Itzik Manger’s Forgotten Biblical Fantasies

March 23 2018

While Yiddish literature has more than its share of humorists, writes Dara Horn, their work inevitably tends to have a “bitter edge.” By contrast, Horn finds the work of Itzik Manger (1901-1969) not just funny, but “delightful” and filled with “joyous humanity.” She cites his novel The Book of Paradise, set in the heavenly Garden of Eden where angels, biblical characters, departed saints, and the souls of ordinary folk mingle with souls, like that of the protagonist Shmuel-Aba, who have not yet been born:

The book veers uncomfortably toward reality with the escape of the “Messiah-Ox,” a legendary animal described in the Talmud as the main dish the righteous will eat upon the messiah’s arrival. In Manger’s Eden, the Ox bolts his pasture and leaps over the border into the Christian Eden, prompting a paradise-wide emergency. Queen Esther demands a communal fast, while King Solomon writes an obsequious letter to the Christian saints requesting the animal’s return. The improbable negotiations force Shmuel-Aba and [his friend] Pisherl [whose name literally means “little pisser”] to venture into the Christian Eden, where a female angel seduces Pisherl, and St. Nicholas tries to convert them by offering toys. . . .

The casualness of this incident, and the promptness with which the book returns to its biblical heroes, is creepy only in retrospect. And only that retrospect tarnishes the joy of this relentlessly delightful book.

Today Manger’s extravagant playfulness feels a bit delusional, as the book’s publication history reflects. It was first “published” in Warsaw in 1939, with its author in Paris (from which he would soon flee). I place “published” in quotation marks because the book was never sold: the printing plant was bombed prior to its distribution, leaving only a few surviving copies previously mailed to New York. The book was properly published only in 1961—by which point most of its potential readers had long been murdered, including the volume’s illustrator. It’s easy to dismiss Manger’s work as hopelessly detached from his readers’ realities, then and now.

Yet that delusional quality is a necessary part of filtering the Bible through a contemporary imagination: there would be no Jewish literary tradition without it. And there is something unstintingly beautiful about Manger’s insistence on happiness, a fierce and marvelous determination in how he ushers his characters back to Paradise unharmed. This Yiddish writer insisted that being human means retaining one’s right to joy and uplift—a legacy from Eden that, despite the horrors of Jewish history, still endures.

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More about: Afterlife, Arts & Culture, Jewish literature, Yiddish literature

A University of Michigan Professor Exposes the Full Implications of Academic Boycotts of Israel

Sept. 26 2018

A few weeks ago, Professor John Cheney-Lippold of the University of Michigan told an undergraduate student he would write a letter of recommendation for her to participate in a study-abroad program. But upon examining her application more carefully and realizing that she wished to spend a semester in Israel, he sent her a polite email declining to follow through. His explanation: “many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel in support of Palestinians living in Palestine,” and “for reasons of these politics” he would no longer write the letter. Jonathan Marks comments:

We are routinely told . . . that boycott actions against Israel are “limited to institutions and their official representatives.” But Cheney-Lippold reminds us that the boycott, even if read in this narrow way, obligates professors to refuse to assist their own students when those students seek to participate in study-abroad programs in Israel. Dan Avnon, an Israeli academic, learned years ago that the same goes for Israel faculty members seeking to participate in exchange programs sponsored by Israeli universities. They, too, must be turned away regardless of their position on the Israel-Palestinian conflict. . . .

Cheney-Lippold, like other boycott defenders, points to the supposed 2005 “call of Palestinian civil society” to justify his singling out of Israel. “I support,” he says in comments to the [Michigan] student newspaper, “communities who organize themselves and ask for international support to achieve equal rights [and] freedom and to prevent violations of international law.”

Set aside the absurdity of this reasoning (“Why am I not boycotting China on behalf of Tibet? Because China has been much more effective in stifling civil society!”). Focus instead on what Cheney-Lippold could have found out by using Google. The first endorser of the call of “civil society” is the Council of National and Islamic Forces in Palestine, which includes Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and other groups that trade not only in violent “resistance” but in violence that directly targets noncombatants.

That’s remained par for the course for the boycott movement. In October 2015, in the midst of the series of stabbings deemed “the knife intifada,” the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel shared a call for an international day of solidarity with the “new generation of Palestinians” who were then “rising up against Israel’s brutal, decades-old system of occupation.” To be sure, they did not directly endorse attacks on civilians, but they did issue their statement of solidarity with “Palestinian popular resistance” one day after four attacks that left three Israelis—all civilians—dead.

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More about: Academia, Academic Boycotts, BDS, Israel & Zionism, Knife intifada