What's Wrong with Fiddler on the Roof

Fifty years on, no work by or about Jews has won American hearts so thoroughly. So what's my problem?
What's Wrong with <em>Fiddler on the Roof</em>
 
Observation
Ruth R. Wisse
June 18 2014 6:00PM

No creative work by or about Jews has ever won the hearts and imaginations of Americans so thoroughly as the musical Fiddler on the Roof, which this year is celebrating its 50th anniversary and next year will have its fifth Broadway revival.

Everyone enjoys this show, whose musical numbers—“Tradition,” “Sunrise, Sunset,” “If I Were a Rich Man,” “To Life,” “Matchmaker,” and others—not only enliven Jewish weddings but are commonly understood to represent something essential about Jews and Jewishness. Jeremy Dauber opens his new biography of Sholem Aleichem with Fiddler because Fiddler is how the beloved Yiddish author is known—if he is known at all—to English readers. “Forget Sholem Aleichem,” writes Dauber, “there’s no talking about Yiddish, his language of art, without talking about Fiddler on the Roof. There’s no talking about Jews without talking about Fiddler.” And Dauber ends the book by tracing the stages through which Sholem Aleichem’s stories of Tevye the Dairyman and his daughters were transformed by successive translators and directors into what, by the time the movie version of Fiddler was released in 1971, the New Yorker’s normally severe critic Pauline Kael would call “the most powerful movie musical ever made.”

Soon after the stage production opened in 1964 (music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick, book by Joseph Stein, with Zero Mostel in the title role), I was urged to see it by my teacher, the Yiddish scholar Max Weinreich, who had just completed his History of the Yiddish Language. Unlike some purist defenders of Yiddish culture who were expressing mixed feelings about a classic work being hijacked for the American stage—and in contrast to several highbrow Jewish intellectuals, offended by what Irving Howe blisteringly called the play’s “softened and sweetened” nostalgia—Weinreich was delighted that Sholem Aleichem’s masterwork would be accessible to audiences who could never have come to know it in the original. He even defended as legitimate some of the changes that had been introduced in order to appeal to an American audience. I, too, loved the show, not least because Yiddish literature had become my subject of study, and I appreciated the boost.

Even livelier than the stage production was the 1971 movie, directed by Norman Jewison and starring Chaim Topol, which exploited the freedoms of the film medium to veer still further from the original Yiddish conception. By this time, though, my own reservations about the enterprise had begun to mount. In the original series of stories and in all of their many adaptations for the Yiddish stage, whenever Tevye is defied by his daughters and challenged by his potential sons-in-law, he emerges morally intact. This is how we learn to appreciate his resistance to the historical forces that are trying to undo him. Economic hardship, Communism, internationalism, materialism, persecution, expulsion, and, by no means least, romantic love: powerless as he may be to stop their advance, Tevye is not mowed down by any of them.

So thoroughly does Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye command the plot line and its outcome that even Hava, the daughter who converts to Christianity in order to marry her Ukrainian lover Fyedka, does not get the better of him. However persuasive her arguments for a universalist ideal may be—why should God have separated people into Jews and Christians, and isn’t it time we repaired the breach?—Tevye does not sanction love over the integrity of the Jewish people. Nor do his paternal feelings for Hava excuse her defection; instead, he pronounces her dead to the family and observes the traditional seven days of mourning. Only when she repents does he accept her back; only because he has stayed firm is she able to return to a still-Jewish home.

Of course, it was the generous side of Tevye’s nature that made him so readily adaptable for an American audience. An observant Jew who prides himself on being able to quote traditional sources, he is also an accommodating parent who jokes at his own expense and uses prayer as an opportunity to argue with God. He may be conservative in his beliefs, but he is liberal in his instincts. Indeed, much of the humor in Sholem Aleichem’s stories about him pivots on the tension between his faith and his doubts, his tenacity and his lenient heart. But this only makes all the more striking the single point on which he will not yield. His “No!” to Hava is the dramatic and emotional centerpiece of the work.

 

And here the critics were right: the authors of Fiddler took the stuffing out of the derma. In both the Broadway and film versions, Tevye not only makes his peace with his daughter’s conversion and marriage but accepts the justice of her Christian husband’s rebuke of him as the couple departs for Cracow, Poland. (Ultimately, they would go to America.) “Some,” says Fyedka, “are driven away by edicts—others [that is, he himself and Hava] by silence.”

Let’s understand what lies behind this sentence. Fyedka is daring to equate Tevye’s refusal to accept Hava’s conversion to Christianity with the czarist persecution of the Jews of Russia. The accusation is outrageous and brutal—but to it, Fiddler’s Tevye replies meekly: “God bless you.” Charged with bigotry for upholding the integrity of the Jewish people, he ends by endorsing the young couple’s intermarriage as the benign culmination of a leveling ideal. We might be tempted to turn Fyedka’s accusation against the accuser: some drive the Jews out of Russia, others drive Jewishness out of the Jews. But the “others” in this case include the authors of Fiddler, who demolish the dignity of their hero without any apparent awareness of what they have done. 

A similar insouciance characterizes a recent “cultural history” of Fiddler on the Roof. Entitled Wonder of Wonders, after one of the show’s catchiest musical numbers, it is written by Alisa Solomon, a theater critic and teacher of journalism at Columbia. In this abundantly researched study, we can follow the path by which Sholem Aleichem’s drama of Jewish resistance evolved into a classic of assimilation. Although Solomon doesn’t make the connection, the process she describes closely resembles an earlier transmutation of a different Jewish work for the American stage: namely, the replacement in the 1950s of the original dramatization of the Diary of Anne Frank, by the novelist Meyer Levin, with a thoroughly de-Judaized version by the team of Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett.

As is well known, Levin fought back. He could not abide the suppression of the Diary’s gritty Jewishness in favor of the upbeat, treacly, universalized message voiced by Anne in the Broadway production’s most quoted line: “[In] spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.” Over the decades, Levin’s pursuit of intellectual and moral restitution became an obsession, which is the one-word title he would give to his story about the American Jewish theater and the Jews. By contrast, Alisa Solomon hails the triumph of all that Levin mourned, writing with cheerful mien about Fiddler’s shift from kosher to “kosher-style.” Her celebratory work has won the plaudits of reviewers and academics alike.

 

I voiced some of my concerns about Tevye’s theatrical fate in my 2001 book The Modern Jewish Canon, and I return to them now with broader questions. Certainly, the authors of Fiddler were not the first to sacrifice Jewish identity to the universalizing ethos. One day, I’d finally sat down to read Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s 1779 classic German drama Nathan the Wise, a plea for interreligious tolerance I had often seen praised for its positive representation of the Jew who is its title character. Nathan’s wisdom and nobility were known to have been modeled on the German Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. But just as, in real life, Mendelssohn’s offspring left the Jewish fold, so, too, Lessing’s fictional Nathan leaves no Jewish heirs. It struck me that I would much have preferred a lesser Jew at the head of a large and living family to this generous paragon who leads his people to a dead end. It was as though the Jew could be celebrated only at the expense of his tribe’s survival, which is just the sort of happy ending that the team of Bock, Harnick, and Stein provide for their wise Jew, Tevye the Dairyman.

In fairness, I should note that Jews are not the only people whose integrity the authors casually cancel. Fyedka, an aspiring Ukrainian intellectual with his own sense of universal responsibility, leaves with Hava for Poland in generous-hearted protest against the expulsion of the Jews from Anatevka. Poland: really? Here our American authors betray little familiarity with, or patience for, the kind of ethnic-religious-linguistic-national rivalry that claimed—and has continued to claim—the lives and loyalties of Ukrainians, Russians, and Poles.

Liberal fantasy delights in improbable unions, and Fiddler on the Roof approaches the issue of Fyedka, Hava, and the Jews much like Edward Lear’s Owl and Pussy Cat who went to sea in a beautiful pea-green boat, got married by the Turkey who lives on the hill, and “hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,/. . . danced by the light of the moon.” In the same cockeyed spirit, Sholem Aleichem’s adapters, liberating the couple from the complicating features that sustain Tevye and the Jewish people, blithely ignore the likelihood that staying in Cracow would only have embroiled them in new enmities and eventually landed their descendants in Auschwitz.

It was the Jewish playwright Israel Zangwill who, having married a Gentile woman and abandoned his earlier Zionist commitment, supplied Americans with their own enduring image of harmonious amalgamation in his 1908 play The Melting Pot. The happy ending that Zangwill conjures up for David Quixano, a quixotic Jew who seeks refuge in America, takes the form of marriage with the daughter of the pogromist from whom he had managed to escape in Russia. Thus does the American melting pot liquefy the antagonisms and violence of Europe in a bland but warming stew.

Zangwill’s concept of misfortune is associated with threat from without. Sholem Aleichem’s concerns were all about the collapse of Jewish confidence from within: flight from Jewish responsibility, erosion of Jewish language, the snapping of the chain of Jewish transmission. Evidently, by the time we come to mid-century America and Fiddler, Sholem Aleichem’s talented adapters were all too ready to assume that the past was truly past, and that the problems of the Jews, like the “Jewish problem,” had finally been solved.

What is it about America—or about the American theater—that leads to such assumptions? I have often wondered why the team of Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein gave up their original idea for West Side Story as a story about Catholics and Jews on New York’s Lower East Side. Could it be that only the substitution of Jets and Sharks as the warring parties allowed them to imagine a truly tragic outcome? To fight and die—albeit unintentionally—as the lovers do in Romeo and Juliet, and as Tony, the white Jet, does in this American adaptation of Shakespeare, is to possess something one is willing to fight for, like family honor or group pride. Puerto Ricans or Poles might go to the mat for such values—but Jews?

I suspect Bernstein and Robbins couldn’t imagine Jews in such a scenario—and certainly not when intermarriage between Jews and Gentiles was already becoming commonplace. In fact, in every Al Jolson or Benny Goodman story, it is the Jewish parents who must demonstrate their largesse by accepting their son’s marriage to a Christian. Refuse, and they would be labeled bigots, which is precisely the fate visited on Tevye by his American handlers.

 

Guaranteed rights, freedoms, and civic obligations were the great gifts that America offered its Jews, and these, combined with upward mobility, were surely enough to be grateful for even when marred by discrimination. Toleration came somewhat more gradually, but faster to Jews than to “people of color,” and the lure of assimilation was correspondingly stronger among Jews than among many other ethnic and religious groups. Indeed, many liberal Jews became so wedded to the universalist ideal as to become intolerant of fellow Jews who wished to stay identifiably Jewish.

This illiberal form of liberalism, practiced by Jews as well as non-Jews, has always objected to the nexus of religion and peoplehood that has historically defined the Jews and their civilization. Judaism invites in anyone who truly wants to become a Jew, but differs from universalist creeds in not expecting or requiring that everyone do so. Paradoxically, this makes Jewish Jews more tolerant of others than those who cannot abide the idea of a people apart—like Fyedka, who equates Tevye’s stubborn Jewish loyalty with czarist xenophobia. With that in mind, one might venture that if Fiddler on the Roof marks a high point in American Jewish culture, the triumph of American-style Fyedkaism represents its low.

Great art requires a moral seriousness that allows for the possibility of tragedy as well as the relief of comedy. Sholem Aleichem endows Tevye with this potential. His concluding words in Sholem Aleichem’s concluding chapter are: “Say hello for me to all our Jews and tell them wherever they are, not to worry: the old God of Israel still lives!” The conclusion of Fiddler on the Roof, in Alisa Solomon’s approving summary, shows that Tevye belongs nowhere, which she takes to mean that he belongs everywhere. Meaning, everywhere the “old God of Israel” is not.

________________

Ruth R. Wisse is professor of Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard. Her books include Jews and Power (Schocken), The Modern Jewish Canon (Free Press), and, most recently, No Joke: Making Jewish Humor (Library of Jewish Ideas/Princeton).

More about: Broadway, Fiddler on the Roof, Sholom Aleichem, Tevye, Yiddish

 

An Unknown Yiddish Masterpiece That Anticipated the Holocaust

Written in 1923, “In the Crucifix Kingdom” depicts Europe as a Jewish wasteland. Why has no one read it?

An Unknown Yiddish Masterpiece That Anticipated the Holocaust
From a portrait of Uri Zvi Greenberg by the Israeli painter Ziona Tager. Wikipedia.
 
Observation
April 15 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Michael Weingrad is professor of Jewish studies at Portland State University, and the editor and translator of Letters to America: Selected Poems of Reuven Ben-Yosef (forthcoming from Syracuse University Press). He is a frequent contributor to Mosaic and the Jewish Review of Books, and he also writes at the website Investigations and Fantasies.

 


In a dark Yiddish masterpiece that predated the Holocaust by two decades, the poet Uri Zvi Greenberg envisioned the annihilation of Jewish life in Europe. Today, seven decades after that vision became cataclysmic reality, as Jews this week observe the annual commemoration of the Holocaust on Yom Hashoah, and as the Jewish horizon in Europe darkens once again, his work speaks with fresh immediacy.

Greenberg (1896-1981) was not only one of Yiddish literature’s foremost modernists but arguably the greatest Hebrew poet of the last hundred years. If his name is unfamiliar today, that is because he inhabits a strange kind of cultural quarantine. Literary critics in Israel acknowledge his titanic stature, yet in a country that pays high honor to its writers, he has never been part of Israel’s school curriculum, and you won’t find him among the quartet of 20th-century Hebrew poets whose faces were recently added to Israeli banknotes. Nor is much of his work—including In malkhes fun tseylem (“In the Crucifix Kingdom”), which I offer here for the first time in English translation—available in English.

Raised in a Ḥasidic household in the city of Lvov, Greenberg began publishing poems in both Hebrew and Yiddish when he was sixteen. He experienced the horrors of World War I as a soldier impressed into the Austrian army, one of the few in his platoon to survive the bloody assault on Belgrade. After his return from the Serbian front to the devastated Jewish community of Galicia, he and his family were nearly murdered during one of the many postwar pogroms carried out by Russians, Poles, and Ukrainians. By the early 1920s, having moved to Warsaw and then Berlin, Greenberg concluded that both European civilization and the Jews’ place in it were on the verge of collapse, and that drastic steps needed to be taken.

At the end of 1923, putting Yiddish aside in favor of Hebrew, the poet emigrated to Palestine, where at first he placed his pen at the service of the Zionist left. By the late 20s, however, increasingly disillusioned with leftist ideology, he found a new home in Revisionism, the right-wing Zionist movement led by his fellow writer-activist, Ze’ev Jabotinsky. For this apostasy, Greenberg was reviled by the left-dominated cultural establishment of Jewish Palestine and effectively hounded out of the country.

Back in Poland for most of the 1930s, renewing his literary activity in Yiddish, Greenberg urgently advocated Jewish emigration from Europe. His critique of the Zionist leadership in Palestine, which he viewed as both derelict in protecting Jewish life against rising Arab violence and perverse in its support for worldwide socialist revolution, found expression in an extraordinary collection of Hebrew poems, Sefer hakitrug veha’emunah (“The Book of Accusation and Faith,” 1937). Brilliant though they were, these caustic political poems sealed his fate as a cultural outlier from then onward.

It was Greenberg’s Holocaust poetry that gained him partial readmission to the Israeli canon. At the outbreak of World War II, having been warned that as a Zionist activist he was in mortal danger, Greenberg fled back to Palestine; his parents and sisters, who remained behind, were murdered in the Holocaust. After the war, he gave expression to his guilt, his rage, and his agonized love for the victims in a body of poetry collected in the 1951 volume Reḥovot hanahar (“Streets of the River”). While these poems, too, have had their political detractors, they were received by Israeli readers as indispensable literary testimony to the impact of the Shoah, and within that context it became, and has remained, “legitimate” to appreciate Greenberg’s work.

 

That is certainly the case with “In the Crucifix Kingdom.” Written in Yiddish in 1923 just before Greenberg’s first emigration to Palestine, the poem is a nightmarish depiction of Europe as a land of Jewish agony and death. Corpses hang from the continent’s trees, its rivers disgorge the naked bodies of murdered women, its soil is toxic with Jewish blood. Europe, in the poet’s description, is a land that produces not trees but “grieftrees” (veybeymer), not towns but “grieftowns” (veyshtet). The poet imagines his mother beheaded by a mob, his father freezing to death while waiting in vain for messianic deliverance.

The poem’s indictment of Christian Europe is searing and relentless. The impossible situation of the Jews in Europe, symbolized by the maddening and ever-present sound of pealing church bells, is to have been trapped within their role as the mythical Wandering Jew in a 2,000-year-long passion play. “Through the streets they bear with joy the man from Galilee,” writes Greenberg, “Yet I am of those other creatures, those blood-sucking Jews / In tattered prayer-shawls and straps around their arms.” Like other Jewish works of art from the first half of the 20th century—Marc Chagall’s crucifixions being the most iconic—the poem appropriates Jesus and Mary in order to decry the glaring illogic of a Christian culture that worships Jews while engaging in violence against them.

But, for Greenberg, no more reliable guarantor of Jewish safety is to be found in Enlightenment liberalism: another European artifact with Jewish roots. “And now we descend,” the poet writes acidly, “we come down from the ladder /We [ourselves] fashioned and raised: the spirit of Europe. / A love, universal, even for Jew-haters.” And while the poem ends with a hopeful vision of return to the ancestral Jewish homeland, with the speaker ready to exchange his European garb for an “Arab abaya” and Jewish tallis, it also expresses deep apprehension regarding Arab hostility and the crescent of Islam that “falls / Like a scythe upon my neck.” If Europe is a ghastly dead end for Jews, their future in the Middle East, scene of the murderous Arab riots of 1921, looms uncertain as well.

 

Resonant with other contemporary works in its expressionism and its apocalyptic tenor, “In the Crucifix Kingdom” is one of the great achievements of 20th-century Yiddish literature and of interwar modernism in any language. The English-language reader will at points recall T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” written at nearly the same time, with its “empty cisterns and exhausted wells.” (“For so long there has been no water in the wells,” writes Greenberg, “only curses.”) In my translation, I have tried to reflect the poem’s visionary intensity, its rhythmic force, as well as its unnerving emotional register, a hunted stoicism intertwined at times with the blackest of black humor.

The poem is often described as prophetic of the Holocaust. Even were it not for Greenberg’s later redefinition as a Holocaust poet, one can understand the tendency to view it this way, what with its imagery of genocide and poison gas. (The connection is reinforced in, for instance, the video accompanying this performance of Daniel Galay’s art-song setting of parts of the poem, sung by the talented Noa Bizansky.) Yet as in the case of the biblical prophets whose mantle Greenberg saw himself as inheriting, the poem is less a forecast of the future than a nakedly honest portrayal of the present. Greenberg’s poem does not warn that a catastrophe will happen, but that it is happening now. The poem demands a response adequate to the present reality, hard as it may be to face.

If the poem speaks to our own moment, then, it is not only for its seeming prescience regarding the Holocaust but rather as a call to meet the threats arrayed against the Jewish people today. Of course, with the dramatic reshaping of Jewish-Christian relations epitomized in Vatican II and its many positive aftereffects, and with the rise in America of warm evangelical concern for Israel, it is no longer church bells that signal slaughter. Nevertheless, in Europe the streets again turn red with Jewish blood.

Notes on the Translation: In order to maintain the poem’s incantatory feel, I have tried, with a few exceptions, to follow its alternations between iambic sections and galloping dactylic ones. As for my decision to render the “tseylem” of the title as “crucifix” rather than the more conventional “cross,” the Hebrew source of the Yiddish word—tselem means image and can also designate an idolatrous image-making—allows this license, and certainly the poem describes Jewish existence in Europe as an ongoing crucifixion. Finally, in my work I have benefited from Benjamin Harshav’s translation of the poem into Hebrew, and from a typically brilliant monograph on the poet by the critic Dan Miron (an English version appears in his The Prophetic Mode in Modern Hebrew Literature).

* * *

In the Crucifix Kingdom
by Uri Zvi Greenberg
Translated from Yiddish by Michael Weingrad

A forest dense and black has grown upon the plains,
And vales of fear and pain deepen in Europe!
The tree-tops writhe in pain, in wild darkness, wild darkness,
And corpses from the branches hang, their wounds still dripping blood.
(These heavenly dead all have silver faces,
The moons anoint their brains with golden oil—)
And every cry of pain sounds like a stone in water,
While the prayers of the dead cascade like tears into the deep.

I am the owl, the keening bird of Europe’s griefwood.
In vales of pain and fear, blind at midnight under crosses.
I bear a brother’s plea to the Arab people in Asia:
Come guide us, wretched as we are, to the desert!
Terror overtakes my lambs when the half-moon falls
Like a scythe upon my neck—
My world-split heart wails in fear in Europe,
The lamb lies down with outstretched neck in the griefwood—
Wounded, world-split, I spit blood on the crosses in Europe.
(Tremble, you young and old, with heads of water in the griefwood!)

For two millennia a silence has burned beneath these trees,
A poison that collects in the abyss and festers—and I do not know
What all this means: two-thousand years of blood, of silence,
Yet not one mouth has cleared the poison spittle from its palate.
Each death at the hands of the goyim is chronicled in books,
Only the answer is missing, our answer to these deaths.

The griefwood grows so huge, and the tree-tops writhe in pain,
In wild darkness; such fear when the moon comes to look
And every cry of pain sounds like a stone in water
And the dripping blood of corpses is like dew within the sea—

Mighty Europe! Crucifix Kingdom!

I will celebrate a sabbath on a Sunday in your honor.
I will open up the griefwood and show you all the trees
Upon which hang the rotting bodies of my dead.
Enjoy, Crucifix Kingdom!
Come and gaze upon my valleys:
My wells lie empty in the waste with shepherds all around.
Dead shepherds with the lambs’ white heads upon their laps.

For so long there has been no water in the wells. Only curses.

*

You will not let us reach the sun. You murder those who try,
While the golden dream still rests upon their eyelashes.
Before the prayer for sunrise sinks into the void.

Hundreds of thousands of them run back to the griefwood
And from the eyes of sheep November peers
An evanescent gleam.

And there among the grieftrees children are born
Severity already in their blood: they wither
Even before the roses.

I will not plant the trees that bear you fruit,
Only my grieftrees are all set stripped and naked
Near you at the cross’s crown.

From dawn to dusk the bells swing back and forth
Upon your towers.
They drive me mad and tear into my aching flesh
Like mouths of beasts.

I hang my naked dead upon the branches,
I leave them there to rot, abandoned to all the constellations
That course through heaven—

In these nights of mine I fall into a dark well.
Jews that hang on crosses come to me in dreams.
I see their wild heads protruding from the windows
Of their houses
And they grumble in their wounded Hebrew:
Where is Pilate?

You cannot even see the threat that crouches by your heads.
A black prophecy pours poison in your sleep—you do not know;
Cathedral bells have robbed you of your ability to tell
When it begins.

Yet I speak to you a prophecy, the Black Prophecy:
From our valleys a pillar of cloud will rise
From our dark breath and bitter cries of pain!

Yet you will not perceive the horror in your bodies
The chatter will continue from your burning palates:
Jews! Jews!
As poison gas begins to seep into the palaces
And suddenly the icons scream in Yiddish.

*

No one is left standing. Shepherds lie stiff by trees
And rainbow colors glaze their eyes.

The stables burn. The sheep bleat madly. It blazes higher.
From all sides people carry wood to the pyre.
A little silver cross craves: Fire! Fire!

Submissively the flock comes to the field to die!
Bigger and bigger the whites of their eyes—like moons:

The grass is poisoned, in the water of the well—the plague!

Once again it is the morning after bonfire night,
Once again a tranquil night—

(A living shepherd, I flash a mephistophelean smile…)
The fearful houses stand with outlaw eyes,
With gaping wounds in all the grieftowns of the cross—

A last sheep left alive, from whom will you beseech mercy,
When your sheepfolds stand on Pilate’s land of pain,
Your pastures (bread and water) atop some smoking Etna!

*

On a wounded body a shredded tallis—the body
Is good in a Jewish tallis—so good in a tallis:
It keeps the wind from blowing sand into the gaping wounds.

A church-bell rings, the young and old grow feverish—
Cool your fever, Jews! I stand watch over the cemetery
With its open graves.
I bear the Jewish mark, a red gash upon my brow.

Ah, I am a king in a tallis of wounds and blood!
I will slaughter Shekhem and burn it down for the blood they spilled
On muddy streets,
On cobblestones,
In stables,
On the steps of churches.

Why else do they have pointed noses and grass-green eyes?
Why else do I have teeth in my mouth and a pair of knobby fists?

A ruddy hue spreads across the city walls—father,
What is it that you want to find with your silence?
It’s time to say the daily prayers.
The stars are coming out already . . . father,
Have you forgotten,
God is a watchman who keeps your flesh from shivering?!
Oh, it’s time for minḥah . . . the skies are all aflame . . . ah, father, ask for mercy!
The skies need mercy, too . . . even the skies above!
You think they don’t feel pain just as we do,
In the flesh of our bodies?

Are you dead? —I will say a name and they will sink,
The towers of the churches where they peal,
The crazy bells, and make you shake so much.
They will endure in memory alone (a story to be told)
The crosses on the steely roofs, and on the graves—
And from each graveyard, oh, by the thousands,
The Jewish soldiers will go forth with weapons
And shout a challenge to the four corners of the earth.

Does a golden circle not ascend at dawn?
Does a ruddy hue not spread across the city houses?

*

A frozen body in the setting sun—a Jew in Europe.
A house in grieftown. A city of nothing but bells and crosses,
Bells and crosses.

The embroidered curtain is gone. The door hangs off the ark:
A broken wing on a decent bird.

The head of the bird lies bloody in the ash-pot.

A penny candle glimmers red in the blackness of the ark,
In someone’s mouth, which is so dark.

My father still sits frozen facing the west
He waits for something great: to hear a shofar sound in the west:
The coming of messiah son of David, Rome in flames.
(So the casements seem to blaze, the crosses’ tips.)
It’s good for you like this, my frozen father.
Your swollen face in the redness of the setting sun.
You are like a sun.

Yet on the Christian street outside by the well
My mother stands and screams into the water down below:
Give me back my head, you wicked folk, it drowns!
What’s the matter, wicked ones? Is my head so dear to you?

The birds sing spitefully. The tree by the well,
Its apples ripe, is nourished by my mother’s screams
That start at dawn— :

Who knows where the mounted soldiers are, the savages
That dragged beautiful sisters through the villages?—

At night the rivers wail and the goyim tell of how

The stream leaves naked women on its banks.

*

Not only the tree by the well, they grow everywhere now,
Our grieftrees; though other folk feed on the fruit,
The apples that ripen on blood that they spill.

Autumn expands in the limbs of the people of Judah.
They no longer scream to the uppermost heavens.
In the valleys a scream, black as night, radiates from their bones.

The heavens are deaf and are blue. The scream never rises to God.
Yet the earth feels the misery borne in our feet,
And in kindness she speaks to our feet, saying:
Burrow, make places to sleep, leave your bodies in me,
Why wait any longer?

Nevertheless in the night a star-chorus rises and sings
And the sky is so tender, there is mercy in pain.
Except that the moon is so red that it looks more like Mars.

And Cain son of Adam falls down on his face at the threshold of Eden.

It reeks and the smell is of opium dens, of blood and of willows.
And God runs around on the snow in His uppermost heaven
And roars like the king of the beasts in the emptiness there.
And He wants to escape from His kingdom—such is His loneliness.

*

Father, what can a community of Jews do,
When God has abandoned His children, the shepherd his flock.
When autumn has entered our gardens and fog seeps into our blood.
Our home in the east is a waste land, a dwelling for jackals.
While here in the west our dwellings are gypsy tents,
Straw in the fire and chaff in the storm.

The days here are only to witness this blasphemy.
For us to stare at each other with black and swollen eyes.

At night the terror, a bird so dark, returns to its nest.

What can we do, this terrorized nation of Jews,
When the steeple of Rome towers over our heads,
And we are forced to hear bells toll by day and by night,
On our black sabbaths and black holy days.

Ah, what a curse to live out each day the way we live now:
Any minute a fire will break out under our feet,
From under the houses—
What can we do, this terrorized nation of Jews
With wives and children lamenting: woe for our lives!
And a bloody hue spreads across roof and windowpane.

How ghastly it is to grow up for nothing,
Like a rock in the street, except bodies are not rocks.
Bodies are made of flesh and blood and bone,
And feel the slice of a knife—

We’re powerless, father, to climb up the tower
And tear down the bells that are driving us mad.
To tear down the cross that stabs our copper skies—
So let us go down to the depths, father,
And dig under the earth, beneath all the foundations
And let our pools of poison seep into the globe. . . .

*

Of course I hate you all, a hate that reaches to my fingertips!
A hate that sets my limbs afire with the poison of this unsaid truth:

FOR TWO-THOUSAND YEARS TO BE THE WANDERING JEW YET NOT BELIEVE IN THE CROSS.

Three-sided is the shadow of my fear these two millennia.
Three-sided is the knife-blade of the pain that cuts my flesh.
I have wondered for so long: how can it be
That those who pray in Europe to Bethlehem
And sanctify the Bible—that they are the very beasts
Who dream of the annihilation of every Jew on earth?

The elders of our people know it better than the young:
Bright are the stars and dark the eyes:
“We live by a miracle here in the kingdom of lions.”

O true-true-true is that which my elders say:

The dead man in the church is not my brother, only Jesus.

Nor their Latin “Bethlehem” the Beit-Leḥem of my fathers.

And Mary Magdalene is not my Miryam of Magdala
With her veil of azure wool and her amphora of olive oil.

Still the hundred-thousand roar their Allelujah!
Through the streets they bear with joy the man from Galilee,
Yet I am of those other creatures, those blood-sucking Jews
In tattered prayer-shawls and those straps around their arms,
And in the year two-thousand I pour my bile out in song:

In the name of the son, this faith of millions is a lie!

Beit-Leḥem is a Jewish village!
Joseph’s son is one of us!

We Jews who dwell in Europe.

*

The fifteen million walk silently past you,
Bearing their punishment, eyes like black holes.
For ages they’ve carried a word in their blood
Yet they speak not a word to you now—
I speak to you now:
A poet and Jew in the crucifix kingdom.

With blood from their lungs, so many spit out
The griefword, the curse, and they don’t see the sun
Only moons floating white in the watery blue.

So many, so many, they go on and on
Over dry land and sea, and the wooden post too
That has one of ours bound to it
Crying out: my God, my God! into the void—

Punished, punished, the Jews remain silent
And do not say to you what I have said!

*

Of course I was born here in Europe
I grew up with you here at the crown of the cross:
A miserable willow by its private abyss,
Bethlehem was then just a story I heard,
Distant
And blue.

True, one is afraid with you here in the night:
That robbers will come through the windows
With axes and knives
To an innocent bed,
Or maybe it seems so only to my kind?

Do I dream when I hear them,
Or am I awake,
These screams for help that rise up to the skies?

To the Pale you dispatch me, from there to the seas,
From the sea to the desert where Arabs reside,
With crescent moons sharpened like scythes
For the necks of the sheep—

To the Hudson you ship me—where our brothers
Save dollars to take back to Europe, Jew money
To purchase the crown of the Slavs . . .

To Russia you drive me, the Bolshevik home
With a brother in power who doesn’t speak Polish,
And writes manifestoes to the people in Yiddish—

O homeland of pain in the Slavic kingdom!
Here is your sign for us: all of the graveyards,
Generations of Hebrews have lain decomposing,
Their bodies are nourishment for weeds and trees. . . .

So where can I go to seek out a place,
Where I will not hear you ringing your bells,
Where my eyes will not see your processions—

The only home left for me now is the depths
A welcoming gleam from the watery deep—

Yet I would not go down to the depths
While there is still dry land and bright stars.

Woe for my birth in the kingdom of Slavs
In the shadow of the cross!

*

Now is the time of the eclipse for you in Europe
It gives me some pleasure that your sun is eclipsed.
For thus does blood still flow in the veins,
The odor of sunset arises from clothes—

O your night will turn red at the crown of the cross!

Your skies that lie over the crosses, I hate them
For they are like brass and they weigh on our grief,
A burden of copper:
No rain for us here.
A curse has been placed upon fields stripped bare—

That you should endure what we have endured!

*

We eat autumn’s curse with bread from the fields.
We drink black despair with water from the well.

At night before bed we are given a serving of fear.

And so each day passes. Their fragrance is like that of willow trees
Shivering by dark rivers in the chill of November.

The owls come at night to mourn the dying of summer—

There by the river our shepherds sit dead
And the lambs run about at night in the wild
Vainly seeking a spring to quench their burning throats—

At dawn and at twilight the world is a beautiful world.
The dawn has its wonders to show, the twilight has wonders.
At night the earth and the body take pleasure from stillness.

Yet among us the old folk now rise from their beds
The darkness of night in their thoughts, like willows
In the chill of November,

In the pain of destruction.

*

Mother Mary of Magdala, how it pains me that they dragged you here,
Through streets in Europe,
Unholy Europe,
To mumble Latin in your honor.

When I enter a procession, for example,
To kiss your rose-of-Sharon lips,
And tell you
That they live
Here:
Jews,
Yes, wild Jews,
That they have wives,
That they have children,
Right here in this city,
This grieftown—

Then inevitably it happens that this skull of mine is cracked, the brains
Poured out into the street,
And they all go on with their procession—

Bloody, I pass by you, Mother Mary, and you do not know it,
And they mumble Latin in your honor.

*

Birds are flying—such is exile, this marvelous exile:
The great world with its bright and open heart:
At home throughout the world birds fly:
From the dawn runs a golden wheel

The waters of Babylon speak to our feet:

(Evening interrupts. In the air hangs a fog full of tears)

Come to us. You are an orphan. Without a home. That is your pain.
You are weary of travel. The roads go further still.
The shoreline is so vast—lie down and float with the currents
Until we reach the home of every depth and restlessness:
The great and distant sea.

So what say you, my withered father? What is your counsel, my pious mother?
Shall we obey? It is evening. The fog is full of tears.
Shall we lie down on our backs and float upon the currents
Until we reach the distant sea?

Would your eyes still stare at all the rosy dawns,
The magic sunsets, the daughters of the land?—
Yet rest, the home for all, is only there in the great sea . . .
Shall we obey?
It is evening.
The fog is full of terror—

*

The wafer is red, the host is an apple ripened on blood,
So the moons lie in the heart of the waters.

They lie that way for months at a time:

Christianity ripening.

And great is the crucifix kingdom on sea and on land.

By the rivers of Babylon what does it matter
If a channel is cut through the blood
That spurts from the roof of our mouth?

The body falls into the water, or the body is buried—
What does it matter, the feverish bodies are standing,
The living dead dressed in dark clothing,
By a pit, and the head of a woman is twitching within it.

A church rings bells when it’s time for a funeral,
A signal to mourn.
And a church has an organ to play hallelujah,
At black sabbath time in the streets, a signal to tell the destroyer
To mark all the doors of our houses with blood
The mark of Cain.

*

Of all black prophecies this is the blackest,
And yet I can feel it in all my bones.
So painful this prophecy, I suffer it always,
Each day in this Christian land of pain.

And now we descend, we come down from the ladder
We fashioned and raised: the spirit of Europe.
A love, universal, even for Jew-haters.
A kingdom of heaven for all human souls.

What a sunset, the red is so bright in our eyes:
The bonfires flare in the courtyards, some Jews
Run hither and thither, and none of them know
What to say: we are lost.
They are blind to the sunset, they ignore the abyss.
What they see is the windmill flapping its sails
Up and down in the poisonous void.
The windmill grinds wind and the wind has the odor
Of old cemeteries in the month of November.

What can I do, a traveler alone
With his Jewish blood frozen in fear
From nights of blind violence: a slaughter of sheep,
What will begin to awaken the dead,
The soldiers on Russian steppes, on Polish dirt roads,
What will make them get up and walk about
Just as they are, worm-eaten soldiers,
The Jewish dead of the Slavic kingdom.

The soldiers who died for the spirit rise only
At night, when I get into bed.
They come and approach my white bed
Just as they are, and they say: look at us,
Everyone ends up like us, everyone.

*

Ten will remain, ten wounded Jews, the bloody survivors,
To prove that our nation existed in this Christian land of pain.
Though they no longer come bloody to the gates of Rome: open!

So mysterious: that the kingdom of David has entered our blood
And this kingdom has territory in poor Lithuania:
And the kingdom dreams an obscure Jewish dream
In which birch trees are tiny and moons are huge,
And all of them melt at the head of the bed . . .
And the kingdom has grieftowns in Poland
(In the night there it often cries out in its sleep . . .)
And the kingdom possesses a wide land of grief in Ukraine
With numerous rivers where they slaughter the sheep . . .
And so on and on across the vast continent
An infinite griefland for graves to be dug
With a place for a windmill to hold up black sails:
Pleading for mercy from under the clouds
And pitching the gypsy tents of Jacob—
And the kingdom moves over the seas like the orb of the sun—

Ten will remain, with necks of sheep, with eyes like birds in fog
They will live forever, and birth children in fear:
Children with necks of sheep, with eyes like birds, with blood like roses at twilight.
At twilight a head protrudes from a window:
Its wailing pierces the stars.

*

Which red planet should I tell to hover in the sky
When the sun is eclipsed by the void of generations.
When I walk on roads and see my mothers sitting,
How they cradle in their laps their little murdered children
My slaughtered lambs,
My birds,
On the roads of Europe.

East-West-North-South—such fear beneath the crosses!
What then should I do with my good tear-laden arms?
Should I sit also by the roadside under black crosses?
And lull my lambs to sleep,
My birds,
Upon my knees?
Or should I stand and dig a cemetery here in Europe
For my dead lambs,
For my dead birds?

*

Such a sorrow-keening violin lies crimson in the clouds—
Find a corner for your prayers at sunset, father-mother.
Plead for me too, father-mother.

In the garb of Christians, your son in Europe
Is a homeless Jew,
Earlocks growing from his temples;
Well, the Christians do not see it—a sign my visage
Is covered by a fog—

Such a deep-toned mandolin is left within the fog—
Its groan of pain resounds at twilight when the stars appear.
A Jew so elegantly dressed
Walks around among the Christians
With a sabbath melody like summer.

Such a night of emeralds. The air is filled with incense
Blue opium and chamomile, frankincense and apples—
In my griefwood, wizened mother, the rising moon illumines
My dead upon the trees—

On our shoulders church-domes stand with their petrified messiah
And their silver candelabras—

*

Dress me in a wide Arab abaya, throw a tallis on my shoulder,
Suddenly my poor blood is ablaze with the once-extinguished east.
Go on, take the dress coat and necktie and patent-leather shoes
That I purchased in Eu-r-rope.

Put me on a horse: tell it to gallop and take me away to the desert.
Give me my sand. I leave the boulevards. I go to the sand of the desert.
A people is there with sun-bronzed youth, bodies naked in the blazing sun.
(No bells hang there above your head, only the constellations in motion.)
Then one of the youths of that sun-bronzed people opens his mouth in the desert silence
Burning for love, (it is twilight) . . . and he shouts to the stars: love.
And in answer a bloody blue torrent of water from the rim of the desert says:
LOVE. 

More about: Arts & Culture, History & Ideas, Poetry, Uri Zvi Greenberg, Yiddish literature

 

Have I Shared Too Many Secrets of Jewish Law?

My book opened the closed door of halakhic decision-making. Some think that process isn’t for public consumption.

Have I Shared Too Many Secrets of Jewish Law?
From Mishneh Torah Master of the Barbo Missal, c.1457. The Israel Museum, for Michael and Judy Steinhardt, by Ardon Bar-Hama.
 
Observation
April 9 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Shlomo M. Brody, an Orthodox rabbi and a columnist for the Jerusalem Post, directs the Tikvah Overseas Seminars and serves as a presidential graduate fellow at Bar Ilan University Law School and a junior research fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute.


It’s been five months since my first book was released, and my publisher and I have every reason to be gratified, if not overjoyed, by its reception. A revised collection of columns that first appeared in the Jerusalem Post, the book, A Guide to the Complex: Contemporary Halakhic Debates, is in its second printing and, somewhat astonishingly for a work on so relatively specialized a topic, has even won a National Jewish Book Award.

But others, including some good friends, are decidedly less than happy. In presenting for a general audience the internal discussions of Jewish religious authorities on a host of controversial topics, including abortion and stem-cell research, cruelty to animals, civil marriage in Israel, and female rabbis, I have clearly ruffled some feathers. As I expected, some traditionalist readers have taken umbrage at my inclusion of lesser-known legal figures and opinions. Yet even a few generally open-minded thinkers have apprised me that it is improper for a work of popular literature to highlight the textual nuances and political overtones of debates within Jewish law. This is especially the case when an author (me) subtly offers his own opinion, thus leaving a reader without clear and authoritative guidance when it comes to actual religious practice. And what if a reader happens not to be committed to Jewish law in the first place?

In brief, according to my critics, the decision-making process of Jewish legal thought is not for public consumption, and much mischief can be wrought by exposing it to minds unequipped to grasp or appreciate its complexities. Note: the emphasis here is on the word “process.” Everyone agrees that Jewish legal norms, like all legal norms, must be clear and accessible. The law must be well known so that people can avoid transgression and properly fulfill the divine will. That was the aim behind the great legal codes of Moses Maimonides in the 12th century and of Joseph Karo in the 16th century, and so it should remain today. Yet while the bottom-line norm must be publicized for the good of all, the route by which the norm is arrived at need not be—and, some hold, should not be.

 

While famed for their robust and dynamic nature, Jewish legal debates were historically limited to a highly select group capable of mastering the intricacies and obscurities of legal language and concepts. Indeed, the talmudic rabbis not only declined to reveal these nuances to the masses but saw benefits to their concealment. One such benefit lay in the prevention of possible confusion and error (Shabbat 12b). In some circumstances, for instance, a stringent ruling might be issued to ordinary Jews while the scholarly elite, whose piety and punctiliousness could be relied upon, were vouchsafed a more permissive version (Ḥulin 15a). Another benefit lay in forestalling challenges to rabbinic logic: “When an ordinance is taught in the [land of Israel], its reasoning is not disclosed for twelve months lest there be some who might not agree with it and slight the ordinance itself” (Avodah Zarah 35a). Even when the talmudic rabbis did reveal a formal rationale for a decree, they might simultaneously disguise the social motivations or policy considerations behind it. Thus, when price gouging drove up the cost of turtledoves destined for sacrifice in the Temple, Rabbi Simeon ben Gamliel, knowingly misrepresenting the law, ruled in such a way as to force sellers to lower their prices (Keritot 8a).

Such recourse to esotericism continued to play an important role in later Jewish history, despite objections that it might ultimately betray the law’s commitment to honesty and distort orally transmitted understandings. Nor was the practice limited to Jewish legists. Historians have pointed to parallel trends within Greek and Roman law and later enactments in the Middle Ages and beyond.

Perhaps more surprising is the continued role of deliberate obscurity in modern legal discourse. Meir Dan-Cohen, a professor of law at the University of California in Berkeley, has documented the “selective transmission” of normative rules in British and American criminal law and the resultant discrepancy between the law as taught to citizens and the law as administered by judges. While acknowledging the tension this creates with the ideal of the rule of law, Dan-Cohen defends its use in advancing important social values and policies. Guido Calabresi, formerly of Yale Law School and now a federal judge, has similarly noted that judges employ subtle “subterfuges” to bring legislative statutes in line with societal goals. And this is not to mention the many national-security directives that by their nature are hidden from the public.

All this, of course, cuts very much against the contemporary demand for candor, honesty, and transparency in everything pertaining to public life. By and large, however tolerant we might be of limited forms of “selective transmission,” we expect our leaders to be forthright about their decisions and the rationales for them, to disclose (or at least not to conceal) their social and political agenda and acknowledge the options they have chosen not to endorse.

The same ethos is shared by many traditionally observant Jews today who follow Jewish law or at the very least regard it as a deep source of guidance in their lives. To do so fully means to adopt the rulings of expert rabbinic authorities on a range of issues that touch upon personal, communal, and national welfare. Yet these observant Jews, generally better educated than their grandparents, also have access to original texts, modern translations, and Internet resources, and are acquainted with the claim that rabbinic texts are themselves reflective of particular historical circumstances and/or ideological presuppositions, and should be interpreted in that light. In exchange for their trust and religious commitment, such Jews expect greater transparency regarding today’s halakhic process.

 

And this brings me back to my book, which aims to satisfy that expectation. In it, on any given topic, I present the complete range of established opinions while also noting the significant ideological and historical factors behind them. Let me illustrate with three sorts of issues, each of which, during the writing of the book, confronted me with both a challenge and an opportunity.

First, there is a class of issues, ranging from the kosher status of gelatin, to whether one can remove respirators from the terminally ill, to the use of a microphone in synagogue services on Shabbat, on which many authorities have taken a largely stringent, prohibitive position. While certainly defensible, these rulings have also had their detractors, not only among those representing more liberal tendencies inside (or outside) Jewish circles but even from within mainstream Orthodoxy itself—to the point where many Jews will respond in disbelief when someone claims there is no legitimate dissenting view. Today, many observant Jews expect these minority opinions to be taken into account and wrestled with, forcing advocates of the majority position either to defend it or to adopt a different position in light of new contexts and arguments.

Second, in addition to demanding that scholars deal with counterarguments, today’s expectation of candor forces them to declare the policy considerations and value judgments that inevitably, and legitimately, have played a role in their thinking. This is especially the case when it comes to such hot-button issues as standards for conversion to Judaism, the role of women in Jewish public and ritual life, and, in Israel, the relationship between religion and state. When formulated properly, an acknowledgment of these factors enables an observant Jew to understand the context—the ethos and worldview—that, beyond legal logic or the needs of policy making, has helped to shape an author’s mindset. By affording a glimpse into halakhah as a system encompassing both specific programs and particular values, such openness can also impart greater appreciation of the animating principles of Jewish law.

Finally, and perhaps most controversially, the demand for candor encounters the disquieting fact that, along with the many morally uplifting views and sentiments to be found in Jewish law, there are opinions that can and do raise ethical qualms. These include, among other issues, the use of chickens in kapparot penances before Yom Kippur, some less-than-wholly altruistic rationales for the requirement to perform life-saving measures for non-Jews on the Sabbath, restrictions on the reporting of Jewish criminal behavior to government authorities, and halakhic endorsement of corporal punishment for children.

Some writers tend to downplay the existence of stringent or seemingly unenlightened opinions on these issues with the hope of promoting a more humanistic or gentler vision of halakhah. Yet in an age of unlimited access to information, this tactic ultimately backfires; controversial elements of the tradition are open for all to see. Moreover, directly confronting difficult or discomfiting halakhic opinions, whether tending to the conservative or the liberal side, can have a positive effect, elucidating the degree to which the legal vision informing them remains grounded (or not) in classical sources and advances (or retards) the divinely mandated mission of Jews to promote the right and the good.

In sum: legal esotericism, when executed properly, can indeed conduce to certain social benefits. But so can transparency—which, in addition to being demanded in the modern situation, brings with it many beneficial opportunities to preserve and advance the relevancy and vitality of Jewish norms in the 21st century. It was in hopes of serving that purpose that I set out to write A Guide to the Complex, and I’d like to think that the resonance it has achieved will work to that end.

More about: Halakhah, Religion & Holidays

 

Which Creatures Made Up the Fourth Plague?

Rabbi Yehudah says lions and bears. Rabbi Nehemiah says hornets and gnats. What does arov really mean?

Which Creatures Made Up the Fourth Plague?
A wood gnat. Johan J.Ingles-Le Nobel/Flickr.
 
Observation
April 8 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Philologos, the renowned Jewish-language columnist, appears twice a month in Mosaic. Questions for him may be sent to his email address by clicking here.


Got a question for Philologos? Ask him directly at [email protected].

“Animals,” said my almost six-year-old grandson.

“You see?” I said to the retired American rabbi. “Even kindergarten children in Israel know the answer to that.” We had just finished counting off the Ten Plagues, and the retired rabbi, who was one of the seder guests, had challenged us to tell him the meaning of number four, arov.

“What kind of animals?” he asked my grandson.

“Lions and tigers,” my grandson said.

“Were there tigers in ancient Egypt?” the retired rabbi asked me.

“Probably not,” I said. “But I seem to remember a midrash that speaks of lions and bears.”

“That’s Midrash Tanhuma,” said the rabbi “It gives lions and bears as Rabbi Yehudah’s opinion. Rabbi Nehemiah says hornets and gnats. ”

The rabbi knew his sources. He was not the sort of rabbi described in the story he himself had told a few minutes earlier. We had been reading, in the Haggadah, the description in Deuteronomy of the patriarch Jacob’s descent to Egypt, ending with the words, Vayehi sham le-goy gadol atsum va-rav, “And there he became a great people, mighty and numerous.” “I’ll bet you didn’t know” the rabbi had said, “that this verse is about rabbis like me.”

All confessed that they didn’t.

“That’s something I learned from a professor of mine at the Jewish Theological Seminary, back in the 1950s. He was a famous talmudist who didn’t think much of our Jewish knowledge. Once he asked during a class, ‘Who can tell me where Conservative rabbis are mentioned in the Haggadah?’ No one answered and he said: ‘It’s in the verse Vayehi sham le-goy gadol, atsum va-rav. Vayehi sham le-goy gadol—and he became a great goy. Atsum—a mighty great goy. Va-rav—and a rabbi.”

In the Bible, of course, the word goy simply means “people,” while rav, a noun meaning “master” that came to denote a rabbi in post-biblical times, is an adjective meaning “great,” “numerous, or “mighty.” “He thought we were all ḥolomoshim,” said the rabbi.

“What’s a ḥolomish?” I asked.

“You’ll find out soon,” the rabbi said.

“But who’s right?” another guest wanted to know. “Yehudah or Nehemiah?”

“Midrash Tanhuma says that Yehudah is and that arov means mixed animals,” said the rabbi. “But I’d put my money on Nehemiah.”

“Why?”

“Because the Greek Septuagint translates arov as kunómuian, which means dog fly. That’s a Bible translation that dates to the third and second centuries BCE, which puts it hundreds of years before Yehudah and Nehemiah, let alone Midrash Tanhuma. It’s more likely to reflect an ancient tradition about the word’s meaning, one that Nehemiah still had some inkling of and Yehudah didn’t.”

“What’s a dog fly?” queried someone.

“In English it’s also called a stable fly, because it likes to hang around barn animals. It has a nasty sting; swarms of it would have made a fine plague. In fact, arov must have originally meant a swarm.”

“So why mixed animals?”

“The rabbis were guessing, basing themselves on the root of arov, the verb l’arev, to mix. It’s significant that Rashi, who always takes the side of rabbinic tradition in his biblical commentary, doesn’t say anything about arov at all, even though it’s a word begging for an explanation. He must have realized that Midrash Tanhuma was wrong but didn’t want to say so. You have to admit that a plague of biting flies makes more sense than hordes of assorted predators that never band together in nature.”

By now it was time to sing the psalm b’tseyt yisra’el mi-mitsrayim, “When Israel went forth from Egypt,” and when we came to the lines “Tremble, thou earth, before the Lord, before the God of Jacob, who turned the rock into a pool of water and the flint into a gushing fountainhead,” the rabbi raised his hand. “Ḥalamish—flint,” he said. “That’s what my father called me and my brother in Yiddish when he wanted to say we were knuckleheads. It’s a word I was never able to find in a Yiddish dictionary. He couldn’t have made it up, though, because he was a simple man who knew no Hebrew apart from the alphabet and never understood a word of what he was reading. It must have been a term used in the part of the Ukraine that he came from.”

Live and learn. A seder wouldn’t be one if you didn’t.

But it was my grandson who had the last word. The time had come for korekh, the eating of bitter herbs between two pieces of matzah, a custom—performed, the Haggadah tells us, by the sage Hillel in the days when the Temple still stood—that has given contemporary Israeli Hebrew the word karikh, a sandwich. (The verb karakh means to bind, as in binding the pages of a book between its covers.) His knowledge seemingly inexhaustible, the rabbi explained that in English the sandwich was named for the 18th-century Earl of Sandwich, who invented it as a form of fast food brought by his valet to the gaming tables that he was addicted to and refused to leave for the sake of a proper meal.

“So why a karikh?” my grandson asked. “Why not a hillel?”

Before anyone could answer, the kneydlakh soup arrived.

Got a question for Philologos? Ask him directly at [email protected].

More about: Animals, Passover, Religion & Holidays, Ten Plagues

 

Of Dogs and Jews (and Lena Dunham Too)

A stale New Yorker quiz prompts stale accusations of anti-Semitism. More interesting is the trope of the canine Jew.

Of Dogs and Jews (and Lena Dunham Too)
iStock.
 
Observation
April 2 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Ruth Wisse is a research professor in Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard and a distinguished senior fellow at the Tikvah Fund. Her books include Jews and Power, The Modern Jewish Canon, and, most recently, No Joke: Making Jewish Humor (2013).


Lena Dunham’s mock “quiz” in the March 30 issue of the New Yorker caused a stir in the always roiling Jewish precincts of Manhattan and beyond. The question, “Do the following statements refer to (a) my dog or (b) my Jewish boyfriend?” was followed by 35 items like “He’s crazy for cream cheese,” “He doesn’t tip,” and “[He] has hair all over his body, like most males who share his background.” The premise was so flat and the satire so stale that the piece should have been prosecuted for killing comedy. Instead, it stands accused of anti-Semitism by none other than Abraham Foxman, retiring head of the Anti-Defamation League.

Foxman calls the piece “particularly troubling because it evokes memories of the ‘No Jews or Dogs Allowed’ signs from our own early history in this country, and also because, in a much more sinister way, many in the Muslim world today hatefully refer to Jews as ‘dogs.’” Although he doubts that Dunham had any intention of evoking such comparisons, and acknowledges that humor has rules of its own, Foxman wishes that she had chosen a “less insensitive way to publicly reflect on her boyfriend’s virtues and vices. We are surprised that the New Yorker chose to print it.”

No less off-point than Foxman’s intervention was the immediate response from New Yorker editor David Remnick: “The Jewish-comic tradition is rich with the mockery of, and playing with, stereotypes. Anyone who has ever heard Lenny Bruce or Larry David or Sarah Silverman or who has read [Philip Roth’s] Portnoy’s Complaint knows that.” With so much real hatred and tragedy in the world, Remnick thinks objecting to the so-called anti-Semitism of this piece is “howling in the wrong direction.”

Remnick’s unctuous little sermon may mark the highest level of wit elicited so far in this episode. Among the avalanche of other responses occasioned by Dunham’s squib, one, an op-ed by a former high-school classmate of hers at Saint Ann’s school in Brooklyn, traces her brand of uninformed and ignoble self-ridicule to Jewish parents who choose secular over day-school education for their children. The writer, Avi Taranto, charges Dunham and others like her with failing to confront the current racist hostility directed at their fellow Jews and, with Foxman, finds unfunny the anti-Semitic slurs she borrows without apparent awareness of their pedigree.

As it happens, however, that pedigree boasts a more honorable bloodline than the invective of Nazis or Arabs. Heinrich Heine, one of Germany’s sweetest singers and sharpest critics, immortalized the canine Jew in “Princess Sabbath,” the most beloved of his Hebrew Melodies (1851). The poem tells of Israel, the prince who was long ago transmogrified into a dog.

As a dog, with dog’s ideas,
All the week, a cur, he noses
Through life’s filthy mire and sweepings,
Butt of mocking city Arabs.

Heine’s Jewish mutt—as deformed in his own way as Dunham’s Jewish boyfriend—represents not only the males of the species but the Jewish people in its entirety. Declining to spell out which aspect of their subjugation he is mocking, Heine leaves it to readers to interpret the insult in their own way. But his wit cuts in more than one direction. Who turned the prince into a dog, and why? In the poet’s reading, the Jews owe their metamorphosis to mistreatment at the hands of Gentiles; implicit in his portrait of their suppression is rebuke of their imperious masters.

Moreover, the canine Jew has another side to him. Once a week, on the Sabbath, he is miraculously restored to human form. Most of the poem, equally tongue-in-cheek, celebrates that weekly moment when the regal Jew welcomes his Sabbath bride. Heine, having grown ashamed of his own conversion to Christianity, had evidently acquired an appreciation for those who, unlike him, had withstood the humiliations of remaining Jewish.

 

It was the doggy image more than Princess Sabbath that burned its way into Jewish consciousness. For the rest of the 19th century and into the 20th, Jewish writers deployed the comparison in order to goad Jews into standing up for their natural rights. Heine’s satire in fact played a significant part in rousing the mutt to work for its freedom. Their self-liberation was by no means instantaneous, but within a century, and despite the cataclysm of Hitler’s Holocaust, Jews had reclaimed their national sovereignty in the land of Israel.

No one could mistake your typical Israeli for Heine’s dog, nosing “through life’s filthy mire and sweepings” while today’s mocking enemies throw rocks and missiles at his fellow Jews. It seems, then, that if the image applies at all, it applies only to certain American Jews, and maybe Lena Dunham knows whereof she speaks. Her boyfriend, real or imagined, is for sure no Israeli, but rather the kind of American Jew she would meet—well, through the New Yorker. Forget anti-Semitism: Dunham knows her milieu. She knows her Jewish men, still recognizable throwbacks to Heine’s mongrel when it comes to servility but minus the redemptive posture on even a single day of the week.

But who has whipped these whipped Jewish dogs of today (and, for Dunhams and Silvermans, provided livings from complaining about the results)? Certainly not the Gentiles. It’s funny that Dunham’s housepet is not just any sort of dog but one that “expects to be waited on hand and foot by the women in his life, and anything less than that makes him whiny and distant.” What kind of woman would deliberately choose for her consort a spoiled and bloodless lapdog when there are so many other breeds to be had out there: intrepid hunters and rescuers, heroic huskies, omni-competent collies, frisky herders, loyal-unto-death-and-beyond boxers, brave and joyous retrievers?

As Jackie Mason might say: I’m asking you.

More about: Arts & Culture, Heinrich Heine, Lena Dunham, New Yorker