A Yiddish Poem about a Werewolf Provides a Haunting Meditation on Jewish Suffering

Written in 1920 in the wake of the massacres of tens of thousands of Jews by Ukrainian militias during the Russian Civil War, “The Wolf,” a verse epic by the American Yiddish poet H. Leivick, has as its protagonist a rabbi who awakes to find himself the sole survivor in his destroyed shtetl. He retreats to the forest, where he is magically transformed into a werewolf, and then returns to his hometown, now being rebuilt by returning refugees. There he resumes his clerical post while in human form. Dara Horn explores the poem’s symbolism, and its enduring relevance:

When I first encountered this poem years ago, I was riveted by the rabbi, whom I understood as a person disfigured by trauma. The poem, I thought, was a call for empathy for survivors. . . . [But] the poem, as I now understand it, isn’t really about the rabbi, whose point of view hardly figures in the work. It’s about the other Jews, whose shared emotions are intimately described—and all too familiar. These Jews rejoice in their survival, but they are also haunted by the horrific fact that other Jews have been murdered while they have randomly been spared—the defining fact of post-Holocaust American Jewish identity. The wolf’s presence in their midst is an embodiment of that haunting, the deep awareness of total vulnerability that lurks just beneath the surface of their daily lives.

Leivick tells us as much. As the poem’s Jews listen to the wolf’s midnight howling [coming from the forests outside of town], “they could not hear a thing anymore/ Except the beating of their own hearts.” Later, as the howling grows louder and closer, “in each turn of the voice was heard/ A hidden challenge, an appeal, and above all, a pleading;/ Which chilled their hearts more than anything,/ For it reminded them of the cry of a human being.” This disfigured beast crying for mercy is inseparable from who they are. It is part of them, one of them, the buried part of thousands of years of pain. They want that wolf to go away, but they cannot kill it without killing themselves.

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More about: Anti-Semitism, Arts & Culture, Jewish literature, Poetry, Ukrainian Jews, Yiddish literature

By Recognizing Israeli Sovereignty over the Golan, the U.S. Has Freed Israel from “Land for Peace”

March 25 2019

In the 52 years since Israel seized the Golan Heights from Syria, there have been multiple efforts to negotiate their return in exchange for Damascus ending its continuous war against the Jewish state. Shmuel Rosner argues that, with his announcement on Thursday acknowledging the legitimacy of Jerusalem’s claim to the Golan, Donald Trump has finally decoupled territorial concessions from peacemaking:

[With] the takeover of much of Syria by Iran and its proxies, . . . Israel had no choice but to give up on the idea of withdrawing from the Golan Heights. But this reality involves a complete overhaul of the way the international community thinks not just about the Golan Heights but also about all of the lands Israel occupied in 1967. . . .

Withdrawal worked for Israel once, in 1979, when it signed a peace agreement with Egypt and left the Sinai Peninsula, which had also been occupied in 1967. But that also set a problematic precedent. President Anwar Sadat of Egypt insisted that Israel hand back the entire peninsula to the last inch. Israel decided that the reward was worth the price, as a major Arab country agreed to break with other Arab states and accept Israel’s legitimacy.

But there was a hidden, unanticipated cost: Israel’s adversaries, in future negotiations, would demand the same kind of compensation. The 1967 line—what Israel controlled before the war—became the starting point for all Arab countries, including Syria. It became a sacred formula, worshiped by the international community.

What President Trump is doing extends far beyond the ability of Israel to control the Golan Heights, to settle it, and to invest in it. The American president is setting the clock back to before the peace deal with Egypt, to a time when Israel could argue that the reward for peace is peace—not land. Syria, of course, is unlikely to accept this. At least not in the short term. But maybe someday, a Syrian leader will come along who doesn’t entertain the thought that Israel might agree to return to the pre-1967 line and who will accept a different formula for achieving peace.

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More about: Donald Trump, Golan Heights, Israel & Zionis, Peace Process, Sinai Peninsula, Syria