A Hebrew Novel in Which a Mésalliance Serves as a Metaphor for the Jewish Condition in 20th-Century Europe

Nov. 29 2017

First published in 1929, and groundbreaking for its supple Hebrew style, David Fogel’s Married Life has as its protagonist Rudolf Gurdweill, a would-be writer who attends regular gatherings at a café with a circle of Jewish friends. At one such meeting he notices, and then approaches, the statuesque and evidently Gentile Baroness Thea von Tokow; they agree to marry before the evening is over. Dara Horn describes what happens next:

The baroness turns out to be . . . a dyed-in-the-wool sadist, a sexual predator who sleeps with a different man every week of their marriage, bites Gurdweill during their rare sexual unions, shreds Gurdweill’s manuscripts, and treats Gurdweill as her slave, ordering him to do her bidding, hitting him when he doesn’t instantly comply with her whims, and threatening to strangle him in his sleep. (Nor, we learn, is she particularly unique; her brother cheerfully tells Gurdweill about his hobby of strangling family pets.)

But Gurdweill, . . . is well beyond your average melancholy poet. He is a masochist, one who repeatedly burned himself and stuck himself with needles as a child without knowing why. As an adult, he relentlessly rationalizes Thea’s abuse in order to remain with her, because it is exactly her cruelty that makes him feel worthy, the crumbs of her attention becoming his great prize. (One often wishes that Gurdweill would look up Freud in the Viennese phonebook, but that would require exactly the agency that Gurdweill lacks.) It’s a match made in hell, and the reader’s hell is witnessing Gurdweill’s endless arguments with himself about why it’s all perfectly fine. . . .

If this were a contemporary American novel, it would be a story about a psychopath. But Fogel makes it painfully clear that the dynamic between Gurdweill and the baroness is not exceptional. Instead, it is mirrored in every experience this novel’s Jewish characters have. When Gurdweill and his friends visit an unfamiliar café, they are seated beside the “Aryan Nature Lovers Meeting, Neubau Branch” and overhear the group’s anti-Semitic speeches—but they find the atmosphere perversely appealing. . . . When they ride the city’s tram, a drunk harasses them with anti-Semitic slurs—but they barely respond, leaving Gurdweill feeling “ashamed, as if he had been the cause of the quarrel.” . . .

Vienna, we slowly realize, isn’t the backdrop for Gurdweill’s marriage. Gurdweill’s marriage is the backdrop for Vienna, for Austria, for Europe itself, full of Jews who will abase themselves without limit for any crumb of social acceptance, and full of non-Jews who gleefully know it.

Read more at Tablet

More about: Anti-Semitism, Arts & Culture, Austrian Jewry, Hebrew literature, Jewish literature, Vienna


Why President Biden Needs Prime Minister Netanyahu as Much as Netanyahu Needs Biden

Sept. 28 2023

Last Wednesday, Joe Biden and Benjamin Netanyahu met for the first time since the former’s inauguration. Since then, Haim Katz, Israel’s tourism minister, became the first Israeli cabinet member to visit Saudi Arabia publicly, and Washington announced that it will include the Jewish state in its visa-waiver program. Richard Kemp, writing shortly after last week’s meeting, comments:

Finally, a full nine months into Benjamin Netanyahu’s latest government, President Joe Biden deigned to allow him into his presence. Historically, American presidents have invited newly installed Israeli prime ministers to the White House shortly after taking office. Even this meeting on Wednesday, however, was not in Washington but in New York, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly.

Such pointed lack of respect is not the way to treat one of America’s most valuable allies, and perhaps the staunchest of them all. It is all about petty political point-scoring and interfering in Israel’s internal democratic processes. But despite his short-sighted rebuke to the state of Israel and its prime minister, Biden actually needs at least as much from Netanyahu as Netanyahu needs from him. With the 2024 election looming, Biden is desperate for a foreign-policy success among a sea of abject failures.

In his meeting with Netanyahu, Biden no doubt played the Palestinian issue up as some kind of Saudi red line and the White House has probably been pushing [Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman] in that direction. But while the Saudis would no doubt want some kind of pro-forma undertaking by Israel for the sake of appearances, [a nuclear program and military support] are what they really want. The Saudis’ under-the-table backing for the original Abraham Accords in the face of stiff Palestinian rejection shows us where its priorities lie.

Israel remains alone in countering Iran’s nuclear threat, albeit with Saudi and other Arab countries cheering behind the scenes. This meeting won’t have changed that. We must hope, however, that Netanyahu has been able to persuade Biden of the electoral benefit to him of settling for a historic peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia rather than holding out for the unobtainable jackpot of a two-state solution.

Read more at Ynet

More about: Benjamin Netanyahu, Joseph Biden, Saudi Arabia, U.S.-Israel relationship