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.