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Sex, Magic, Bigotry, Corruption—and the First Hebrew Novel

In 1819, Joseph Perl published Hebrew literature’s first novel. A riotous satire of the ḥasidic movement, it remains largely and unjustly forgotten.

From Simhat Torah by Chaim Gross. Yeshiva University Museum/Center for Jewish History/Flickr.

From Simhat Torah by Chaim Gross. Yeshiva University Museum/Center for Jewish History/Flickr.

Observation
May 11 2015
About the author

Hillel Halkin’s books include Yehuda HaleviAcross the Sabbath RiverMelisande: What are Dreams? (a novel), Jabotinsky: A Life (2014), and, most recently, After One-Hundred-and-Twenty (Princeton). 


With this essay, we inaugurate a series of fresh looks by Hillel Halkin at Zionist or proto-Zionist writers and intellectuals of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Some are well known. Others, like the Galician Jewish writer Joseph Perl, deserve to  be. 

Exactly 200 years ago, a Hebrew book called Shivḥey ha-Besht (The Praises of the Baal Shem Tov), was published in the Belarussian town of Kopys. The Baal Shem Tov, the legendary founder of Ḥasidism, had died in 1760, more than a half-century previously, and the book’s author, Dov Ber of Linitz, was the son-in-law of a man who had been his secretary.

Shivḥey ha-Besht, a collection of stories about the Baal Shem, some of them heard by Dov Ber from his father-in-law, quickly went through many editions. In more ways than one, it was a literary milestone. It was the first written life of a figure known until then to his followers and detractors alike only by word of mouth. It also initiated a new Hebrew genre, the ḥasidic tale, which would proliferate in hundreds of volumes in the years to come. And though modeled on an earlier book, The Praises of the Ari, a hagiography of the Safed kabbalist Yitzḥak Luria Ashkenazi printed in 1629, it was written in prose never before seen in a published Hebrew work: simple, functional, and lively, yet riddled with grammatical errors, calque translations from Yiddish, and Yiddish and Slavic words whose Hebrew equivalents Dov Ber did not know or bother to look for. He was a ritual slaughterer, not a rabbi, and the rabbinic language of his times, with its scholarly conventions, densely compressive style, heavy mixture of Aramaic, and erudite allusions to biblical and rabbinic texts did not interest him and was probably beyond his ken.

Ḥasidic writings existed before The Praises of the Baal Shem Tov. Yet they were homiletic and theological rather than anecdotal and were themselves composed in rabbinic language. The great battle that broke out in late-18th-century Eastern Europe between Ḥasidim and Misnagdim—or “opponents,” as the anti-ḥasidic forces were called in the Ashkenazi pronunciation of Hebrew—was fought among rabbis. Both sides knew and revered the same texts and traditions, and each side excoriated the other in their name.

The Misnagdim were the initial aggressors. As ḥasidic teachings and communities began to spread after the Baal Shem Tov’s death, the rabbinical establishment of the day, headed by the renowned Gaon of Vilna, Elijah ben Shlomo Zalman Kramer (1720-1797), did its best to stamp them out. Ḥasidism’s emphasis on emotional as opposed to cogitative experience; its downgrading of the life of study that was rabbinic Judaism’s highest ideal; its holding faith and trust in God to be no less important than observance of the details of His law; the pantheistic implications in its teachings of God’s presence in all things; the boisterousness of its communal rites and prayer, with their dancing, singing, jumping, shouting, hand-clapping, and other displays of enthusiasm; its cult of the tsaddik, the rabbinical holy man who served as an intermediate between God and the ordinary Jew—all were deemed highly dangerous. They threatened the stability of the old order and raised the specter of a renewed outbreak of the antinomian forces, unleashed in the last decades of the 17th century by the messianic movement of Sabbatianism and reaching an extreme in the libertinism of Frankism: a post-Sabbatian sect whose leader, the Polish Jew Jacob Frank (1726-1791), converted to Catholicism with his followers during the Baal Shem’s lifetime.

The more the strength of the Ḥasidim grew, however, the more they struck back. By the 18th century’s end, the two camps were in a state of outright war. Book burnings, excommunications, economic boycotts, physical violence, and houndings of ḥasidic and misnagdic minorities by misnagdic and ḥasidic majorities were common. Neither party shrank from what had always been considered, even in the fiercest of Jewish disputes, to be beyond the pale: informing on one’s fellow Jews to the Gentile authorities. In 1798, and again in 1800, misnagdic complaints to the Russian government led to the arrest and imprisonment of Shneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812), the father of the Ḥabad school of Ḥasidism, on charges of sedition and illegal currency dealings. (On both occasions, he was thoroughly questioned and freed.) In 1799, Ḥasidim accused misnagdic communal officials in Vilna of embezzling public funds; once again there were police detentions and investigations.

At the same time, success changed Ḥasidism’s character. While some tsaddikim, like the Baal Shem Tov’s grandson Naḥman of Bratslav (1772-1810), lived materially modest or even impoverished lives far removed from the desire to exercise anything but spiritual power, others took advantage of their followings to amass wealth and property. Such was another grandson of the Baal Shem, Barukh of Mezhibozh (1753-1811), who lived in a royal splendor made possible by an ongoing flow of gifts and remittances from his disciples. Called pidyonot, “redeemings,” these offerings were held to be acts of piety that assured their giver of the tsaddik’s blessings. The religious justification for them had already been provided by the first-generation ḥasidic rabbi Elimelekh of Lizhensk (1717-1787), who stressed the religious duty of supporting the tsaddik lavishly so that, freed from all economic worries, he might concentrate on his sacred mission.

By the time of Shivḥey ha-Besht‘s publication, Ḥasidism had developed an entrenched order of its own. Geographically, it was strongest in the south of Eastern Europe, in Austrian Galicia and Russian Volhynia and Podolia, all parts of the kingdom of Poland until the latter’s late-18th-century dismemberment by its neighbors, and weakest in the north, particularly in Lithuania, which remained heavily misnagdic. Politically, it was split between the Tsarist and Hapsburg empires. Religiously, it was divided into different “courts,” each headed by its own tsaddik, some co-existing amicably, others, like those of Shneur Zalman of Liady and Barukh of Medzhibozh, locked in conflict over principles, influence, and territory.

All, moreover, had a common enemy not only in Misnagdism but in a new trend, sharing some of Misnagdism’s values but clashing with its conservative rabbinate, that was rapidly becoming a third force. This was the Haskalah, or Jewish enlightenment: a movement of intellectual and social modernization that, arriving from the West, especially from the Berlin of Moses Mendelssohn, had by the early 1800s struck roots in Eastern Europe, and most of all in Galicia.

 

II. 

 

One of the Haskalah’s foremost representatives in Galicia was Joseph Perl (1773-1839).

An educator and man of literary cultivation—among his accomplishments was a translation of Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones into Hebrew from a German version of the English original—Perl, though he unjustly has had to vie for the title, was Hebrew literature’s first novelist; his fiction, while never paid the attention it deserves, ranks to this day among modern Hebrew’s finest. Accorded little more than passing mention by the standard histories, it has had to wait 200 years for a full-length study, the Israeli scholar Yonatan Meir’s 600-page Hebrew investigation of Perl’s major novel, Megaleh T’mirin (The Revealer of Secrets). Meir’s three ground-breaking volumes, published together in 2013, include an annotated edition of the novel’s long out-of-print Hebrew text; thoroughly researched analyses of its sources, conception, composition, encoded allusions, and reception; extensive comparisons with Perl’s later Yiddish version of it; a full bibliography, and a long essay by Dan Miron, the doyen of Israeli literary criticism. It is an outstanding achievement, and it will merit no small part of the credit when Perl finally assumes his rightful place in the Hebrew pantheon.

Perl was a native and resident of Tarnopol, a middle-sized town southeast of Galicia’s capital city of Lvov, the German Lemberg. Far from Vienna and close to the Russian frontier, Lemberg was the first center of the Galician Haskalah, in part due to the determined, if not brutal, figure of Naphtali Herz Homberg (1749-1841). An early Maskil, or adherent of the Haskalah, who belonged to Moses Mendelssohn’s circle in Berlin, Homberg was appointed by the Austrian government in 1787 to supervise German-language Jewish schooling in Galicia.

Based in Lemberg, Homberg, worked tirelessly for the Germanization of the region’s heavily ḥasidic, Yiddish-speaking Jewish population—a goal he sought to accomplish by rigorous implementation of a compulsory system of semi-secular education and a variety of other reforms, including universal military service for all Jews and official dress codes barring traditional Jewish garb. Well in advance of German Reform Judaism, whose first synagogue was opened in 1818, he also called for a drastic simplification of Jewish prayer and a sweeping liberalization of rabbinic law. Although his long-term success was not great (the Jewish public school system was shut down in 1806 because of Jewish resistance and small enrollments), Homberg managed to make himself anathema not only to the Ḥasidim, who loathed him as much as he loathed them, but to many of his fellow Maskilim—who, though sympathetic to his aims, objected to the coerciveness of his methods.

Perl, who restarted a Jewish school in Tarnopol in 1813, both was and was not cast in Homberg’s mold. Drawn to Ḥasidism in his youth, he turned violently against it upon embracing the Haskalah, came to consider it the main obstacle to the modernization of Galician Jewry, and agreed with Homberg on the need to enlist the Austrian government in the campaign to break its strength. Yet Perl remained an Orthodox, misnagdic Jew all his life, and he never developed the animus toward rabbinic tradition, in which he was well-versed, that Homberg was motivated by. As an educator, he believed in combining Orthodoxy with a sense of civic duty and an openness to European culture and science. As an Austrian citizen, he argued for anti-ḥasidic legislation, the case for which he made in a German book written in 1816 and entitled Über das Wesen der Sekte Chassidim (On the Nature of the Sect of the Ḥasidim). Intended as an exposé of the obscurantism, bigotry, and moral and financial corruption of ḥasidic life, the book, to Perl’s great disappointment, was banned by the Austrian censor, who feared the stormy ḥasidic reaction it might provoke. Undaunted, Perl proceeded to do the next best thing—though for Hebrew literature there could have been none better—by turning his disappointment into a novel.

 

III.

 

Published in Vienna in 1819, Perl’s novel was announced on its title page as

The Book of the Revealer of Secrets, Which Is As It Is Named, For It Reveals That Which Has Hitherto Been Concealed From All Eyes, the Reason for Which Will Be Apparent to the Reader of the Introduction, in Which All Is Explained At Length.

To this was added:

Wherewith is appended a Glossary of Words used by our fellow Jews in Poland that are found in this Book and in other Books by the Tsaddikim of our Age, so that those of our People who hail from elsewhere may comprehend the Holy Books that our Tsaddikim have written in Poland—and may the Reader take pleasure in it all.

By “Poland” was meant the area of the pre-partition kingdom, the home of nearly all of Yiddish-speaking Jewry. Informing non-Yiddish speakers of the existence of a glossary, however, was only partly the point of this addendum. Its aim was also to establish that the book’s author, unmentioned on the title page, was a Ḥasid—for who else would speak of “the Holy Books that our Tsaddikim have written”? This identification is made explicit on a dedication page that follows, which acknowledges various tsaddikim as having been The Revealer of Secrets’ inspiration, starting with the Baal Shem Tov himself, “that source and conduit of divine wisdom, the crown and glory of Israel.” And now the author’s name is also given. He is “the renowned Ḥasid, Ovadiah ben Petaḥiah, who lives among the Tsaddikim and Great Men of our Age.”

Next appears a “Public Notice,” in which Ovadiah advises the reader that

wherever in this Book appear the titles Rabbi, True Rabbi, Tsaddik, True Tsaddik, Tsaddik of the Age, Perfect Tsaddik, Great Man, Great Man of the Age . . . and so on, I allude only to the Tsaddikim who worship God, may He be blessed, in Rapture and Ecstasy, not to the Book-Learners left in our Land on whom, alas, the Light has yet to shine.

And having made clear that no Misnaged could merit such superlatives, Ovadiah proceeds to his promised introduction, which explains how his book came to be written.

He was traveling, Ovadiah writes, on a lonely road one night when, descending from his wagon to reconnoiter, he lost his way and wandered for hours in a forest before encountering an old man, the ancient guardian of the hidden writings of the mysterious Rabbi Adam, mentioned in The Praises of the Baal Shem Tov as a source of the Baal Shem’s esoteric knowledge. Giving Ovadiah a page of them, the old man showed him how to make himself invisible by slipping it into his pocket. Equipped with this magic charm, Ovadiah tells us, he decided to visit, unseen, the homes of famous tsaddikim to discover what secret virtues their modesty kept them from divulging, and in the course of his sleuthing he came across several exchanges of correspondence that he deemed of sufficient interest to copy. These letters, supplemented by explanatory footnotes, are now being offered to the public.

The reader thus knows, before beginning the main body of Perl’s novel, that it is epistolary in nature, like other European novels of the times, and ḥasidic in point of view. If the reader is a Maskil, he knows, too, that its Ḥasidism is only a ruse, since no one but a gullible Ḥasid could believe that a Jew with an un-East-European-sounding biblical name of the kind frequently used by maskilic writers could be taught to be invisible by a fairytale encounter. The Revealer of Secrets is thus itself revealed from the start to be a satire—though, according to contemporary sources, not a few Ḥasidim who tried reading it were gullible enough, at least for a few pages, to take its ostensible ḥasidic authorship at face value. Perl could not have wished for a greater compliment.

 

IV.

 

The first of the 151 letters in The Revealer of Secrets is “From Reb Zelig Letitchever in Zolin to Reb Zeynvl Verkhievker in Kripin.” A section of it reads, in my translation:

Yesterday I stayed for a while at our Holy Rabbis after the Evening Prayer & heard him say a few words. They were sweeter than honey & I was much pleased by his being in fine fettle & cozy as always with God. God be praised I learn more from his Stories & Sayings than I could from any other Tsaddik. I could have listened to his Holy Words for days without eating or drinking but he wanted to have a Smoke & go the Privy & so I fetched him his Pipe but before I could light it someone else brought a Coal. And when I saw it was not his pleasure to be walked to the Privy I went home in a merry mood thanking God for my good fortune at being in our Holy Rabbis Inner Circle & hearing such Amazing Things. Arriving home my wife handed me a Letter brought by someone from your Town. This improved my State of Mind still further because I recognized your Writing but reading your news of a rag of a Book thats come out against us & all the True Tsaddikim which was sent from Galicia to the Governor of your Town my hands began to shake. You say its full of ridicule & lies about the True Rabbis which I wouldnt have believed from anyone but you. . . . Believe me it might have put me in a Glumness if I hadnt been feeling so mellow. I had a dram after reading it that helped drive bad thoughts away but we still have to think of what to do about this Book. For two reasons I fear to break the news to our Holy Rabbi. One is it might cause him aggravation God forbid. Of course he must have already heard about it in the Upper Worlds but it could upset him to be told in a Lower One. And two suppose he gets back at the writer of this Book he might have the Spirit of the Torah burn him alive or the like & deprive us of the pleasure of doing it ourselves or turning him into the law.

Putting aside for the moment Zelig Letitchever’s language, his letter sets the stage for what is to come by telling us a number of things: 1) he and Zeynvl Verkhievker, while living in different towns, are followers of the same ḥasidic rabbi; 2) this rabbi lives in Zolin, as does Zelig, who (as we will soon find out) is his secretary; 3) Zeynvl’s town of Kripin is the capital of the district in which its governor resides; 4) Zolin and Kripin are not in Galicia, which means they must be across the border in Russia; 5) Zeynvl has written Zelig to inform him of a worrisomely anti-ḥasidic book, published in Galicia, that is now in the hands of the governor; 6) this book promises to figure conspicuously in future events.

And in fact, as you may have guessed, “the Book” (in Perl’s Hebrew it is always referred to as ha-bukh, using the Hebrew definite article “ha” and the Yiddish word for a secular and therefore, to a Ḥasid, intrinsically suspicious volume) is none other than a thinly disguised Über das Wesen der Sekte Chasidim. Perl’s real-life composition is thus at the center of his novel’s imaginary plot. And a wild and woolly plot it is, involving so many twists, turns, characters, predicaments, and comic mishaps, related by a large number of correspondents, that even the most highly concentrated reader may at times lose the thread of it. Since a simple summary of The Revealer of Secrets might fill many pages, I will make do with a summary of a summary.

Zelig and Zeynvl, without informing the Rabbi of Zolin, resolve to get their hands on the Book, this being the only way to learn what is in it, ascertain how dangerous it is, discover the identity of its author, punish him for writing it, and destroy, if necessary, all copies of it by buying them up and burning them. The two men’s initial plan is to get the governor’s Jewish maid Freyde to purloin the Book; wrongly believed by Zeynvl to be also the governor’s mistress, she has full access to his house. Yet though she carries out her part in the scheme, it goes awry when the Book is mistakenly returned before it can be read and the governor, having noticed its temporary absence, secures it under lock and key.

Zelig and Zeynvl hatch a new plan: they forge a letter to the district governor from his deputy, who lives in Zolin, asking to borrow the Book, and have it delivered by a fellow Ḥasid, a young Hebrew tutor, in the expectation that he will be given the Book to bring back with him. The governor, however, decides to give his deputy the Book personally; the forgery is discovered when the two meet; and the tutor, now wanted for fraud, has to go into hiding.

Things go from bad to worse. The governor reads the Book, succumbs to its influence, and grows hostile to the Rabbi of Zolin and his Ḥasidim. In this he has an ally, a Misnaged named Mordekhai Gold, a successful businessman and newcomer to the district. Gold, who has a sense of humor, plays a prank on Zeynvl by hiding in a hollow tree trunk and pretending to be a devil imprisoned there by the Baal Shem Tov. Taken in, the credulous Zeynvl tells the world about his supernatural adventure and is made a laughingstock when Gold lets the truth be known. In retaliation, Zeynvl and Zelig seek to implicate Gold in the pregnancy of a young Christian who is bribed to accuse Gold of being the father of her child. (She has in fact had sexual relations with two Zoliner Ḥasidim.) When this deception also comes to light, the woman is forced to flee to Galicia in the Rabbi of Zolin’s carriage.

Meanwhile, Freyde is pregnant, too. Although Zeynvl and Zelig assume she is so by the governor and plot to blackmail him, the true culprit is the Rabbi of Zolin’s ne’er-do-well son Hirtsli, whose engagement to the daughter of a wealthy family in the Rumanian city of Galatz will be imperiled if the truth gets out.

All of this is related in letters that go back and forth between Zeynvl and Zelig. Interspersed with them are two additional sets of correspondence, each involving another ḥasidic court. One concerns the Rabbi of Aklu and his campaign to win over the prominent Misnaged Moshe Fishl; the other concerns the Rabbi of Dishpol, a bitter rival of the Rabbi of Zolin. The Dishpoler and the Zoliner are contending over the appointment of a new rabbi in the town of Koven, each court having its own candidate: the Dishpoler’s is the unqualified son of a rich follower who is prepared to pay well for the favor, the Zoliner’s a distinguished scholar and rabbi who, though a staunch Misnaged at heart, pretends to be a Zoliner Ḥasid in hopes of getting the job. The machinations of the two courts; the double life of the hidden Misnaged as he feigns allegiance to a tsaddik he disdains; the Dishpoler’s attempts to sabotage Hirtsli’s engagement so that his own son can marry into the Galatz family’s wealth; and the Dishpoler and Zoliner’s competing charity networks, whose funds are siphoned off for their courts’ own use, form this subplot.

In the end, all collapses. The governor and Mordekhai Gold, aided by the scholar (who, having won the post of rabbi in Koven, now shows his true misnagdic colors), turn the district against the Ḥasidim and cause mass defections from their ranks. The Hebrew tutor is caught and spills the beans. The Christian woman is apprehended in Galicia and extradited to Russia for trial. Freyde dies from a botched abortion forced on her by the Zoliners when they discover who is the true father of her child. Hirtsli’s engagement is broken off. Zelig Letitchever dies, too, believed by the Zoliner Ḥasidim to be a tragic victim of the Spirit of the Torah, which has misunderstood their rabbi’s mystical instructions and killed him mistakenly in place of the author of the Book. The Zoliner, shaken by this incident, has a fatal heart attack while smoking his pipe in the outhouse, to which he has repaired after a strenuous session of drinking and dancing with his Ḥasidim. Moshe Fishl turns his back on the Aklu Ḥasidim. The Rabbi of Dishpol is discovered to be in possession of a silver antique given him as a “redeeming” by a new follower, a young Ḥasid who filched it from his misnagdic father. Facing arrest by the governor for knowingly concealing stolen property, the Dishpoler and his court escape to Galatz, where they are joined by Zeynvl Vierkhevker, whose house has meanwhile been impounded for his unpaid debts to Mordekhai Gold. From there, along with other Zoliner Ḥasidim on the run, all set out for Palestine.

The final letter in The Revealer of Secrets comes from Istanbul. After informing its recipient in Zolin that the fugitive group is down and out in “Stamboul,” and urgently requesting financial aid, it concludes:

One more thing I forgot to write. I received a Letter from Home that Mordekhai Gold damn his soul has deeded my House to my Sister & Children & adopted my Eldest Son because he has none of his own & I know the Lowdown Cur didnt do it out of kindness he just wants God forbid to make my Son a freethinker like hisself. And so I’m asking you to talk to my Sister & tell her I dont agree unless he pays for my Wife who took sick on the way to get to Stamboul so Im not left high & dry without her & can pray in the Holy Land for my Son that he wont go picking up any of that mans nasty habits. Signed Zeynvl.

It is all because of the Book. If it hadn’t been written, it wouldn’t have reached the district governor; if it hadn’t reached the governor, Zeynvl and Zelig wouldn’t have schemed to get hold of it; if they hadn’t schemed to get hold of it, most of the events leading up to their and the Ḥasidim’s downfall would not have been set in motion.

Thus does Perl’s Über das Wesen der Sekte Chassidim, a failure in reality, triumph in the world of the imagination.

 

V.

 

Gold and pearls are both valuables, and Mordekhai Gold, it can be presumed, is an idealized self-portrait of Joseph Perl. Level-headed, conscientious, and the soul of honor, yet liking a good laugh at whatever deserves it, he is a Jewish gentleman and everything a perfect Misnaged should be. It is a sign of the moral degradation of the Ḥasidim in Perl’s novel that they are unable to recognize a single one of Gold’s good traits or to attribute to him anything but the worst intentions.

If Gold is a fictional stand-in for Perl, who are the other characters in The Revealer of Secrets? Efforts have been made to identify some of them, based on Perl’s encrypting use of syllabic inversion and gematriya, the ancient method of parsing Hebrew words by the numerical value of their letters. Zolin, for example, is Liozno, the Belarussian town that was Ḥabad’s center before it moved to Liady, while the numerical value of Dishpol, spelled dalet-yod-shin-peh-alef-lamed, is 425, the same as that of Mezhibozh, spelled mem-ayin-zayin-bet-vav-shin.

Yet as Yonatan Meir observes in his three-volume study, one mustn’t make too much of such things. Although the rivalry between the Zoliner and the Dishpoler may resemble that between Shneur Zalman of Liady and Barukh of Mezhibozh, neither man is closely modeled on these figures, and Perl ascribes to the Rabbi of Zolin and his court none of the intellectuality and theological daring that characterized the historical Shneur Zalman and Ḥabad. All of the Ḥasidim in The Revealer of Secrets are basically the same: venal, conniving, and ignorant, without the slightest redeeming feature. If one had to form an assessment of Ḥasidism based on The Revealer of Secrets alone, one would never guess it was a revolutionary movement that galvanized the Jewish masses of Eastern Europe with its faith, dynamism, and valorization of the ordinary Jew who felt overlooked by the text-driven legalism of Misnagdism and disenfranchised by the class structure of East European Jewish society. It is simply one huge swindle.

Perl was aware that his novel could be accused of crude distortions, and refuting such a charge is the purpose of Ovadiah ben Petaḥiah’s many footnotes in the book. These consist almost entirely of references to well-known ḥasidic works and are meant to demonstrate that every one of the beliefs and practices depicted in The Revealer of Secrets, no matter how unscrupulous or bizarre, reflects Ḥasidism’s canonical writings. Thus, for example, Zelig Letitchever’s concern, expressed in his opening letter to Zeynvl Verkhievker, that the Rabbi of Zolin might retaliate against the author of the Book by having “the Spirit of the Torah burn him alive,” is footnoted by Ovadiah: “See Shivḥey ha-Besht, p. 2c.” The passage in question, appearing in Meir’s critical apparatus, reads:

Once, the son of the [local] rabbi asked the Baal Shem Tov to make manifest the Spirit of the Torah so that it might be questioned about some matter, but the Baal Shem refused and said: “If we make, God forbid, the slightest mistake in our spiritual exercises, this could be highly dangerous.” . . . But when he [the rabbi’s son] persisted day after day, he [the Baal Shem] could no longer refuse him, and so they fasted [to purify themselves] from one Sabbath to the next and underwent the required ritual ablutions, and when the Sabbath was over, they performed the appropriate exercises. All at once the Baal Shem Tov cried out, “Ai! Ai! We’ve made a mistake—the Spirit of Fire is going to burn the town down. Everyone knows you’re a good Jew—quick, run tell your father-in-law [sic] and the rest of the town to run for their lives, because it’s going to burn.” And so it did.

The irony here is that while Ovadiah is speaking to his fellow Ḥasidim, he is being used by Perl to address Perl’s fellow Misnagdim. To Ovadiah’s mind, his footnote tells the reader: “You see? There is nothing outlandish about Zelig Letitchever’s fears, because Shivḥey ha-Besht shows they are well-founded.” For Perl, it declares: “Don’t think for a moment that I’m making anything up, because beliefs like Zelig Letitchever’s have been part and parcel of Ḥasidism from the start.” Ovadiah’s footnotes serve to document the legitimation of Ḥasidism’s worst excesses by the writings of its most revered figures.

Although these citations of ḥasidic sources, his knowledge of which was extensive, are meticulously accurate, Perl knew that few readers would bother to check them, and in a short sequel that he wrote to The Revealer of Secrets, entitled Boḥen Tsaddik or Testing for a Righteous Man, he had some fun with this. At one point in Boḥen Tsaddik, several Ḥasidim are arguing about The Revealer of Secrets and two of them, Avrom and Mordekhai, have this exchange:

Avrom: Listen here! I heard there were some notes in his book. Well, I ask you: can you believe that all that stuff that he put in them is really in our books? You think we’d put such stock in our books if all that stuff was in them? Get that out of your heads.

Mordekhai: And suppose it really is in our books. Who knows that what the tsaddikim were thinking when they wrote it is what that atheist says in his atheist book? We could live to be a thousand and not know what they were thinking, and this son-of-a-bitch copies it down and thinks he knows what it was.

In Testing for a Righteous Man, The Revealer of Secrets is being talked about everywhere; both Misnagdim and Ḥasidim are reading and debating it. Like the devastating impact of the Book on the Ḥasidim of Dishpol and Zolin, this was as much a form of literary wish-fulfillment as it was a novelistic stratagem; in actual fact, as Yonatan Meir points out, The Revealer of Secrets did poorly when published and sold few copies. Yet its freewheeling mixture of fact and fiction, even greater in Testing for a Righteous Man, gives Perl’s work a uniqueness that strikes one today as almost post-modern. Similar cases of self-referentiality, to be sure, can be found before Perl in European literature, most notably in Don Quixote, in a chapter of which two characters discuss Cervantes’ verse novel La Galatea. There, however, it is a passing joke, whereas for Perl it is a central plot device. Precisely because he wrote in the unrealistic hope of changing reality, the line between the real and the unreal was easily crossed by him.

 

VI.

 

Still, a device is only a device. Given the simplistically black-and-white contrast between The Revealer of Secrets’ nefarious Ḥasidim and noble Misnagdim, which precludes all psychological subtlety, one might ask what is the source of the novel’s undeniable appeal. The obvious answer is the vibrancy of its language.

This language has been called a parody of the prose of Shivḥey ha-Besht and other ḥasidic tales, such as the mystical stories of Naḥman of Bratslav, also published in 1815. Perl’s Ḥasidim speak the Hebrew of such books in an exaggerated manner: their grammar is even worse, their Yiddishisms grosser. Moreover, they are proud of it. In his introduction to The Revealer of Secrets, Ovadiah writes:

I’ve copied all these Letters exactly in the Language they were written . . . even though I’ve seen alas often how the Mockers of our Times make sport of the Faithful saying they can’t write the Holy Tongue properly, the which they garble like simple Ignoramuses. . . . But I say: What is all their Mockery to me? Let those who only pretend to be Jews make sport. I’ll write in the Language of the Tsaddikim and the Faithful like that of the holy Praises of the Baal Shem Tov and the holy Books of Rabbi Naḥman and his holy Stories most of all. . . . For now everyone sees with his own eyes how the whole entire World, even that which isn’t the Faithful, is grown accustomed to writing in the simple language of our Tsaddikim which has spread with God’s help to Jews everywhere, so that whichever of our People writes what they call Pure Hebrew is known to be a Freethinker and a Freethinker is what I say he is.

For all its mangling of “pure Hebrew,” the style of The Revealer of Secrets comes as a breath of fresh air to the reader of 19th-century maskilic fiction. It has a naturalness and an immediacy that one can look for in vain elsewhere. In Avraham Mapu’s 1869 The Painted Vulture, for example, a novel set in Eastern Europe and published in installments between 1857 and 1869, there is a biting description of a wealthy and hypocritical Misnaged named Ga’al (a rare biblical name even less plausible-sounding than Ovadia ben Petaḥiah) that might be compared with Zeynvl Verkhievker’s closing tirade against Mordekhai Gold. Ga’al’s detractor is Aḥituv (yet another such name), a young Maskil:

Such is Ga’al. His heart is crooked, yea, most abominably loathsome, for he would give his soul, his very soul, for money, and all of his money and fortune for public acclaim. When his hands stained with iniquity disperse funds to the poor, it is always in the public eye, that he might be honored with due pomp and ceremony: he, the pious one in all his ways and the righteous one in all his works.

Such rhetoric is not inelegant, and Mapu’s neoclassical pastiche of post-biblical and biblical Hebrew (the final phrase in the passage comes straight from the book of Psalms) set a standard for Hebrew prose fiction that lasted until the late 19th century, and in some cases beyond; its dominance led not a few critics, disqualifying The Revealer of Secrets for its bastardized language, to award the palm of being Hebrew’s first novel to Mapu’s 1853 The Love of Zion. Although Perl would surely have resented this, he would have agreed that the Hebrew of his Ḥasidim was fit only for satire. And yet how much more forceful than Aḥituv’s polished scorn is Zeynvl’s “The lowdown cur didn’t do it out of kindness”! Precisely because it is so Yiddish-inflected, the language of The Revealer of Secrets has more of the feeling of real speech than anything written in Hebrew between the talmudic period and Hebrew’s spoken revival in the 20th century: a millennium and a half in which it was the second language of every educated Jew and the mother tongue of none.

Translating The Revealer of Secrets is difficult. It has been tried once, by Dov Taylor, whose English rendition was published in 1997. In a preface Taylor asks: “Is there a model that approximates in English the way Perl’s ḥasidic characters express themselves in Hebrew?” His answer: “Today one can hear in New York, London, Jerusalem, and elsewhere the English spoken by Jews whose mother tongues are Yiddish and Polish. It is they who provide the linguistic models for an English approximation to Perl’s Hebrew-speaking characters, and I acknowledge my debt to them.” Yet while Taylor’s use of Jewish immigrant English is ingenious, it fails for several reasons, the main one being that the analogy it draws, however tempting, is a false one. Perl’s Ḥasidim (who in any case were more likely to know Ukrainian than Polish) are not immigrants. They are native sons of their region, and while their Hebrew is indeed heavily Yiddishized, Yiddishizing it in English can only misrepresent their social and linguistic relationship to their environment.

In the passages that I have translated from The Revealer of Secrets in this essay, I have chosen a different approach, opting for an English marked by some 18th-century mannerisms as it might have been written by native speakers neither well-versed nor interested in its formal rules of syntax and punctuation. (I have mostly allowed them, however, to spell correctly, since a small number of misspellings would have been arbitrary and a large number tedious.) I hope I have succeeded in conveying something, not only of the at-homeness of Perl’s Ḥasidim in their world, but of their rascally determination, grit, and even charm. That they ultimately win our affection is the real source of The Revealer of Secrets’ strength and must be taken into account in any discussion of the novel.

 

VII.

 

“Milton was a true poet and of the Devil’s party without knowing it,” said William Blake about Paradise Lost in what is surely one of literary criticism’s most insightful one-liners. Blake meant, of course, that while Satan is the arch-villain of Milton’s poem, Milton so identified with him unconsciously that he made him its most interesting and memorable character. He remains with us long after Adam, Eve, God, Jesus, and Paradise Lost’s many angels and archangels have been forgotten.

Something similar might be said of The Revealer of Secrets. Although Zelig Letitchever and Zeynvl Vierkhevker were meant by Perl to be mentally benighted and morally depraved epitomes of the folly of Ḥasidism, they end up stealing the show. We laugh at their ignorance, are bemused by their credulity, shake our heads at their perversity, and enjoy them unreservedly. The uninhibited liveliness of their speech is matched by the shameless vitality of their actions.

In his essay on The Revealer of Secrets in Meir’s critical trilogy, Dan Miron makes this very point. Perl’s “conscious or unconscious identification” with his novel’s language, Miron writes, “necessarily points to his unconscious and perhaps conscious identification with the world this language emerges from.” Although as a rational man of the Enlightenment, Perl considered Ḥasidism a national disgrace, he was instinctively attracted to its

pursuit of enjoyment, gratification, and uplifting and exalting emotional and physical experience. [Perl’s Ḥasidim] break every rule not only because they crave money, power, and other material things, though they do, but because of their erotic relationship to reality, their wish to cast all its limitations aside.

But it is not really an unrestrained libidinousness that makes us side with the likes of Zelig and Zeynvl. While both men are minor accomplices in the sexual infractions of others, neither is a notably sexual being in himself; nor, although they like to eat and drink, are they depicted as gluttons or sots; they are hardly the Rabelaisian voluptuaries that Miron suggests they are.

What most attracts us to them, rather, is their sheer energy. They are indefatigable. Nothing gets in their way or gets them down. They recognize no obstacle, concede no defeat, bounce back every time with a new plan—and always with the same inexhaustible good cheer. They do not grouse or complain; they are never self-pitying; they are too busy looking ahead for the next opportunity. When we identify with them, we identify with that part of ourselves that insists on believing, sometimes against all odds and appearances, that it is possible to come out on top.

This essential optimism was a large part of Ḥasidism’s attraction for East European Jews who objectively had little to be optimistic about. Misnagdism typically took a dim view of the human condition; life for it was a trial in which one’s only hope for acquittal lay with one’s personal piety and scrupulous ritual observance. The Haskalah, for its part, thought in terms of gradual social and economic changes that would take decades. Ḥasidism preached the here-and-now and the joy of making the best of things. It made its followers feel empowered and able to cope.

It is this, I would say, that Perl, a Misnaged and Maskil who knew Ḥasidism from within, was secretly envious of. He thought Ḥasidism was nonsense; he felt its emotional buoyancy and power. Moreover, he knew that, without a similar power to move masses of Jews, the Haskalah could never win the Jewish street. The Revealer of Secrets brought him and the more discerning of his readers face to face with this dilemma.

 

VIII.

 

Testing for a Righteous Man, written in an epistolary form like The Revealer of Secrets, was published twenty years after it in 1838, a year before Perl’s death. History in those two decades had not gone as Perl wished it to. Although the Haskalah had made further inroads in Galicia, it remained a small, elite movement, while Ḥasidism had grown even stronger and established powerful dynasties. Its war with Misnagdism had ended in an undeclared but lasting truce, leaving the Maskilim to carry on the anti-ḥasidic battle by themselves. Under the reign of Franz II (1804-1835), the Austrian government gradually retreated from its forced Germanization policies, a trend accentuated during the lengthy period of reaction under Metternich that followed the 1815 Congress of Vienna. Wary of all forms of liberalism, the regime ceased to take the Haskalah’s side against Galicia’s Ḥasidim.

Testing for a Righteous Man reflects the disillusionment caused Perl by these developments. The book’s opening chapters, however, are playful, consisting of a series of vignettes—I have quoted from one of them—in which Ovadiah ben Petaḥiah, curious to know how The Revealer of Secrets has been received by his fellow Ḥasidim, publishes samples of their reactions to it. Prior to this, he has used his powers of invisibility to eavesdrop on their conversations about the book, only to realize that he cannot write these down fast enough to produce accurate versions. In a quandary, he resorts to the custom of a “dream question,” praying for an answer to come to him in his sleep—and indeed, in a dream he is told to follow the underground passage by which, according to Shivḥey ha-Besht, the Baal Shem Tov once set out for the land of Israel before being turned back by a giant frog that blocked his way.

Ovadiah finds this route, proceeds along it, encounters the same frog, and rescues it from the tunnel it is stuck in, whereupon it is restored to its normal size. In gratitude, the frog gives him a magical gift like the one received by him in The Revealer of Secrets: a portable Schreibtafel (the German word means “writing slate”) that registers everything said in its vicinity. With it comes an instruction manual that tells him what to do when the slate is full: it needs only to be breathed on by a righteous man to be wiped clean and made ready for re-use.

This science-fiction recording device enables Ovadiah to resume his project. Since the field work can now easily be done by others, he hires two assistants to take the Schreibtafel and make the rounds with it. They do, and transcribe what they record. All goes well until the slate is full and is returned to Ovadiah for erasure. Then, looking for a righteous man to breathe on it, he discovers that finding one is more difficult than he imagined.

The search for such a person constitutes the second and longer half of Perl’s book. At first, Ovadiah sticks to the confines of Ḥasidism. Sure of finding his quarry there, he sees no point in troubling “the tsaddikim of the age,” since any of their followers should be righteous enough to erase the Schreibtafel, too. Yet none of the Ḥasidim asked to breathe on the slate can erase a single one of its letters, and when Ovadiah tries the new Rabbi of Dishpol—at first, so as not to bother him, by placing the slate before his mouth while he is in a drunken stupor, and then while he is awake—the results are the same. The other tsaddikim Ovadiah turns to do no better. Spying on them invisibly to find out why this is so, he discovers that each secretly reviles all of the others as fraudulent impostors. Since they can’t all be wrong, he is forced to conclude that all must be right, and he loses his faith in Ḥasidism.

Erasing the Schreibtafel no longer matters very much, but Ovadiah is now driven by a new concern: are there righteous men anywhere in the Jewish world—and if so, where? In pursuit of them, he wanders from place to place. Turning to the Misnagdim, he sees that all their learning and ritual piety are a sham, an outward display calculated to earn them the social status, recognition, and material comforts that they crave. Next, he approaches the Maskilim, again to be disappointed: they are simply aping the European culture they aspire to possess without meaningfully internalizing it. Perhaps, then, he should look to the plain workaday Jew who is too busy earning a living to identify with any of these groups? But no, this, too, is an illusion. The Jewish commercial and working classes prove to be just as vice-ridden; they lie, cheat, pad bills, falsify weights and measures, produce and deal in shoddy goods, and shirk their commitments. The struggle for a livelihood has only degraded them even more.

Having searched in vain for a ray of light in all this gloom, Ovadiah writes to a friend (since his abandonment of Ḥasidism, his Hebrew has become more literary):

Such is the behavior of the population I have seen as I have gone from town to town and land to land. It has all but made me ill and I can bear it no longer. All human endeavor has become tiresome to me. The world is not what I imagined. As long as I stayed home and paid no attention to its affairs, I thought our people had retained its ancient character. Yet ever since I have taken to scrutinizing its ways, I see that these are worlds apart from those of our ancestors. May God in His mercy take pity on us and rescue our people from its confoundedness.

In his despair, Ovadiah decides to leave Eastern Europe. Had he done so ten or fifteen years later, he might have joined a growing Jewish emigration, primarily from Germany, to America. Yet when Testing for a Righteous Man was written, this emigration was still a bare trickle. Instead, turning eastward rather than westward, Ovadiah sets out for the land of the fabled medieval Jewish kingdom of Khazaria, where he hopes to encounter the vanished glories of the Jewish past.

Although he doesn’t find what he has hoped to, what he finds gives him new hope. The glories of Khazaria are gone without a trace, but while traveling near Crimea, Ovadiah is overtaken by a blizzard and takes shelter in a farmer’s home. To his surprise, the man turns out to be a Jew. Not only that, he introduces Ovadiah to a community of Jewish farmers like himself, inhabitants of the area. They live, Ovadiah writes, in a half-dozen villages, most having Hebrew names, along the Ingol River, on either side of which they work the land “industriously and in the best possible fashion, from every Sunday morning until Friday afternoon.” They also tend cows, their dairy products being the best in the region, and “their houses, though small like all farmers’, are spick-and-span as farmers’ houses are not.” Moreover, “while all the peasants of the countryside are heavy drinkers, scarcely a Jewish farmer whom I have met is fond of alcohol and a single tavern serves all.”

On Sabbaths, all the farmers go to synagogue; on weekdays, they pray in their fields during the growing season and spend much of the long winter studying Jewish texts, of which every house has a full bookshelf. Hospitable to a fault, Ovadiah writes, they “generously bestow with beaming faces what I don’t even ask for” and are “scrupulously honest in all their dealings.” They live simply, subsist on the fruits of their labor, and are content with their lot. When he hands the Schreibtafel to the farmer he is staying with, the latter wipes it clean with one breath—an ordinary feat along the Ingol, where everyone, it seems, can do the same.

Ovadiah’s joy at what he sees knows no bounds. A changed man, he resolves to become a farmer himself. “I have made up my mind,” he informs his friends, “to live here with my fellow Jewish tillers of the soil and be as one of them. Soon, God willing, I will send for my wife and family to join me.”

Perl’s Jewish farmers were not figments of his imagination. The Ingol was a real river, joining the southern Bug on its way to the Black Sea north of Kherson, midway between Odessa and the Crimean peninsula; near it, seven Jewish agricultural colonies had been established in 1806 by the Tsarist government with the aim of encouraging Jews to work the lands of “New Russia,” the area of southeastern Ukraine that had been conquered from the Turks in the late 18th century. Several of these colonies were given Hebrew names, such as Nahar Tov (“Good River”), Har Shefer (“Mount Plenty”), and S’deh Menuḥah (“Field of Rest”), and within several years close to 2,000 families had settled in them. Their fate, however, was less rosy than Ovadiah’s description of it. The land proved unsuitable for small holdings and the colonists never received the initial financial aid promised them. Many fell ill; many died; many, demoralized, gave up, sold their properties, and returned to where they had come from. In 1810, all government funding for the project was cut off, and while it was partially resumed in 1823, an 1845 census reported a total of 1,500 Jewish farming families in the Kherson region, no more than 30 years previously.

I know of no evidence that Perl ever visited the New Russia project, though given the wealth of information about it that Ovadiah shares with his correspondents, he may well have done so. (When Yonatan Meir publishes the critical edition of Testing for a Righteous Man that is said to be in the offing, we will no doubt know more fully.) Even if he didn’t, he must have known that it was far from the utopia sketched by Ovadiah and that agricultural colonization in Russia was not the solution for the problems of East European Jewry. Yet utopias are best read as critiques of the present, not as blueprints for the future; by imagining what could be, they denounce what is. Jonathan Swift’s Houyhnhnms in Gulliver’s Travels, while not credible as horses, are excellent shamers of human beings, and so are Ovadiah’s farmers of their fellow Jews.

 

IX.

 

“I thought I was in a little land of Israel,” Ovadiah writes of his tour of the New Russia colonies.

This does not, of course, make Perl an early Zionist. The trope of Zion away from Zion was commonplace in Jewish, let alone Christian, sources of the period. In The Revealer of Secrets, Palestine is no more than a cover for charity scams, a refuge for ḥasidic scoundrels, and a graveyard for their saints who travel there to die. “The first thing well do when we get there,” writes Zeynvl from Istanbul, “is go to the Graves of the True Tsaddikim from our Parts & tell them Everything . . . & give them no Rest until they take vengeance on our Foes. With God’s help your sure to see Wonders soon amen selah.”

Wonders, though, were not reasonably to be expected from the Jewish community of Palestine in the first half of the 19th century. Small in size, it was divided into feuding ethnic and religious factions united by an extreme Orthodoxy and a dependence on philanthropy from abroad. The Ottoman empire, though already fraying at the edges, was still largely intact, and its rule in Palestine faced no foreseeable challenge. Large-scale Jewish settlement there was not part of Jewish or general discourse in Perl’s lifetime. The first influential Jewish proponent of the idea, the Sephardi rabbi Yehuda Alkalai (1798-1878), did not publicly promote it until the year of Perl’s death, while in America, the Jewish politician and journalist Mordecai Manuel Noah (1785-1851), after having unsuccessfully sought to found a Jewish mini-state on an island near Buffalo, sounded his pioneer call for the massive return of Jews to Palestine in 1844. Christian Zionism, a largely British phenomenon, had its start in England at about the same time.

Still, Perl’s two novels are not unrelated to Zionism. They depict an Eastern Europe whose Jewish society is fundamentally ill and in need of a radical cure. Its illness is both spiritual and economic—economic before spiritual, since its religious life has been corrupted by a greed that shuns honest work and seeks to turn Judaism into a money-making machine. It is noteworthy that anti-Semitism, though Perl was not blind to it, is marginal in both of his novels; not only is it not the real problem, it is treated—as it generally was by the Haskalah—as an understandable Christian reaction to the debased nature of Jewish existence. “Just as one cannot find the remedy for a malady if its cause remains unknown,” Ovadiah writes in his next-to-last letter from New Russia,

so one can help no one to rise from misfortune without knowing what led to his fall. Thus, I have felt obliged to inquire into the reason for our people’s decline and to inform it of what, to the best of my modest intellectual ability, I have found this to be. In all my travels, I have seen that we differ from our revered ancestors not only in matters of belief, but also in those of getting and spending. Our abandonment of agriculture and handicrafts is the root of all the evils that have overtaken us.

Perl was not the only Maskil to make this point, although he was one of the first; economic productivization was an intrinsic part of the Haskalah’s program for East European Jewry. Typically maskilic, too, is Ovadiah’s conception of how it was to be brought about:

It would be simple to purge ourselves [of this economic distortion] if only our leadership and upper class in every town were to agree to carry out the enormous reforms needed to distance ourselves from these vices, for the rest of our people would surely listen to them. I hope that our leaders in other countries will agree with me, too—and if any find fault with what I say, let them [find other ways to] come to the rescue of our wretched people, whose gratitude they will earn.

The solution is to be introduced from above: a Jewish elite, fully converted to maskilic ideals as Ovadiah has been, will impose it on the Jewish masses. That such change might come from the masses themselves is not conceivable to Ovadiah. Led astray by Ḥasidism, in whose exploitative clutches they are trapped, they will have to be freed by more independent and rational minds.

Zionism, when it would appear as a serious force in Eastern Europe toward the end of the 19th century, would adopt much of the Haskalah’s analysis. It, too, would argue that East European Jewry was economically and socially deformed; that drastic structural changes in Jewish life were called for; that these included a return to the soil and productive labor; and that a new start had to be made. But Zionism would break with the Haskalah’s thinking by insisting that this start could be made only in a new land, which had to be Palestine; that anti-Semitism was more than a natural response to Jewish failings and would not disappear if and when they did; and that Zionism’s success depended on its becoming the mass movement that the Haskalah never was.

For this to be possible, Zionism had to inherit not only the Haskalah but many of the features of Ḥasidism: its enthusiasm; its messianic impulses; its rebellion against worldly authority; its missionizing zeal; its democratic, anti-elitist character; its faith in wonders. Although the language of Perl’s Ḥasidim and of books like Shivḥey ha-Besht is very different from that spoken in Israel today, it pointed the way to Hebrew’s revival as a demotic tongue. Even the ecstatic singing and dancing that were so much a part of the milieu of the ḥaluts, the 20th-century Palestinian pioneer, had their roots in ḥasidic practice.

But this is getting ahead of our story. It is told of the early ḥasidic master Levi Yitzḥak of Berdichev (1740-1810) that once, on his way to synagogue on Yom Kippur, he glanced through the window of a house he was passing, saw a group of Jews playing cards with intense concentration, and exclaimed, “God, how wondrous are your people! Just think what will be when they serve You with the same devotion!” Zionism was to do the reverse, tapping the religious energy of Ḥasidism for its own purposes. Although this was not what Joseph Perl had in mind when he ended his Revealer of Secrets on the way to the land of Israel, it may serve as that novel’s final footnote.

More about: Arts & Culture, East European Jewry, Hasidism, Haskalah, Hebrew literature, History & Ideas, Joseph Perl, Proto-Zionist Writers