so I long to escape from under the thumb of Rivke, Shaya, Shalom, Der Trakhtner and Warsaw altogether. But even with this piece of news, Gizl is the only place in the world whose name strikes more terror in my kishkes than Warsaw. I know all that there will be for me to know about this city for a long time yet, and surely the world is a larger place than this.
It is now Shaya who is the toast of our social circle and I who've withdrawn into our lodgings. Everything about our friends, our neighborhood, our society, our city seems not a mere sour taste but an idiotic mistake. No doubt, somebody exactly like me dreamed of exactly this day a millenium ago. But he could never have forseen what I see. A Jewish neighborhood in which Jews dare comport themselves as the goyim's equal; as my Zaydie would say, das ist nicht azai vi Got hot gehaysen.
For all the drab awfulness of the Shtetl, at least we knew who we were. We are no longer a people with a mission. Shalom, Yitzhok and their ilk try to drum up a meaning for us that simply does not exist. Without purpose, we are adrift in a world that wants nothing more than for our existence to cease. And we well may oblige them. I fear our liberation has set something terrible in motion that cannot be undone. Judaism has always been nothing more than civilization upon a razor’s edge. But our civilization was built upon the service of God through the obeyance of his commandments. Perhaps Yahweh has retribution in store for us just as he has for all who have forgotten him.
As I have in moments of crisis since I was three years old, I’ve retreated into books. I chant Ecclesiastes every evening as I relieve myself. I recite a Psalm every morning as I revive myself. The editor of Der Trakhtner, Yankl Musernik, has a fantastic library and lends me books of Hebrew Poetry from the Andalusian period. Poets like Shmuel HaNagid, Ibn Gvirol, Ibn Ezra, HaSalah, Yehuda HaLevi, Yehuda Alharizi and Todros Abulafia have become my life of late. Here, finally, is something to learn from; a poetry that rivals scripture in its magnificence. This is a poetry can only come from free minds in a liberated, protected Jewish community who lived among their coevals for half a millennium without molestation. This is the liberated civilization for which we strive in vain. Here was a community of doctors, lawyers and businessmen who participated in political life of Spain as any Christian or Muslim would. Yet they still have time left over to create great art. Here in this poetry, there is nothing of the dolorous which permeates everything we touch. These, finally, are modern Jews who write with the measure of existence’s enormity. Just read this passage - The Ruined Citadel by Shmuel HaNagid:
“I billeted a strong force overnight in a citadel laid waste in former days by other generals. There we slept upon its back and flanks, while under us its landlords slept. And I said to my heart: Where are the many people who once lived here? Where are the builders and vandals, the rulers and paupers, the slaves and masters? Where are the begetters and the bereaved, the fathers and the sons, the mourners and the bridegrooms? And where are the many people born after the others had died, in days gone by, after other days and years? Once they lodged upon the earth; now they are lodged within it. They passed from their palaces to the grave, from pleasant courts to dust.”
Or this excerpt from HaSalah, which stung me to the bone:
Let it set the sun as a crown on my head,
or make the moon my golden crescent—
Orion a bracelet around my wrist,
its glowing children about me my necklace,
I will not come to desire its power,
not for a home beyond the stars.
My longing instead is to lay my threshold
near the threshold of learned men:
all I want is to move toward them,
although my iniquity holds me back
among a people that does not know me;
with whom I have no part or ease—
for when I greet them with kisses of peace,
they say I hurt them with my teeth.
Poetry like this is solace at a time when solace is in surprisingly short supply. I can't deny, if my situation is the hell on earth of which Christianity speaks, it’s a refreshingly comfortable hell. Yet I dread every moment of it.
But just when I’m on my lowest ebb, Musernik bequeaths me a book worth its weight in zloty. One day in the office, Musernik storms in and loudly announces that Degeneration by Max Nordau has finally been translated into Yiddish. He proceeds to declare it the most abominable, lie-ridden book written by a Jew in our time. He will assign it every day to a different staff memeber, and the first member of Der Trakhtner who can make his way through this book without having to stop from taking such offense is hereby commissioned to write a 5,000 word review of it for a 50 zloty bonus.
Needless to say, Shaya is among the first allowed to take it home. He returns it the next day with a slam of the tome onto Musernik’s desk. Musernik is clearly deligthed. After two weeks of deskmates screaming about how pernicious this book is, my curiosity is ablaze. Apparently, the main crux of Nordau’s argument is that art and culture have achieved such pride of place in the society of our time that it has brought us to the brink of ruin. I can’t say that I completely disagree.
Finally, it is my turn. I open the book after I come home from work and do not stop for food until the next morning. At seven the next morning, Shaya informs me that it’s time to eat breakfast and get ready for work. I tell him to go in without me. Musernik will understand. By breakfast the next day I’ve read the whole book in both Yiddish and German, some passages as many as six times. Rivke pops in to ask if I’m ready to go to work today. I tell her not to worry. I will be at the office tomorrow with all 5,000 words in tow. I sleep through the workday and work all through the night.
According to Nordau, we are a society hidebound by ideology. We're so utterly restricted by it that we cannot see the world without its prisms. And so the power of thought possessed by anyone with curiosity is squelched in a storm of Symbolism, Tolstoyism, Wagnerism, Ibsenism, Nietzscheism, Aesthetism, Socialism, Communism, Diabolism, even Realism. Reality has become something to be explained, not experienced.
Even if I don’t agree with it, I can’t say I disagree with any of it. When Nordau says that Modern Europe has abandoned the drive to succeed at all cost for paralyzing narcissism which subjugates men to whims of whatever fashionable ideology they bound themselves, he’s absolutely right. When he says that laziness of thought and skill creates decadence in art, I at least can’t say I disagree. But when he says that the decadence of art provokes still more decadence in people, I feel the urge to stand and applaud. I've become a new kind of conservative reactionary in my youth. Embracing a new ideology that purports to be non-ideology.
It would seem that the goyishe world has lost all the same confidence in their old ways as we people of the Book have in ours. Our old institutions, however antique and restrictive, are the best we have until a better idea reveals itself. My problem remains that the old ways seem little better to me, if better at all, than what follows it.
All of this and much, much more is what I put into my review. The whole thing is written in white heat, as though all the energy of the last three years is funnelled into this one night. Finally, something to write that gives me excitement. I turn in my review the next day, knowing that if it’s printed at all, the article will cause at least as much trouble at Der Trakhtner as the book itself.
Musernik emerged from his office around ten-thirty with a red face. He announces to the office that the Shtetl never left Avraham. The progress of modern life is apparently good enough for him, so he thinks we should all go back to the cheder where Torah can give us all the answers we can’t find in reality.
One bad mood from Musernik is all it takes. I’m an outcast at Der Trakhtner who can’t take my seat without being called ‘Der Gleyber’ (the believer). People were impatient with me at Der Trakhtner long before the review. But after Musernik published it, we all knew my time was limited. Fortunately, it’s only another week before I get a letter from...who else?....Max Nordau.