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

 

A Woman Who Fired the Torches

Why Jewish girls are named after the fierce prophetess Deborah.

A Woman Who Fired the Torches
An engraving of Deborah by the French artist Gustave Doré. Wikiart.
 
Atar Hadari
Observation
Jan. 29 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Atar Hadari, born in Israel and raised in England, is a poet and translator whose Rembrandt’s Bible, a collection of biblical monologues, was recently published in the UK by Indigo Dreams. He writes regularly for Mosaic.


Most epics involve heroic men leaving women to pursue adventure, victory, and conquest. Odysseus leaves his wife Penelope and the enchantress Circe, Aeneas leaves Dido, Homer’s Iliad is set in motion first by the theft of a woman, Helen, and then by an argument over the female spoils of war that erupts between the warlord Agamemnon and his mercenary Achilles, the poem’s hero.

But what does any of this have to do with Torah? It has to do with the haftarah for this week’s portion of Beshalah (Exodus 13:17 – 17:16), which concerns the military exploits of the prophetess Deborah. The story appears in the biblical book of Judges, a peculiar work that I often think of as a collection of absurdist parables. But this particular reading (Judges 4:4 – 5:31) is different. It strikes me as a mock-epic, and it never ceases to amaze me with its command of that form—and with its fine savagery.

The climax of the Iliad, the greatest heroic story ever told, is the confrontation between Achilles and the opposing general Hector. Having finally tracked him down, Achilles pursues Hector in Homeric lines thrillingly translated by Christopher Logue:

And Achilles went for him, fast, sure of his speed
as the wild mountain hawk, the quickest thing on wings,
launching smoothly, swooping down on a cringing dove
and the dove flits out from under, the hawk screaming
over the quarry, plunging over and over, his fury
driving him down to beak and tear his kill—

And then, in the translation by Robert Fitzgerald,

The two men ran, pursuer and pursued
And he who fled was noble, he behind
A greater man by far. They ran full speed
And not for bull’s hide or a ritual beast
Or any prize that men compete for: no,
But for the life of Hector, tamer of horses.

That’s the sort of story—a story about men in battle, and about horses—that we have reason to think we’re going to be getting here in the book of Judges. But not this time:

And Deborah was a prophet woman,
A woman who fired the torches,
She judged over Israel at that time:
And she sat under a date tree, Deborah,
From the heights to Beit El at Mount Ephraim
And the children of Israel went up to her for judgment.

And she sent and called for Barak son of Avinoam
From Kedesh in Naftali and said to him,
Did not the Lord God of Israel command,
Go and draw men from Mount Tabor
And take with you ten-thousand men
From the sons of Naftali and sons of Zebulun?
And I will draw for you to the river Kishon
Sisrah, the warlord of Yavin, and his chariots
With his multitude and put him in the palm of your hand.

And Barak said to her, If you go with me I’ll go
And if you don’t go with me I won’t go.
And she said, Go I shall indeed go with you
But your fame will not be found on the path you’re set on,
For in a woman’s hand the Lord will deliver Sisrah.
And Deborah rose and went with Barak to Kedesh
And Barak called up Zebulun and Naftali at Kedesh
And he went up with ten-thousand men at his heels
And Deborah went up with him.

This haftarah plays with your expectations by carrying on about Barak and his ten-thousand men. True, you’re told upfront that this is an odd sort of epic: the prophet is a woman, and the hero whom she summons hasn’t the guts to make a move without her. And then she tells him that a woman will be the one who does in Sisrah, which makes you think Deborah herself, who’s leading the action, will be the vanquisher. In  just a few lines we’ll be in the heat of battle, but first there’s a lull as the focus returns to Barak and his ten-thousand men, whom he marches up the hill and promptly marches down again (rather like the Grand Old Duke of York in the nursery rhyme). Finally the battle starts and—surprise—this isn’t a war story after all:

And they told Sisrah that Barak son of Avinoam had gone up to Mount Tabor:
And Sisrah called up all his infantry,
nine-hundred steel chariots,
And all the people who were with him from Haroshet Goyim
To the river Kishon. And Deborah said to Barak, now rise
For this is the day the Lord has put Sisrah in your hand
Will not the Lord go out before you!

And Barak came down from Mount Tabor
With ten-thousand men behind him,
And God stampeded Sisrah and all his chariots and all his camp
At sword point before Barak
And Sisrah got down off his chariot and fled on foot.
And Barak chased after the chariots and the camp up to Haroshet Hagoyim
And the entire camp of Sisrah fell at sword point, there was not a single one left.

Who’s doing the fighting here isn’t Barak; it’s the Lord, and the fight is over before you know it. Bang! The mighty host is routed and wiped out to the last man. Sisrah is fleeing, and Barak is after him, and now we devotees of the epic are waiting for the climax, the heroic confrontation, Achilles and Hector, the sweaty clinch as two superwarriors go at it mano a mano. Instead, as befits a mock-epic, we have a war waged by women against women.

And Sisrah fled on foot to the tent of Yael, wife of Haver the Kenite
For there was peace between Yavin king of Hatzor
And the house of Haver the Kenite.

And Yael went out to face Sisrah
And said to him, Turn my lord, turn to my house, don’t be afraid
And he turned to her into the tent
And she covered him with a blanket.
And he said to her, Please let me drink
A little water, for I’ve been thirsty,
And she opened the sack of milk
And let him drink and covered him over.
And he said to her, Stand at the tent opening
And should a man come and ask you, saying, Is anyone there?
You can say there is no one.

And Yael the wife of Haver took the tent peg
And put the hammer in her hand
And she came to him softly
And stuck the peg in his brow
Till it went through to the ground,
And he’d been dozing and weary and he died.
And here Barak was chasing after Sisrah
And Yael came out to face him
And she said to him, Go
and I’ll show you the man you seek.
And he came to her and here was Sisrah
Dropped dead with the peg in his brow

Deborah has called up the charge. Sisrah in his abject flight has stumbled across the tent of Yael who, echoing Abraham’s words to the angels in Genesis (18:2-5) and acting the perfect hostess, not to mention a wicked witch in a fairy tale, entreats him to come inside. He asks for water and she gives him milk—which, the rabbis note in their commentary, is a soporific and which to my ear has a maternal ring; she gives him a glass of milk and covers him up, as if putting a baby to sleep. You can almost see her switching off the nightlight as she creeps out of the room. Then she’s back with the tent peg—has there ever been a phallic object less heroic?—and she puts it through his brow so far that it goes into the ground.

What I always find at once the most barbaric and most refined touch is the song at the end, which moves from praising the heroic glories of the Lord, to Sisrah’s dramatic encounter with Yael,  to the homely details of a domestic scene in which Sisrah’s mother is depicted waiting impatiently for her son’s triumphal return from battle.

Blessed of all women be Yael
Wife of Haver the Kenite,
Blessed of all women of the tent:
He asked for water, she gave him milk,
In the cup for great guests she offered him cream.
Her hand to the tent peg she reached
And her right hand to the workman’s blow
And battered Sisrah, wiped out his head,
And crushed and went through his brow.
Between her legs he knelt and fell
Where he knelt, there he fell, lost.

Through the window spying and wailing
Sisrah’s mother at the lintel,
Why does his chariot dally and not come,
Why does the rattle of his chariots tarry?
The wisest of her ladies will console
And even she repeats what they prattle.
For will they not find and divide spoils,
A maidenhead or two for each fellow?
The trove of the colors shall go to Sisrah
The trove of colors that are embroidered,
Colors embroidered on both sides for their necks in spoils.

So shall all your foes be lost, Lord,
And His adorers as the sun coming out in full force.
And the land was quiet for forty years.

This song, sung by Deborah herself, is the triumphant cry of one woman over another. You think your son is sharing our daughters with his men, you think he’s getting the best of our needlework? Think again, honey! And then, from the wrenching close-up of Sisrah’s mother and her ladies-in-waiting, fantasizing about Sisrah’s expected haul of pretty baubles, the song abruptly shifts register, the camera pulls back, and we’re given a panoramic shot of the Lord’s armies rising like the sun itself.

I always look forward to this haftarah, and I always find it stomach-churning. David rejoicing over the fall of Goliath is as nothing compared with Deborah exalting Yael and jeering at Sisrah’s mother. Besides, when David beheads the giant Goliath, you take comfort in the victory of a lean and ascetic youth armed only with his slingshot over the gargantuan and heavily armored professional warrior. Where in this story is the moral uplift? The Lord doesn’t need armies, He doesn’t need swords, He doesn’t even need Jews. If He’s decided against you, He’ll find some friendly lady of another tribe to offer you a drink of water, and while you’re wiping the milk from your upper lip, there’ll be a tiny pain at your temple and so long, Achilles.

And there’s just the point. As this mock-epic shows most graphically, the Lord of hosts doesn’t need heroes. And a horse, as Psalm 33 puts it, is a vain thing for deliverance. That is the moral of this tale: it’s not about the horses. Deborah knows that, Barak does not. That’s why Jewish girls are named after her, and Jewish boys are named after prophets, not warriors.

More about: Book of Judges, Deborah, The Monthly Portion, Torah

 

Does the Word “Hacker” Come from Yiddish?

Is the tech term, as in computer hacker, connected with the verb hakn, meaning to chop?

Does the Word “Hacker” Come from Yiddish?
Members of Anonymous, the internet hacking collective. Wikipedia.
 
Observation
Jan. 28 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Philologos, the renowned Jewish-language columnist, appears twice a month in Mosaic. Questions for him may be addressed to philologos AT mosaicmagazine.com.


Mosaic reader Max J. Katz writes:

I am interested in the etymology of “hacker” as it is used in computer technology to mean variously an expert, gamester, or someone who maliciously intrudes upon someone else’s computer to change or manipulate it. In particular, I wonder whether there is a connection with the Yiddish verb hakn, meaning to chop.

There is an extensive literature on the history of “hacker”—and also extensive disagreement. One thing there is no argument about is that the term was first used for computer buffs in the early 1960s at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Originally, it seems, a hacker at MIT was not specifically a lover of computers and their programs; rather, he was anyone who was more passionate about an extra-curricular hobby than about his academic studies. The earliest documentation of the word denoting such students dates to the late 1950s, when members of an MIT model-railroad club used it for themselves.

From this point on, the questions take over. Were the first program hackers out from the start to gain control of other people’s computers for nefarious purposes, or were they simply digital fun-lovers whose pranks meant no harm? If the latter, should the meaning of “hacker” be revised to rid it of the negative connotations that have colored it strongly since the 1980s, so that it once again refers to all programming enthusiasts and not just the criminally minded? And if so, what should criminal hackers be called? (Among the terms suggested have been “computer vandals,” “crackers,” and “white-hat hackers” as opposed to “black-hat hackers.”)

And finally: what is the etymology of “hacker”?

The dominant theory is that the word came from “to hack” in its sense of to cut or to chop. According to University of California computer scientist Brian Harvey, a member of the first hacker generation:

Popular opinion at MIT posited that there are two kinds of students, tools and hackers. A “tool” is someone who attends class regularly, is always to be found in the library when no class is meeting, and gets straight A’s. A “hacker” is the opposite: someone who never goes to class, who sleeps all day, and who spends the night pursing recreational activities rather than studying. There was thought to be no middle ground.

The hacker, in other words, has no patience for the traditional ways of doing things, such as using tools in an accepted manner. He takes what comes to hand and chops away with it. The only connection with Yiddish would be that “to hack” and hakn are close cognates, belonging to a group of words that also includes German hacken, to cut, chop, or cleave, and Dutch hakke, a hoe. Some of us know the Yiddish verb hakn from the Yinglish idiom “to hock a cheinik,” that is, “to bang a teakettle” or rattle away verbally at someone.

The problem with this is that both “hack” and “hacker” have numerous other meanings in American slang that could equally have influenced students at MIT. Many of these also stem from hack in its meaning of chop, while others go back to hackney, a 14th-century English word that originally designated an old nag or worn-out horse, and subsequently, shortened to hack, came to refer to a dilapidated old car or carriage, a cab, a driver earning his livelihood from such a vehicle, or anyone making a living from dull or unworthy work.

Moreover, it is sometimes difficult to tell whether a given meaning of “to hack,” “hack,” or “hacker” derives from the hack=chop or hackney line of words or has been produced by an interaction between them. Here are a few of these meanings:

Hack: Someone working at a job for which he is insufficiently skilled, trained, or motivated.

Hack it: To cope successfully with a difficult situation, often by improvised means.

Hacker: An amateur tennis or golf player with a clumsy swing, and by extension, any inept beginner or practitioner.

 Hack:  An athlete who routinely fouls other athletes. Also, an unfair play in football or other sports.

Hack:   Someone who spoils someone else’s art work by drawing on it.

 Hack:   An ugly or nasty solution to a problem.

Hack:    To cut off another driver and speed away.

Hack: To steal a joke from a comedian.

To complicate matters further, while any of these usages might have contributed to MIT’s “hacker,” it is also possible, the date of first appearance being uncertain, that some were the results of it. It’s one of those etymological questions that will probably never have a clear answer. And just to add, for Mr. Katz’s benefit, one more unlikely possibility with a Yiddish angle, consider this:

In the debate over whether computer hackers are or are not intrinsically objectionable figures, those who claim they are not have had recourse to the analogy of a locksmith. Just as picking locks, they contend, can be used for both bad ends like burglary and good ones like letting someone into a house he is locked out of, so computer hacking has its positive sides, too.

A lock in Yiddish is a shlisl. And what’s a lock pick? I won’t ask you to hold your breaths. It’s a hakshlisl. 

More about: Arts & Culture, Language, Philologos, Yiddish

 

Isaac Bashevis Singer and His Women

What drove the great writer to employ a “harem” of translators? A new film tells much, but not all.

Isaac Bashevis Singer and His Women
Courtesy The Muses of Isaac Bashevis Singer.
 
Observation
Jan. 21 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).


Writers have their way with the world until they depart from it, and then they are at the mercy of those who interpret them. This mischievous turnabout would have appealed to Isaac Bashevis Singer (1902-1991), possibly the most prolific and certainly the most famous Yiddish writer of the 20th century, whose reputation is now in the hands of types he once turned into fiction. But if The Muses of Isaac Bashevis Singer, a new documentary movie by the Israeli directors Asaf Galay and Shaul Betser, is any portent, the afterlife of this particular writer may be graced by the same improbable good fortune he enjoyed on earth.

In explaining the genesis of his project, Galay tells us that, as a devoted reader of Singer in Hebrew and English, he was struck by the sheer number of the master’s translators. He counted 48 names before stopping—a figure high enough to tweak his imagination, especially since almost all were women. Among these women are the several “muses” featured in Galay’s movie as talking heads and/or in vintage footage. As it happens, notoriety had long since attached itself to those whom Singer called “his harem,” implying that his lady translators were also at his sexual behest. Interviewing some of these women, Galay found them perfectly ready to embroider the legend, if not to clarify which of the harem’s two parties was at the mercy of the other.

Isaac Singer came to New York from Warsaw in 1936, armed with a freshly published copy of his debut novel, Satan in Goray, but clueless in English and still in the literary shadow of his older brother Israel Joshua, who had sponsored his passage. It was to distinguish himself from the already famous I.J. that Isaac adopted the pen-name Bashevis, after his mother. But sibling rivalry wasn’t the only obstacle in his path. He also suffered from the loss of his natural readership, most of which had been left behind in Europe—an artistic challenge that would become still greater after World War II erased Polish Jewry almost in its entirety. Although he had steady work at the Yiddish daily Forverts (“Forward”), it could not make up for the loss of his formative world and consumer base. For a time, he considered himself “lost in America”—the English title of his fictionalized accounts of this period in his life.

Indeed, language was more important to Bashevis than to any Yiddish prose writer since Sholem Aleichem, whom he resembled in his command of the monologue and first-person narrative forms. Whereas others sought to prove that they could write in Yiddish about anything under the sun—and did—Bashevis felt that true literature was organically bound to its sources. On the rare occasion when he theorized about the literary process, he would make fun of the notion that Yiddish writers could evoke a milieu from which Yiddish itself was absent. How could they describe work in an American engineering firm, or the experience of shopping in an American department store, if the language was not actually spoken in those places?

This take on the relation of language to literature meant that he would have to confine his own writing either to the European past or to those immigrant Jewish enclaves of New York or Miami where Yiddish was still in use. In fact, his fiction never strayed from the world with which he was most intimately familiar.

All the more strange, then, that he came to be known mostly in translation—and that he himself would recruit translators wholesale, the way Microsoft recruits programmers. If his art lay in the specificities of Yiddish, he would regularly and incongruously instruct later translators to work off of earlier English translations—and told at least one of them not to bother learning Yiddish in the first place. In the movie, Janet Hadda, one of his biographers, explains this nonchalance as stemming from his raw desire for fame, his wish to be read globally, just the way he himself was able to devour fiction originating in many languages other than his own.

Indeed, Muses is most valuable in exploring this connection between Singer’s seduction of translators and his seduction of a worldwide readership.

 

On the former seduction, thankfully, the movie resists the temptation to reduce Singer to a lecherous predator, or to play his unsuccessful flirtations strictly for laughs, or, even more obviously, to transform itself into a feminist tract. At its New York premiere two weeks ago, an invited panelist suggested that the “muses” may have lent themselves to exploitation. To this, Galay responded that none had voiced any such complaint; to the contrary, all spoke of Singer with affection.

Interviewed for the film, some of the now-mature women who once worked with him express puzzlement at the suggestion that their younger selves would have agreed to sexual relations with this elderly man. Others insist on discretion, or are frankly amused, as if to say, “Me, exploited? By this pixie?” The film owes much of its buoyancy and humor to these interviewees, who are as idiosyncratic as many a character in Singer’s fiction; some of them inspired it.

Still, although for the most part Muses skirts the darker themes with which modern Yiddish literature is often associated—breakup and cultural dislocation, persecution, destruction—its fairly lighthearted treatment does not extend to the author’s relations with his family, including his son Israel, who became one of his Hebrew translators, and his granddaughter Meirav, who has taken partial charge of his legacy. But no one at all familiar with Singer’s fiction, much of it drawn from biographical and autobiographical material, could be surprised by the devastation that he left in his wake.

In the novel Enemies, the protagonist’s dilemmas with his several wives bear a striking resemblance to the dilemmas of his creator. When Isaac married Alma Haimann in 1940, both were already married: in leaving Poland for America, he had abandoned his common-law wife Runya and their young son. Though the couple had separated earlier, the wife clearly expected him to sponsor their immigration to the States; after mother and son moved to Palestine, she expected him to join her there. He did neither.

As for Alma, in marrying Isaac she abandoned not only her husband but their two children; in the film, her niece’s account of this episode is told without rancor, but a haunting photograph of the young children may be the documentary’s most disturbing moment. In transferring her loyalty to Isaac, Alma also bore his infidelities, which included a regular mistress and a number of casual ones. The documentary treats this couple and their situation with greater sympathy than the author extends to analogous characters in his work.

 

Intentionally or not, Muses seems to draw a distinction between those who depended on Isaac materially or emotionally and others who simply enjoyed the frisson of closeness with a great writer. The former suffered and felt betrayed; the latter were mainly unscarred. But the focus on his translators lets us in on more than how this writer affected the people around him. It invites us to consider whether, and how, his attitude toward the women he shuffled about, exchanging one for the next in succession, corresponded to his indifference to precise translation, and perhaps to something deeper as well.

With colleagues and students, and with my brother David Roskies, who also teaches Yiddish literature, I’ve often joined in the exercise of comparing the Yiddish original of a Bashevis story or novel with its English translation, just to see how the alteration affects the outcome. Occasionally we speculate about the reasons for a specific change: simplification for a non-Jewish readership?; the felt need to replace an optimistic ending with a tragic one? But the testimony of his translators in Muses hints at something else—that he was almost spiteful in his resistance to the idea of a perfectly finished work. Just as the conflicted male protagonist of a typical Bashevis work is left dangling at the end of his story, arbitrariness seems a principle of the art itself. The spirit of the author stands behind those endings as though he were saying, “Really, what difference does it make?”

And there is still more to be said. One of Bashevis’s tales of childhood (from the series In My Father’s Court) describes him, as a still-traditional Jewish boy in long caftan and earlocks, on a visit to his older brother I.J. in an artists’ atelier. There he comes upon nude models and other young women who smile condescendingly at his covered head and sidecurls—for they, too, have recently crossed over to impiety from the observant Jewish homes of their parents.

In real life, many of Bashevis’s fellow Jews who traversed this same divide would try in various ways and by various means to reconcile the two sides. But the young man who emerged from that boy in the Warsaw atelier never believed in the negotiation. For him, leaving the world of Jewish religious containment, known today as haredi, meant consignment to a world of moral indifference in which a man might just as well give in to his lusts: for women, for fame, and for stories that take their own direction or none. Even as his distrust of a binding love between man and woman finds a correlative in his suspicion of perfectly realized works of art, his unfaithfulness to both his women and his works seems like a surrender to the moral arbitrariness of life itself. If one no longer believed in the Perfect God and His Torah, what reason to seek perfection elsewhere?

Not that Muses makes any of this explicit. But its cheerful, generous tone does finally give way to a certain anxiety about its subject. The primary cause of anxiety is Isaac’s treatment of the people who relied on him, especially his family; next comes his treatment of the translators, none of whom he ever wanted to hold on to; ultimately, though, there is his distrust of, or disdain for, the artistic endeavor itself, and what that might signify. If he clowned a little for his American interviewers and for Swedish royalty when he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, it was as if to let them know, and to remind himself, that in becoming a Yiddish writer in a world without Yiddish, he had lost faith in the ultimate value of the word, or the Word. For all his thirst for acclaim and veneration, his negligent indifference to translation affirmed that the modern writer was to be trusted no more than, and perhaps less than, modern man.

More about: Arts & Culture, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Yiddish literature

 

What Do the Attacks in France Mean for the Survival of Liberal Democracy?

The liberal way of life is remarkably fragile. Is the West willing to fight for it?

What Do the Attacks in France Mean for the Survival of Liberal Democracy?
Mourners carry the coffin of Franck Brinsolaro, one of two French police officers killed in the attack on Charlie Hebdo. AP Photo/Francois Mori.
 
Observation
Jan. 15 2015 12:01AM
About the author

Simon Gordon, a former Tikvah Fellow, is a policy adviser at the embassy of Israel in London. The views expressed here are his own.


Last week, the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo were not the only journalists targeted for affronting Muslim doctrine. Raif Badawi, founder of the Free Saudi Liberals website, who was convicted of blasphemy by a Saudi court in 2012 and later resentenced, more harshly, to ten years’ imprisonment, a fine of 1 million riyals, and 1,000 lashes, received his first flogging two days after the massacre in Paris. Although the Saudi regime joined the worldwide condemnation of the attack on Charlie Hebdo, the French cartoonists wouldn’t have fared much better had they made the Gulf state their publishing base. The only difference was the lack of official imprimatur on their execution: they were murdered by Islamist vigilantes, not an Islamist judiciary.

Neither the criminalization of blasphemy in Muslim countries nor the murder of blasphemers in Europe by Islamists is a new phenomenon. On the contrary: from Pakistan to Algeria via Iran and Egypt, blasphemy laws are rigorously enforced. Even in free countries, ever since Ayatollah Khomeini’s 1989 fatwa against Salman Rushdie, dissenters have had to fear for their lives. But the coincidence of last week’s events is noteworthy for what it reveals not only about the state of Islamism in the world today but about the state of liberal democracy. Briefly: rather than the West exporting liberal democracy to the Middle East, as many had fantasized during the late lamented “Arab Spring,” it is the Middle East that is exporting Islamism to the free world.

The brutal reach of Islamism is now global. In the last four weeks alone, we have seen a lone jihadist take ten hostages in Sydney, Australia, leaving three dead; Taliban gunmen slaughter 132 children in a Pakistani school; and, at the same time as the attacks in France, Boko Haram massacre perhaps as many as 2,000 in the Nigerian city of Baga. This is to say nothing of the ongoing ethnic cleansing perpetrated by Islamic State; or the continued persecution of Christians in not only Syria and Iraq but Somalia, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan, and Libya—all at the hands of Islamist terror groups or acquiescent governments.

With depressing predictability, the rise in Islamism has also intensified terror against Jews. The attack on the HyperCacher supermarket in Vincennes, in which four Jews were murdered, was merely the latest in a long series of such assaults, amidst a climate of anti-Semitism that is contributing to the slow exodus of Europe’s largest Jewish community.

A month ago, three assailants broke into the home of a Jewish couple in the Paris suburb of Créteil and raped the nineteen-year old wife, telling them, “It’s because you’re Jewish.” During Israel’s war with Hamas over the summer, Jewish shops were smashed and firebombed in Sarcelles, Jewish worshippers were besieged in a synagogue in Paris’s 11th district, and pro-Palestinian rallies were punctuated by cries of “Mort aux juifs,” death to the Jews. Three years ago, Mohamed Merah murdered four, including three children, in a killing spree at the Ozar Hatorah School in Toulouse. According to France’s Ministry of the Interior, French Jews, who make up 1 percent of the population, were the victims of 40 percent of the terror attacks in 2013.

French Jews have not been the sole victims. Across the border in Belgium, the situation is little better, with Mehdi Nemmouche shooting four dead in an attack six months ago on Brussels’ Jewish Museum. Nor is the problem unique to Jews in the Diaspora—as November’s vicious knife murders of Jews at prayer in Jerusalem testify. As even the British Guardian, no friend of Israel, noted at the time, the prospect of synagogues in the Jewish state needing to be protected by armed guards in the manner of so many synagogues in the Diaspora is “a bleak thought for a country established to be a safe haven.”

 

The ascendancy of Islamism, affecting different continents and countries of profoundly different cultures, and taking place in spite of—or as a result of—the withdrawal of Western troops from the Middle East, gives the lie to axioms that have undergirded much of the discourse on terrorism over the past decade. Above all, the prevalent idea that Islamist attacks are a response to Western interference or military adventurism is now revealed as supremely narcissistic—a hubristic exaggeration of the influence of the West and underestimation of its attackers. As both the rise of IS and the attacks in Paris attest, the free world is not dictating events but reacting to them: the agenda is being set by the Islamists.

No less highlighted by the terror attacks is the extent to which Islamism is a unified ideology, seeking to impose its principles no matter the cultural or religious surroundings in which it finds itself. It is not merely the terror networks themselves, or their funding networks, that are global—although the Kouachi brothers responsible for the Charlie Hebdo murders were graduates of a study-abroad program on murder in Yemen, and al-Qaeda, the al-Nusra Front, Hamas, and others continue to find willing sponsors in oil-rich Gulf states and clandestine donors in Europe. Rather, it is the ideology represented by groups like IS—the commitment to exclusionary, imperialist theocracy—that is attracting adherents from Sydney to East London and providing the base of doctrine and belief on which the attacks are predicated.

In embedding itself as a cultural phenomenon within liberal democracies, Islamism has already succeeded in limiting the liberties that citizens of free countries take for granted and subtly changing their way of life. For all of the Je Suis Charlie hashtags and rallies, writers, politicians, and contributors to social media will remain much more reluctant openly to criticize or satirize Islam or Muslim figures than they are to lampoon those of other faiths.

Indeed, after the Paris attacks and the firebombing of  the Hamburger Morgenpost four days later for daring to reprint Charlie Hebdo cartoons, the likely prospect is for an even greater degree of caution about causing offense to Muslims. For their part, Jews in France and elsewhere in Europe will continue to fear to wear kippot and other religious symbols openly, and may well feel more compelled to conceal their identities. In this respect, the Islamists have already attained a victory.

 

The spread of Islamism into the heartland of liberal democracy, and its influence on liberal culture, thus demand a thorough recalibration of attitudes. The notion that changing foreign policy, or redoubling domestic efforts to integrate the marginalized, or frankly appeasing Islamist demands will end the reign of terror is misguided not only because it underestimates the appeal of the Islamist worldview and the determination of its adherents. It is misguided because it overestimates the strength of liberal democracy.

The encroachment on civil liberties through anti-terror legislation is often said—not without reason—to threaten the very liberal ideals that it seeks to protect. But at the same time, the consequences of abandoning intrusive intelligence-gathering could well be worse—in terms of the potential loss not just of human life but of the liberal way of life. If politicians, journalists, and ordinary citizens have already modified their behavior in response to terror attacks and the threat of violence on the street, how would they react if the scale of terrorism were increased ten or twentyfold? Would they still be tweeting #JeSuisCharlie?

Indeed, the low-level surveillance state already implemented by governments around the world signals an implicit repudiation of the complacent idea that Islamism is a fringe issue, that the West is so dominant as to be essentially impregnable, or that the progressivist vision of liberal democracy must endure because any regress is unthinkable. The truth, as millions have discovered to their cost in recent years, is that progress toward liberal democracy is far from assured, and that states can quite easily fail.

The fragility of liberal democracy, and the price of losing it, are perhaps most appreciated in France. As a people who have been through two monarchies, two empires, two foreign occupations (including one home-grown fascist government), in addition to five republics in the centuries following a much-celebrated but immensely bloody revolution, the French are more conscious than most Western nations of how easy it is for systems of government to change or fall, and more convinced that liberty is something that must be maintained and fought for rather than taken for granted or bargained slowly away.

Does this mean that, in the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo massacre, France will seize the opportunity to lead a reawakening of the liberal democratic West? Will a country long depressed by persistent economic malaise, deeply disillusioned with its leadership, and troubled by the disconnection between its self-perceived geopolitical importance and its actual, peripheral profile take the lead in shaping the Western world’s response to terror and confidence in its ideals?

Unfortunately, there are reasons for doubt. But time will tell, and there’s precious little of it.

More about: Charlie Hebdo, European Jewry, France, Islamism, liberal democracy