The Crackpot Ideas of Yiddish Fiction's Most Improbable Scenarios Become Real

S. Ansky’s radical yeshiva boys used to seem unreal. But observing today’s political scene has taught me to understand them.

S. Ansky. Via Yiddishkayt.

S. Ansky. Via Yiddishkayt.

Ruth R. Wisse
COLUMN
Sept. 9 2021
About Ruth

Ruth R. Wisse is a Mosaic columnist, professor emerita of Yiddish and comparative literatures at Harvard and a distinguished senior fellow at the Tikvah Fund. Her memoir Free as a Jew: a Personal Memoir of National Self-Liberation, chapters of which appeared in Mosaic in somewhat different form, is out from Wicked Son Press.

When I began reading Yiddish literature in the 1960s, I came across a scenario so improbable that I wondered whether any such thing could actually have occurred. The work was “Behind a Mask” by S. Ansky (best known as the author of The Dybbuk), and the fictive incident was presumably based on his own observations as a budding revolutionary in Russia in the 1880s.

In the story, a seventeen-year-old named Shekhtl has become the roommate of two other renegade yeshiva students who go by their last names, Braines and Krantz. In the style of Russian revolutionaries, the three hope to spread the subversive ideas of the Jewish Enlightenment, the Haskalah, in their religious communities. Shekhtl, the youngest, is always bursting with fantastic notions for the improvement of mankind: since nature should provide the model of what is good, its imperfections should be eliminated. To that end, he proposes that “mountains should be leveled and the valleys filled in—then all the world would be flat and beautiful.” In other words, nature is not so much a model as it is a tableau on which Shekhtl’s visions can be made manifest.

The boys are going hungry, so although they don’t take Shekhtl seriously, they pay attention when he comes up with a scheme for securing some income. Shekhtl’s parents in the town of Bobiltseve have stopped sending him his monthly stipend because they correctly suspect that he has left his studies and taken a heretical turn. He proposes that Krantz move to his town and introduce himself as Shekhtl’s friend. Once he reassures the parents about their son, they will resume their support of him and help Krantz find students to tutor whom he can then lead “off the path,” thereby serving both their stomachs and their cause.

Krantz is the most fully described of the trio. Son of a distinguished rabbi, raised in strictest orthodoxy, he had been swept up by the ideas of Enlightenment:

One day in the synagogue, in the presence of his father and other worthies, he spoke very disrespectfully of Moses. His father fainted on the spot. People hurled themselves at the “heretic,” and he barely escaped the synagogue alive. He never returned home again. About two weeks later, several students were caught reading forbidden books and driven out of the yeshiva. Krantz tore into the place and slapped the rabbi, an old and revered teacher. He broke off all relations with his parents, apprenticed himself to a Russian locksmith, donned a red shirt, and in his new garb strolled through the streets in the company of his Christian fellow workers. . . . The older generation he held responsible for all the evil and ignorance in the world. Small wonder he soon became popular among the Maskilim [followers of the Haskalah] not only of his town but of the entire region.

Small wonder, too, that his roommates recognized him as their natural leader and gave him the leading role in their scheme.

The deception is put into play and Krantz becomes a roomer in the parents’ home. He discovers other radicals already at work in Bobiltseve, but they, rather than welcoming him, are wary of tutors who “come here, cause a commotion, . . . and leave with nothing to show for their stay.” Their suspicion is justified. Krantz gets sloppy and lets his mask slip to the point that Krayne, Shekhtl’s mother, grows suspicious and leaves for the city to check for herself on the status of her son.

On discovering the truth, Krayne returns to threaten Krantz with public exposure unless he gets her son to return home. But the balance of power has shifted. Dropping every subtlety, Krantz warns his landlady that if she speaks a word against him, he will write to Shekhtl at once and order him to be baptized. “Do you hear me? Baptized! You can be sure that if I give the order, he will obey it.” She, terror struck, considers poisoning him and might have done so had he not anticipated unpleasantness and moved to another lodging. The story ends with “rumors that Krayne had gone mad.”

 

Despite some reservations about this story’s credibility as fiction, I was sufficiently impressed by its literary and historical qualities to include it in my 1973 anthology A Shtetl and Other Yiddish Novellas. (It also figures in the more recent Ansky anthology, The Dybbuk and Other Writings, edited by my brother, David Roskies.) When I occasionally taught the story, I would therefore include contextual features, like the impact of the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment, and of the Revolutionary movement and its prominence in Russian and Russian-Jewish writing and in Ansky’s life and thought. The characters themselves seemed unreal to me.

Nowadays, however, I am reminded of those boys at every turn.

Take Shekhtl’s crackpot ideas for leveling the world. Who would ever seek to equalize reality by bringing down the mountains in order to level out the valleys? Well, the mayor of New York City, for one, who in the name of achieving greater fairness—“equity” as it is now called—eliminated the standards of admission to the several public high schools in the city that had helped outstanding students in certain subjects achieve their highest potential. Rather than submitting a plan to improve the city’s failing schools, that is, raising the valleys, he substituted equity for excellence as a criterion for admission so as to draw everyone down to the median level of performance. A loony fancy had become American practice—and not in New York alone.

Likewise, I had once doubted that Ansky’s yeshiva students could so readily have turned into psychopaths who prey on their own families and communities. True, Dostoevsky’s magisterial novel The Possessed had prepared me for the political atmosphere of this story, and I knew that the Jews who later became members of the Soviet yevsektsi (the Jewish sections of the Communist party) had acted far worse toward their fellow Jews. But I did not really believe that decent boys could turn cruel with such insouciance and self-satisfaction. And against their own families?

But the past quarter-century has shown me otherwise. I have seen up close how reformers promoting affirmative action in the universities, in their belief that they are correcting past injustice, have never once considered the principles they are violating. By sacrificing the objective appraisal of individual merit in favor of racial profiling, they have destroyed the democratic promise of equal opportunity and reinforced the very racialism that the civil-rights movement had tried to overcome. Yet they have never paused to consider whether they are doing any good or, instead, making things worse.

As disadvantaged students in failing schools have kept falling ever further behind and the artificial attempt at equalization has simply magnified existing disparities, the reformers have not only shut down debate to prevent any truthful assessment, but they have also gone further by establishing yesterday’s civil-rights ideal as today’s taboo. By the logic of progressive equity, the very articulation of democracy’s promise of race-blind equality has itself been redescribed as a form of racial oppression. The frustration on every side has stoked anger to the point of violence, and our society has become much more fragmented and meaner as a result.

Today’s progressives, then, are just like Ansky’s yeshiva boys in trying to leapfrog the steady human dedication to social and civilizational decency—through halakhic Judaism in one case, through American democracy in the other. To level the mountains and valleys and achieve instant parity, they must resort to cheating, because how else can they so rapidly change recalcitrant humanity other than against its will? Everything is permissible in the name of progress: cruelty is justified as a means to social justice. The boys feel no compunction about their criminal behavior because they assume they are doing good. The worse they behave, the braver they feel.

The political columnist Melanie Phillips recently wrote that left-wing ideologues are as fanatical and delusional as those in the grip of Communism or Islamism: “They are utterly convinced of their own virtue, utterly certain that all who oppose them are evil—and utterly ruthless in stamping out all who dissent. In the grip of such fanatical self-delusion, they will never, ever take responsibility for the appalling harm they do and never ever admit they are wrong.” She might have been writing a commentary on our story, reminding us that this syndrome was never and is not now confined to Jews.

But one detail in the story may be particular to the Jews after all. Krantz baits Shekhtl’s mother Krayne with what is most important to her: her son’s Jewishness. Threatening to engineer his conversion, to do away with the Jewishness that is hateful to others and an impediment to his and his friends’ advancement, he triumphs beyond his expectations. Although Ansky draws no special attention to the weapon Krantz uses in destroying his opponent, this may be his story’s keenest insight.

Threatening the mother with conversion is akin today to the sadistic pleasure that many Jewish progressives take in joining the war against Israel. Jews are the only ones on the left who pile on against their own group. They know that progressive movements always accuse Jews and their clannish, tribal, particularism of blocking the road to universal peace and equality. As between beleaguered Jews on the one hand and preening progressives on the other, they join the latter in holding Jews responsible for the aggression against them.

Jews who promote boycotts of Israel, form anti-Zionist groups, and sign petitions on behalf of those trying to destroy the Jewish state enjoy the special anguish they cause the Jews who care about Israel in the way that Krayne does about her son. They know they are joining the many against the very few: an asymmetry that means their fellow Jews cannot harm them in turn.

Though I look to literature for wisdom about life, in this case experience has made me better understand literature. Shekhtl, Krantz, and Braines—I have come to know you.

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More about: Israel & Zionism, Politics & Current Affairs, Progressivism, Yiddish literature