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

“Ending the War in Yemen” Would Lead to More Bloodshed and Threaten Global Trade

Dec. 13 2018

A bipartisan movement is afloat in Congress to end American support for the Saudi-led coalition currently fighting the Iran-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. With frustration at Riyadh over the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, reports of impending famine and a cholera outbreak in Yemen, and mounting casualties, Congress could go so far as to cut all funding for U.S. involvement in the war. But to do so would be a grave mistake, argues Mohammed Khalid Alyahya:

Unfortunately, calls to “stop the Yemen war,” though morally satisfying, are fundamentally misguided. . . . A precipitous disengagement by the Saudi-led coalition . . . would have calamitous consequences for Yemen, the Middle East, and the world at large. The urgency to end the war reduces that conflict, and its drivers, to a morality play, with the coalition of Arab states cast as the bloodthirsty villain killing and starving Yemeni civilians. The assumption seems to be that if the coalition’s military operations are brought to a halt, all will be well in Yemen. . . .

[But] if the Saudi-led coalition were to cease operations, Iran’s long arm, the Houthis, would march on areas [previously controlled by the Yemeni government] and exact a bloody toll on the populations of such cities as Aden and Marib with the same ruthlessness with which they [treated] Sanaa and Taiz during the past three years. The rebels have ruled Sanaa, kidnapping, executing, disappearing, systematically torturing, and assassinating detractors. In Taiz, they fire mortars indiscriminately at the civilian population and snipers shoot at children to force residents into submission.

[Moreover], an abrupt termination of the war would leave Iran in control of Yemen [and] deal a serious blow to the global economy. Iran would have the ability to obstruct trade and oil flows from both the Strait of Hormuz and the Bab el-Mandeb strait. . . . About 24 percent of the world’s petroleum and petroleum products passes through these two waterways, and Iran already has the capability to disrupt oil flows from Hormuz and threatened to do so this year. Should Iran acquire that capability in Bab el-Mandeb by establishing a foothold in the Gulf of Aden, even if it chose not to utilize this capability oil prices and insurance costs would surge.

Allowing Tehran to control two of the most strategic choke points for the global energy market is simply not an option for the international community. There is every reason to believe that Iran would launch attacks on maritime traffic. The Houthis have mounted multiple attacks on commercial and military vessels over the past several years, and Iran has supplied its Yemeni proxy with drone boats, conventional aerial drones, and ballistic missiles.

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More about: Iran, Oil, Politics & Current Affairs, Saudi Arabia, U.S. Foreign policy, Yemen