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

The Syrian Civil War May Be Coming to an End, but Three New Wars Are Rising There

March 26 2019

With both Islamic State and the major insurgent forces largely defeated, Syria now stands divided into three parts. Some 60 percent of the country, in the west and south, is in the hands of Bashar al-Assad and his allies. Another 30 percent, in the northeast, is in the hands of the mostly Kurdish, and American-backed, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The final 10 percent, in the northwest, is held by Sunni jihadists, some affiliated with al-Qaeda, under Turkish protection. But, writes Jonathan Spyer, the situation is far from stable. Kurds, likely linked to the SDF, have been waging an insurgency in the Turkish areas, and that’s only one of the problems:

The U.S.- and SDF-controlled area east of the Euphrates is also witnessing the stirrings of internal insurgency directed from outside. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, “236 [SDF] fighters, civilians, oil workers, and officials” have been killed since August 2018 in incidents unrelated to the frontline conflict against Islamic State. . . . The SDF blames Turkey for these actions, and for earlier killings such as that of a prominent local Kurdish official. . . . There are other plausible suspects within Syria, however, including the Assad regime (or its Iranian allies) or Islamic State, all of which are enemies of the U.S.-supported Kurds.

The area controlled by the regime is by far the most secure of Syria’s three separate regions. [But, for instance, in] the restive Daraa province in the southwest, [there has been] a renewed small-scale insurgency against the Assad regime. . . .

As Islamic State’s caliphate disappears from Syria’s map, the country is settling into a twilight reality of de-facto division, in which a variety of low-burning insurgencies continue to claim lives. Open warfare in Syria is largely over. Peace, however, will remain a distant hope.

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More about: ISIS, Kurds, Politics & Current Affairs, Syrian civil war, Turkey