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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.

Read more at Tablet

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

What U.S. Success in Syria Should Look Like

April 26 2018

Surveying the history of the Syrian civil war, Jack Keane and Danielle Pletka explain that Bashar al-Assad’s brutal rule and vicious tactics have led to the presence in his country of both Shiite terrorists, led by Hizballah and backed by Iran and Russia, and Sunni jihadist groups like Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda. Any American strategy, they argue, must bear this in mind:

The best option is a Syria without Assad, committed to a future without Iranian or Russian influence. This is not a Pollyanna-like prescription; there are substantial obstacles in the way, not least those we have encountered in Iraq. . . . [But] only such a Syria can guarantee an end to Iranian interference, to the transshipment of weapons for Hizballah, and to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction of the kind we saw used at Douma. (Iran has been instrumental in Syria’s chemical-weapons program for many years.) And, most importantly, only such a Syria can disenfranchise the al-Qaeda and IS affiliates that have found a foothold by exploiting the Syrian people’s desperation.

How do we get there? The United States must first consolidate and strengthen its position in eastern Syria from the Euphrates river to the eastern Syrian border. This involves clearing out the remnants of Islamic State, some several thousand, and ultimately eliminating pockets controlled by the Assad regime and Iranian forces in northeastern Syria. This would enable the creation of a control zone in the eastern part of the country as a base from which to build a credible and capable partner that is not subordinate to the Kurdish chain of command, while effectively shutting down Iran’s strategic land bridge from Iran to the Mediterranean. A regional Arab force, reportedly suggested by President Trump’s new national-security adviser, would be a welcome addition. But we should seriously doubt [the Arabs] will participate without American ground leadership and air support.

In western Syria, the United States should rebuild a Syrian opposition force with advisers, weapons, and air power while upping the pressure on Assad and his cronies to select a pathway to a negotiated peace. Pursuing a settlement in Geneva without such leverage over the Assad regime is pure fantasy. Finally, the United States and other Western powers must impede Iran’s and Russia’s ability to be resupplied. Syria’s airfields must be destroyed, and Syria’s airspace must remain clear.

Read more at National Interest

More about: Hizballah, Iran, ISIS, Politics & Current Affairs, Russia, Syrian civil war, U.S. Foreign policy