So I'm just going to warn you now. Things are about to get very real, and I'm taking a big risk by framing our discussion in this way. Some of you may not come back after today. So very quickly, brace yourselves. I was completely blocked on how to approach this class until Friday night when I realized that the block was due to the fact that this class is probably near the source of every neurosis I've ever had in my life. So if you find this too uncomfortable, I apologize but I was up against a deadline, and Dr. Freud was screaming at me. And because of that I have little choice but to take you with me on a journey as I work through my guilt and anger about being yelled at by my family about how I'm the reason the Yiddish language is dying when I was four years old!
I had some inkling that my parents were speaking some strange language to each other of which I knew a bit when I was a very small child, and there were certainly resemblances between many words. But I'm pretty sure it was not until my first day of school that I realized, OH MY GOD THE REST OF THE WORLD SPEAKS ENGLISH!
So at some point after school started, I learned English well enough to come home one day and refuse to talk to them in Yiddish, for which I got the first of many, many, many lectures about how I'm not doing my part to rescue Jewish culture from dying permanently. Which of course, in a four-year-old's brain, means 'You killed Judaism!!! You killed it and it's dead and it's never coming back and we don't love you anymore. Well, I'm teaching a Jewish literature class, so who's the champion of Yiddishkeit now????
So all of this and everything I'm about to say is obviously ironic in the extreme, but it does bring us to a deeply uncomfortable truth of life among Yiddish speakers, and perhaps generally of Jewish life. For the vast majority of our history, Jews have been utterly powerless against our life-circumstances. We lived in authoritarian countries where you had to defer and grovel to the outside world to survive, or at very least avoid imprisonment, or conscription, or assault. We knew that whenever we showed how much we resented our circumstances to the outside world, the consequences might have been disastrous and permanent. So whatever frustrations we had, the only outlet we had to take them out on was each other.
This might strike some of the more American souls in here as extremely harsh, maybe even a little antisemitc. But those of us who lived it can tell you, in a traditional Yiddish-speaking family it was pretty much expected that scenes would be made.
What is the one thing that everybody knows Yiddish does better than anything else? (insults)
Name some simple Yiddish words that are insults:
Now let's think of some compound multi-word Yiddish insults:
Let's read some of that list of Yiddish insults. You knew it was coming. A class on Yiddish without a list of insults is not a class on Yiddish.
“Abi gezunt dos leben ken men zikh ale mol nemen.” – Stay healthy, because you can kill yourself later.
“Vahksin zuls du vi a tsibeleh, mitten kup in drerd!” – May you grow like an onion, with your head in the ground!
“Lign in drerd un bakn beygl!” – May you go to hell where you bake bagels you can’t eat!
“Ale tseyn zoln bay im aroysfaln, not eyner zol im blaybn oyf tsonveytung.” – May all your teeth fall out, except one that will make you suffer.
“Zolst hobn tsen haizer, yeder hoiz zol hobn tsen tsimern, in yeder tsimer zoln zain tsen betn un zolst zij kaiklen fun ein bet in der tsweiter mit cadojes!” – I wish you to have ten houses, each house with ten rooms, each room with ten beds and you should roll from one bed to the other with cholera!
“Gey strashe di gens” – Go threaten the geese
"Zey zol kakn mit blit un mit ayer." - They should shit blood and pus.
"Got zol gebn, zey zol hobn altsding vos zyn harts glist, nor zey zol zayn geleymt oyf ale ayvers un nit kenen rirn mit der tsung." - God should bestow them everything they desire, but they should be quadriplegics unable to use their tongues.So once we've taken in the glories that are the Yiddish language. Ask yourself: What's the point of having insults like these?
Say any of these insults in English, and they lose all meaning. The specificity of them is unique to the language and the customs of the culture that birthed them. They're not just something Hershel the tailor said once and everybody remembered it. That may have happened once in 1450, but if these insults are remembered to this day, it's because they became common parlance. They are almost like a formalized declaration of intent. "I say this because I mean to insult you." Jews in the ghetto could not challenge each other to duels, it's doubtful they often allowed themselves fisticuffs, because gentiles might see them fight and get ideas, so they needed an elaborate formal system of expressing anger with hat sounds completely ridiculous in a modern context. When most of us Americans get angry, the first thing that happens is that we're at a loss for words. But that's not an option for Jews in the shtetl, words are their only weapon. And to give any outlet to their anger, they needed an extremely specific system of insults. I remember hearing about the time a friend of my Bubbie and Zaydie was called a schtik fleysch mit eygen, and what a scandal that was. In so many words, that meant that she was stupid. But a schtik fleysch mit eygen means 'a peace of meat with eyes.' It's a formalized insult you can't take back, the shtetl equivalent to slapping another person with a glove and saying I challenge you to a duel. But since it's so much less effective than a duel, it happens much more often, and it's seen as something sort of unavoidable in day to day interaction.
In many American Jewish families, this way of yelling continues to this day. For some families, yelling means I love you at the same time as you're killing me at the same time as it means you're killing me because I love you. Now many non-Jewish people, perhaps even many Jewish people, inevitably recoil from public admissions that a person has grudges against his family. A conservative who might be a little repressed might say how can you possibly talk this way about your family in public??? A progressive who might be a little overly empathetic might ask, how could you possibly endure circumstances like that???
But both of them are seeing the world in a very linear, non-Jewish, maybe even goyisher, rubric. They are seeing the world from a place where everything is either one thing or the other. Everything, in such a view, is either tragic, or comic, or romantic, or satirical. But the origin of those world views is Greek, not Jewish, and while it's shaped the Western worldview for two-and-a-half thousand years, it's barely two-hundred years old in Judaism.
The most uniquely Jewish form of expression is irony. Irony, not comedy. The Tanakh is, so far as we know, the literary origin of irony. It literally means to say one thing and mean the opposite.
Let's quickly look at three verses from the Tanakh that are clearly ironic:
'It came about at noon, that Elijah mocked them and said, "Call out with a loud voice, for he is a god; either he is occupied or gone aside, or is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and needs to be awakened."'
(in response to Iyov/Job 11:20: 'But the eyes of the wicked shall fail, and they shall not escape, and their hope shall be as the giving up of the ghost.')
'No doubt but ye are the people, and wisdom shall die with you.'
'Behold, you are wiser than Daniel; There is no scret that is a match for you. By your wisdom and understanding you have acquired riches for yourselfand have acquired gold and silver for your treasuries. By your great wisdom, by your trade you have increased your riches and your heart is lifted up because of your riches.'
Irony is a way of expressing things in a multiplicity. It's the most practical means of expression: it's a holistic viewpoint takes in both tragedy and comedy, it can be filled with both contempt and compassion. It expresses a long view of the universe that says we can't possibly his everything there is to know about anything. So when a person, let alone a Jew, says that your upbringing could be weird at times, it's both a way of complaining about it and also of celebrating it. It's a way of saying the obvious truth about every family in the world, which is that family life is messy. Everybody's family is crazy, and everybody has reasons they sometimes want to murder the people they love, but thought and action are very different things, and in Judaism, the way you deal with these thoughts is by unapologetically owning up to them. Maybe only a Jew could have come up with psychotherapy because would anybody else have wanted to talk about their baggage? But the Jewish way is to find a practical way to accommodate the reality rather than letting it fester, because repressing and denying problems is how problems grow.
So, let's take a Talmudic disquisition to this and ask a series of ironic questions and try to find answers:
Why do I want to murder my family?
Let's consult the Mishna:
What makes me want to murder these people? Rabbi Akiva says it's because they are so rigid about how they interpret Jewish responsibility and assimilation and Israel and antisemitism. Rabbi Eliezer says it's because it took them thirty years to realize that dating non-Jews might be alright even if every potential spouse would be pestered until the end of their lives to convert. Rabbi Yehoshua HaNasi says it's because they still haven't realized that just because I'm a liberal I'm not necessarily an accessory to evil any more than they are.
Let's find the next Mishnaic question:
How can I avoid murdering these people? Rabbi Meir says it's by not bringing politics and religion up. Shimon Bar-Yochai says it's by finding other, more agreeable topics of conversation. Yokhanan Ben-Zakkai says it's by leaving the room when it seems like these inevitable discussions are getting heated.
So then you go to similar questions in the Gemara:
How can I reduce the situations that make me want to murder them? Abbahu says I should politely ask them before it gets heated not to bring up these topics. Rav Ashi says I should make them see the common ground between us before they come up.
Once I'm in those situations that make me want to murder them, how do I get myself out of them? Rav Jonah says there's a polite way in which I can leave the room without their taking offense. Rav Nachman says there's a way to steer the conversation with a pasted on smile to something unrelated that they'll find interesting enough to talk about. Rav Papa says I can make a joke out of the whole thing that deflates the situation
So then go to the questions which the Zugot ask:
How can I make myself remember, when I want to murder them, that there are times when I don't want to murder them and am really quite fond of them?
Rabbi Shammai would say it's by these kinds of arguments that bond us together and grow into a shared experience that makes life more meaningful. Rabbi Hillel would say that it's these arguments that makes you appreciate the other person for precisely who they are, and in those moments after the yelling calms down, make you grow love them even more for having understood them better.
The Talmud involves grappling with all sorts of things: obvious things we all don't necessarily need stated, pedantic things we'd all rather tune out, dark things we'd all rather avoid, but by taking all of that commentary in, you realize the vastness of lived Jewish experience, and you come to realize that the problems of your life are just a very small part of the totality that defines your life, your family, your community, and your world.
So let's look at three of the most famous instances of irony in Yiddish Literature. The first is from a writer who isn't one of my favorites. I. L. Peretz. Peretz was perhaps a greater man than a writer. He's the second famous Yiddish writer, but in many ways he's the reason that Yiddish Literature and Yiddish culture became a phenomenon. It's not that his stories are anything but good, sometimes great, but in many ways, they're more didactic than artistic. He wants to provoke the reader into action, and he did that brilliantly. So let's be yet another Yiddish Literature class that looks at Bontshe the Silent. Take five or six minutes to read this highlight reel of the story that I put together:
Here on earth the death of Bontshe Shvayg made no impression. Try asking who Bontshe was, how he lived, what he died of... and no one can give you an answer. For all you know, he might have starved to death.
The death of a tram horse would have caused more excitement...
Bontshe lived and died in silence. Like a shadow he passed through this world....
...He lived like a grain of gray sand at the edge of the sea, beside millions of other grains No one noticed when the wind whirled him off and carried him to the far shore.
While Bontshe lived, his feet left no tracks in the mud: when he died, the wind blew away the wooden sign marking his grave... Do you think that three days after Bontshe was dead anyone knew where he lay?
...Nothing remained of him at all. Nt a trace. Alone he lived and alone he died.
Were not humanity so noisy, someone might have heard Bontshe's bones as they cracked beneath their burden... Bontshe, a fellow member of the human race, had in his lifetime two lifeless eyes, a pair of sinkholes for cheeks, and, even when no weight bent his back, a head bowed to the ground as if searching for his own grave....
...Think of how many others are waiting to share his plot of earth with him and well may you wonder how long he will rest there in peace.
He was born in silence. He lived in silence. He died in silence. And he was buried in silence greater yet.
But that's not how it was in the other world. There Bontshe's death was an occasion.
A blast of the Messiah's horn sounded in all seven heavens:... A joyous din broke out in paradise "Bontshe Shvayg--it doesn't happen every day!"
...God Himself soon knew that Bontshe Shvayg was on his way.
...And what was that flash?
It was a gold crown set with gleaming jewels All for Bontshe!
"What, before the Heavenly Tribunal has even handed down its verdict?" marveled the saints, not without envy.
"Ah!" answered the angels. "Everyone knows that's only a formality. The prosecution doesn't have a leg to stand on. The whole business will be over in five minutes. You're not dealing with just anyone, you know!"
...when Bontshe heard that a gold crown and chair awaited him in paradise and that the heavenly prosecutor had no case to present, he behaved exactly as he would have in this world--that is, he was too frightened to speak. His heart skipped a beat. He was sure it must either be a dream or a mistake.
...He was afraid that if he uttered a sound or moved a limb he would be recognized at once and whisked away by the devil.
He was trembling so hard that he did not hear the cherubs sing his praises or see them dance around him.
"The name of Bontshe Shvayg, Bontshe the Silent," the counsel was saying "fit him like a tailored suit."... "not once in his whole life," the counsel for the defense went on, "did he complain to God or to man. Not once did he feel a drop of anger or cast an accusing glance at heaven."
"At the age of eight days, his circumcision was botched by a bungler--...---who couldn't even staunch the blood."... "He bore it all in silence." continued the counsel for the defense. "Even when, at the age of thirteen, his mother died and her place was taken by a stepmother with the heart of a snake--"... "She scrimped on his food. She fed him moldy bread and gristle while she herself drank coffee with cream in it--"... "She didn't spare him her fingernails, though. His black-and-blue marks showed through the holes in the ld rags she dressed him in. She made him chop wood for her on the coldest days of winter, standing barefoot in the yard. He was too young... He wrenched his arms and froze his feet more times than you can count. But he kept silent, even before his own father--"
"His father? A drunk!" laughed the prosecutor, sending a chill down Bontshe's spine.
"--he never complained"... "He hadn't a soul to turn to. No friends, no schoolmates, no school . . . not one whole item of clothing . . . not a free second of time--"... "He even kept silent when his father, in a drunken fit, took him by the neck one snowy winter night and threw him out of the house. He picked himself out of the snow without a peep and followed his feet where they took him. At no time did he ever say a word. Even when half-dead from hunger, he never begged except with his eyes."... "He worked the meanest jobs and said nothing. And don't think it was easy to find them."
"Drenched in his own sweat, doubled over beneath more than a man can carry, his stomach gnawed by hunger, he kept silent!... Spattered with the mud of city streets, spat on by unknown strangers, driven from the sidewalk to stagger in the gutter with his load beside carriages, wagons, and tram cars, looking death in the eye every minute, he kept silent!... He never reckoned how many tons he had to carry for each ruble... Never once did he stop to ask himself why fate was kinder to others. He kept silent!... He said nothing when cheated, nothing when paid with bad money... He even kept silent in the hospital, the one place where a man can scream... He kept silent as he lay dying. He kept silent when he died. Not one word against God. Not one word against man.
"The defense rests!"
"Gentlemen!" The voice of the prosecutor was sharp and piercing. At once, however, it broke off.
"Gentlemen . . ." it resumed, although more softly, only to break off again.
When it spoke a third time, it was almost tender. "Gentlemen," it said. "He kept silent. I will do the same.
...Then, from the bench, another voice spoke tenderly, tremulously, too. "Bontshe, Bontshe, my child," it said in harplike tones. "My own dearest Bontshe!"
..."My child"; "my Bontshe"--not once since the death of his mother had he been spoken to like that.
"My child," continued the judge, "you have suffered all in silence. There is not an unbroken bone in your body, not a corner of your soul that has not bled. And you have kept silent.
"There, in the world below, no one appreciated you. You yourself never knew that had you cried out but once, you could have brought down the walls of Jericho. You never knew what powers lay within you.
"There, in the World of Deceit, your silence went unrewarded. Here, in the World of Truth, it will be given its full due.
"The Heavenly Tribunal can pass no judgement on you. It is not for us to determine your portion of paradise. Take what you want! It is yours, all yours!
..."Truly?" asked Bontshe, a bit surer of himself
"Truly! Truly! Truly!" clamored the heavenly host.
"Well, then," smiled Bontshe. "what I'd like most of all is a warm roll with fresh butter every morning."
The judges and angels hung their heads in shame. The prosecutor laughed.So, what's the ending mean?
This is a stunning work in all kinds of ways, but it's clear to me that this is as much a very powerful piece of agitprop as it is a work of literature. Look at that line from this judge with a very musical voice, and let's also bear in mind that there are all sorts of images presented in the Psalms - the Biblical book written specifically to be sung - of God as a Judge. So this judge very well may be God himself, and He says, "You yourself never knew that had you cried out but once, you could have brought down the walls of Jericho. You never knew what powers lay within you."
And now that he has a bit of inkling of the power that lay within him, what does he do? He wants a warm roll with butter every morning. It's possible, let's not forget, that the end result of this is that Bontshe is condemned to hell. But it's clearly not a literal story, so let's not read its meanings too literally.
Let's think, instead, about the trial itself, and everything which is being put on trial along with Bontshe. After you read this, think to yourself. Who is actually on trial here? Is it Bontshe? Or is it Heaven? Is it Jews because of their timidity in the face of suffering? Or is it God and the Angels who would let the Bontshes of the world suffer as he did? Or is it us, for letting the Bontshes we see every day keep suffering? Or is it us for allowing ourselves to keep suffering?
There's obviously a searing rage that shoots through this story, but alongside that contempt is enormous compassion. It's clearly a story that tells those readers who suffer that the angels hear your suffering and want to reward you for it. It's a story that if you demand your rights and due in life, you will be surprised by how much of it you will get.
The irony in this story cuts very deep because Bontshe deserves so much more than he got, and he would have gotten it had he done the very things the rest of us do that perhaps make us not deserve as much as Bontshe.
Now, let's go to a Sholem Aleichem story. Sholem Aleichem is probably the most beloved Yiddish writer, and he is absolutely great. This is far from his most famous story, but it's, almost without a doubt, my favorite, for reasons that will become clear very quickly. It's called 'A Yom Kippur Scandal.' Let's take roughly seven minutes to read this, if you know the punchline, DO NOT GIVE IT AWAY!
...suddenly screams were heard. 'Help! Help! Help!' We looked around: the stranger was stretched out on the floor in a dead faint. We poured water on him, revived him, but he fainted again. What was the trouble? Plenty. This Litvak tells us that he had brought with him to Kasrilevka eighteen hundred rubles. To leave that much at the inn--think of it, eighteen hundred rubles--he had been afraid. Whom could he trust with such a sum of money in a strange town? And yet, to keep it in his pocket on Yom Kippur was not exactly proper either. So at last this plan had occurred to him: he had taken the money to the synagogue and slipped it into the praying stand. Only a Litvak could do a think like that! . . . Now do you see why he had not stepped away from the praying stand for a single minute? And yet during one of the many prayers when we all turn our face to the wall, someone must have stolen the money . . .
"Well, the poor man wept, tore his hair, wrung his hands. What would he do with the money gone? It was not his own money, he said. He was only a clerk. The money was his employer's. He himself was a poor man, with a houseful of children. There was nothing for him to do now but go out and drown himself, or hang himself right here in front of everybody.
"'Shammes, lock the door!' ordered our Rabbi. We have our own Rabbi in Kasrilevka, Re Yozifel, a true man of God, a holy man. Not too sharp witted, perhaps, but a good man, a man with no bitterness in him. Sometimes he gets ideas that you would not hit upon if you had eighteen heads on your shoulders . . . When the door was locked, Reb Yozifel turned to the congregation, his face pale as death and his hands trembling, his eyes burning with a strange fire.
"He said, 'Listen to me, my friends, this is an ugly thing, a thing unheard of since the world was created--that here in Kasrilevka there should be a sinner, a renegade to his people, who would have the audacity to take from a stranger, a poor man with a family, a fortune like this. And on what day? On the holiest day of the year, on Yom Kippur, and perhaps at the last, most solemn moment, just before the shofar was blown! Such a thing has never happened anywhere. I cannot believe it is possible. It simply cannot be.... Therefore, my friends, let us search each other now, go through each other's garments, shake out our pockets--all of us from the oldest householder to the shammes, not leaving anyone out. Start with me. Search my pockets first.'
"Thus spoke Reb Yozifel, and he was the first to unbind his gabardine and turn his pockets inside out. And following his example all the men loosened their girdles and showed the linings of their pockets, too. They searched each other, they felt and shook one another, until they came to Lazer Yossel, who turned all colors and began to argue that, in the first place, the stranger was a swindler; that his story was the pure fabrication of a Litvak. No one had stolen any money from him. Couldn't they see that it was all a falsehood and a lie?
"The congregation began to clamor and shout. What did he mean by this? All the important men had allowed themselves to be searched, so why should Lazer Yossel escape? There are no privileged characters here. 'Search him! Search him!' the crowd roared.
"But wait . . . I forgot to tell you who this Lazer Yossel was.... The rich man of our time had dug him up somewhere for his daughter, boasted that he had found a rare nugget, a fitting match for a daughter like his. He knew a thousand pages of Talmud by heart, and all of the Bible. He was a master of Hebrew, arithmetic, bookkeeping, algebra, penmanship--in short, everything you could think of. When he arrived in Kasrilevka--this jewel of a young man--everyone came to gaze at him. What sort of bargain had the rich man picked out? Well, to look at him you could tell nothing.... Our leading citizens began to work on him; tried him out on a page of Gamorah, a chapter from the Scriptures, a bit of Rambam, this and the other. He was perfect in everything, the dog! Whenever you went after him, he was at home. Reb Yozifel himself said that he could have been a rabbi in any Jewish congregation. As for world affairs, there is nothing to talk about. We have an authority on such things in our town, Zaidel Reb Shaye's, but he could not hold a candle to Lazer Yossel.... Naturally the whole town envied the rich man his find, but some of them felt he was a little too good to be true. He was too clever (and too much of anything is bad!). For a man of his station he was too free and easy, a hail-fellow-well-met, too familiar with all the young folk--boys, girls, and maybe even loose women. There were rumors . . . At the same time he went around alone too much, deep in thought. At the synagogue he came in last, put on his tallis, and with his skullcap on askew, thumbed aimlessly through his prayerbook without ever following the services. No one saw him doing anything exactly wrong, and yet people murmured that he was not a God-fearing man. Apparently a man cannot be perfect . . .
"And so, when his turn came to be searched and he refused to let them do it, that was all the proof most of the men needed that he was the one who had taken the money. He begged them to let him swear any oath they wished, begged them to chop him, roast him, cut him up--do anything but shake his pockets out. At this point even our Rabbi, Reb Yozifel, although he was a man we had never seen angry, lost his temper and started to shout.
"'You!' he cried. 'You thus and thus! Do you know what you deserve? You see what all these men have endured. They were able to forget the disgrace and allowed themselves to be searched; but you want to be the only exception! God in heaven! Either confess and hand over the money, or let us see for ourselves what is in your pockets. You are trifling now with the entire Jewish community. Do you know what they can do to you?'
"To make a slong story short, the men took hold of this young upstart, threw him down on the floor with force, and began to search him all over, shake out every one of his pockets. And finally they shook out . . . Well, guess what! A couple of well-gnawed chicken bones and a few dozen plum pits still moist from chewing. You can imagine what an impression this made--to discover food in the pockets of our prodigy on this holiest of fast days. Can you imagine the look on the young man's face, and on his father-in-law's? And on that of our poor Rabbi?
This has got to be one of the funniest stories ever written, and the ending is brutal. After a punchline that good, everybody in the story forgets about the money, everybody forgets about the person whose life is ruined along with his family's, and so do the readers. The fact that the ending's so bleak only makes it funnier. And then, boom! The irony hits you. The ultimate scandal of this story is that we find it funny. It's right before the Shofar is blown at the last minute of Yom Kippur. The holiest minute of the holiest day of the year, and a man's life is completely and heartlessly ruined. A horrible crime against God, a horrible crime against our fellow man, and for the fact that we forgot about this crime against both man and God means that we are horrible people - and that makes it even funnier.
"Poor Reb Yozifel! He turned away in shame. He could look no one in the face. On Yom Kippur, and in his synagogue . . . As for the rest of us, hungry as we were, we could not stop talking about it all the way home. We rolled with laughter in the streets. Only Reb Yozifel walked home alone, his head bowed, full of grief, unable to look anyone in the eyes, as though the bones had been shaken out of his own pockets."
The story was apparently over. Unconcerned, the man with the round eyes of an ox turned back to the window and resumed smoking.
"Well," we all asked in one voice, "and what about the money?"
"What money?" asked the man innocently, watching the smoke he had exhaled.
"What do you mean--what money? The eighteen hundred rubles!"
"Oh," he drawled. "The eighteen hundred. They were gone."
So now, let's go to another very famous story that no Yiddish literature class can seem to avoid. Bontshe's son, Gimpel the Fool by Isaac Bashevis Singer. This is, probably, the most famous short story in Yiddish literature, and maybe the best. We're going to come back to Gimpel later, but let's just read these three paragraphs:
I am Gimpel the fool. I don't think myself a fool. On the contrary. But that's what folks call me. They gave me the name while I was still in school. I had seven names in all: imbecile, donkey, flax-head, dope, glump, ninny, and fool. The last name stuck. What did my foolishness consist of? I was easy to take in. They said, "Gimpel, you know the rabbi's wife has been brought to childbed?" So I skipped school. Well, it turned out to be a lie. How was I supposed to know? She hadn't had a big belly. But I never looked at her belly. Was that really so foolish? The gang laughed and hee-hawed, stomped and danced and chanted a good-night prayer. And instead of the raisins they give when a woman's lying in, they stuffed my hand full of goat turds. I was no weakling. If I slapped someone he'd see all the way to Cracow. But I'm really not a slugger by nature. I think to myself: Let it pass. So they take advantage of me. .......
When the pranksters and the leg-pullers found that I was easy to fool, every one of them tried his luck with me. "Gimpel, the czar is coming to Frampol; Gimpel, the moon fell down in Turbeen; Gimpel, little Hodel Furpiece found a treasure behind the bathhouse." And I like a golem believed everyone. In the first place, everything is possible, as it is written in The Wisdom of the Fathers, I've forgotten just how. Second, I had to believe when the whole town came down on me! If I ever dared to say, "Ah, you're kidding!" there was trouble. People got angry. "What do you mean! You want to call everyone a liar?" What was I to do? I believed them, and I hope at least that did them some good....
To tell the truth, I knew very well that nothing of the sort had happened, but all the same, as folks were talking, I threw on my wool vest and went out. Maybe something had happened. What did I stand to lose by looking? Well, what a cat music went up! And then I took a vow to believe nothing more. But that was no go either. They confused me so that I didn't know the big end from the small.So in the interests of time, I'm going to summarize the rest of the story. Gimpel the Fool believes in the goodness of other people. His benevolence’s reward is nothing but humiliation and oppression from everyone he's ever met. Because Gimpel chooses to believe that people would never be so malicious as to lie, everyone he ever meets tries to fool him. The people of the town trick him into marriage with a woman who named Elka who had already been married twice and who may be a prostitute; and in addition to a steady stream of lovers, Elka has a more permanent paramour whom she introduces as her ‘brother.’ She insists that the ‘brother’ not only live with them but also that Gimpel hire him as an apprentice in his bakery. Both Elka and her ‘brother’ are physically abusive to Gimpel, and though Gimpel and Elka probably never have had sex, she has six children and assures Gimpel that they’re all his. Gimpel chooses to believe her. The town later decides that Gimpel has to divorce Elka for the very reason they insisted he marry her. But Gimpel still chooses to believe his wife, and he refuses to divorce her. Gimpel and Elka live this way for another twenty years before Elka dies. On her deathbed, she makes a shocking confession: (gasp!) the children are not his. We're going to come back at the end of the class to the end of this story.
Gimpel doesn't care at all about how other people treat him, only about how he treats them. He's a man who lives his life in the service of an ethical code, and the world rewards his efforts with unsurpassable cruelty; and this is cruelty devised and enacted by his fellow Jews - the very same people who should unceasingly praise his ethical conduct. Gimpel may live among his co-religionists, but he is a Jew among Jews; he's hounded for living by an ethical code that sets him apart from his neighbors. He becomes so tyrannized by those around him that he has to leave his home and live a life of perpetual exile.
So why might other Jews treat Gimpel so hatefully?
I will give my personal theory. A bullied person is in the hardest possible circumstance, because once you've dehumanized a victim, the most important part of rehumanizing them is to realize that you yourself are the one who became less than human. There's a famous passage in The Brothers Karamazov, maybe the most famous, which begins with Fyodor Karamazov, the family father, deciding to make a scandalous scene in a holy place, because he thinks of someone he dislikes and says to himself 'I once played a trick on this person, and I've hated him ever since.' It's the same idea as the old adage that whites could never forgive blacks for slavery. The contempt and the revulsion which Europeans felt for Jews was as much because of how they made Jews suffer as it was for how they perceived any Jewish actions. Jews are perceived as revolting because they are weak, and because they have to accept how we treat them, and therefore we must continue to treat them that way. If we show them mercy, their weakness might infect us. They might gain strength, and they in fact might take revenge, because god knows we've done things to them worth avenging; so, if anything, let's treat them still worse. So when you look at it from this point of view, not only is Yiddish literature shot through with irony, not only is Yiddishkeit, not only is perhaps Judaism itself, but even the primary reason for antisemitism is irony! And Isaac Bashevis Singer takes it an irony still further. Gimpel is treated with incredible cruelty by the very people who have been treated that cruelly themselves.
At this point, I wanted to take a half-hour to take you through one the greatest novels I've ever read. The Brothers Ashkenazi by Singer's older brother, Israel Joshua Singer. It's one of the most intense novels ever written. And I tried to make an extreme miniature version of it. But there is no way to reduce this to a half-hour of reading, and so many passages from it in isolation would seem exploitative and pointlessly brutal when in fact, the brutality is, sadly, incredibly realistic - about war, about exploitation, about the pointlessness and inevitability of gut hatreds, and especially about what Freud would call "The narcissism of small differences."
The Brothers Ashkenazi is not just a novel, it is a giant machine. It expands, it contracts, it whirls itself into events beyond the control of any character, and when it comes to rest, millions of lives have ended. In this novel, a world is built and destroyed. We see the Industrial Revolution happen, we see The Gilded Age, we see Communist uprisings, we see World War I, we see the Russian Revolution, we the antisemitism of the Right AND the antisemitism of the Left, and in all that, we ultimately see the humiliating prices which Jews pay for demanding anything more out of life than the humiliation that would be their lot anyway if they simply knew their place. And this was published in 1936; at the beginning of Hitler's rule, not the end!
It is also a portrait of Jews of various regions who have, in a way, internalized the gut hatreds of the outside world against each other. Jews are, contra antisemites, made from the exact same human material as the people who hate them. They're slaves to the same prejudices that infect all people, and only separated from the rest of humanity only by just how powerless they are to act on their hatreds.
So instead, let's read a piece of really shocking antisemitism, even more shocking because it was written by someone born Jewish. And, as so often happened in European history, the worst antisemites are ironically, Jews who converted to Christianity. We talked about Egon Friedell in the first class, and I told you that he's absolutely a thinker and intellectual historian worth reading, and that he's also a really, really bad thinker. So let's look at one of his very worst thoughts, and understand exactly what I mean by that he's both a terrible thinker and also that he's worth reading because he gives such a perceptive picture of his own age. This is a passage about the censure, the kherem, against Spinoza by the Jewish community of 17th Century Amsterdam:
...But hardly had the Jewish communities found their liberty in the "New Jerusalem," as they called it, before they began to develop with renewed energy that detestable intolerance which has always been characteristic of their religion, and which unhappily the Christian Church inherited in some degree. The spirit of Caiaphas, which determined the whole history of the people of Israel as long as they had national independence, frequently lost its potency in later times owing to external conditions, but it always came to life again when Jews attained to power. And so it was on this occasion. The case of Uriel de Costa, who, for his free religious views, was sent to his death by the venomous persecution of the Amsterdam Synagogue, is a tragic instance. Spinoza was then eight years old. Half a generation later he was engaged in a similar conflict himself. His philosophical interests and activities became known and attempts were made, first to convert him, then to bring him back to orthodoxy by threats. When both methods failed, bribery was tried: he was offered a salary of a thousand gulden if he would remain true to Judaism. Since he was not to be moved even by this, a member of the community felt that murder was indicated. But the attack failed. And now there was no course left to the Synagogue but to excommunicate him. Before the assembled congregation the solemn ban was pronounced, the concluding words being: "Curse him by day and curse him by night! Curse him sleeping and curse him waking! Curse his comings-in and curse his goings out! May the Lord never forgive him! He will burn with hardness and wrath against this man who is laden with all the curses that are written in the Book of the Law. He will blot out his name from under the heavens!" Thus did Jewry treat a man whose whole offense was that he led a more serious, peace-loving, and unworldly life than his fellow-Jews. But, as it had always been a good old Jewish tradition to stone the prophets, there is nothing extraordinary in this,...
- Egon Friedell - A Cultural History of the Modern Age, Volume IIFirst of all, wow! If you want to understand how the German speaking lands went along with Hitler, look at what Jewish converts whom Hitler would have killed anyway were saying about other Jews! As we talked about last time, the way that Jews were accepted in German speaking lands was to find ways to be more German than the Germans to show that they'd scrubbed clean all that dirty Jewishness from themselves. German Jews were, and were for a long time even in America, very keen on distinguishing themselves from those poor, obnoxious, backward Ostjuden from the Pale of Settlement.
And yet, Friedell didn't write the Kherem against Spinoza. Here is one of the ultimate ironies of Jewish history. In the most prosperous Jewish community of their century, Jews turned a fellow Jew who eventually gave more honor to the Jewish people than nearly any other person in the entire history of the religion, into a non person; simply because he exercised what should have been his freedom to worship or not worship in the way he saw fit in a country, The Netherlands, that was perhaps the most tolerant place of its time - not, in the least, because it was so tolerant to Jews. And yet Jews could not exercise the same tolerance even to the man people now think of as the greatest thinker of his time.
And that brings us to the second essential concept of Yiddish Literature. Which we'll talk about after the break.