How the Jews’ Most Incisive Critic Became Their Greatest Defender—While Founding Modern Yiddish Literature

April 2, 2018 | Ruth Wisse
About the author:

Writing under the pen name Mendele Mokher Seforim (Mendel the bookseller), Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh made his Yiddish-language literary debut in 1864. His first works were biting satires of contemporary Jewish life, inspired by the thinking of the Haskalah, or Jewish enlightenment. But as he matured, and became increasingly aware of the ferocity of anti-Semitism in his native Russia, his criticism of the Jews softened while he redirected his scorn at their oppressors. In a sweeping essay, Ruth Wisse explores this transformation, focusing on Di kliatshe (“The Mare”), which she deems Mendele’s “masterwork.” The novel relates the conversation between the protagonist Isrolik and the titular mare—originally a prince, transformed into her current state by wicked sorcerers and under constant attack by man and dog alike—who is a stand-in for the Jewish people itself. (Free registration required.)

Isrolik is stirred and angered by the mare’s desperate condition. A member in good standing of the Russian version of the Humane Society, he declares himself her loyal protector and advises her how to regain her standing, . . . and he trots out his enlightenment agenda. If only she were to improve her appearance, reform her behavior, prove herself useful, and get a proper education, she would be accepted among the other steeds.

But the mare has had enough. Against her Gentile pursuers she has no recourse, but she will not submit to the false bromides of a fellow Jew. She accuses him of being disingenuous. His membership in high-minded groups did not help him drive off the dogs, so what is the real value of his goodwill? Other horses don’t have to prove their right to graze. . . .

Mendele’s mare corrects the false premise of Isrolik’s rationalism. Jews may be in need of reform, but they cannot and should not have to prove their right to flourish. Isrolik should not be trying to whip up sympathy for the poor Jews on the one hand and blaming them for the aggression they inspire on the other. The principle of human rights for the individual citizen applies equally to minorities in the family of nations. Toleration and equal opportunity are the preconditions of citizenship, not rewards to be meted out by capricious authorities. Isrolik’s compassion for the mare is no substitute for ensuring political equality.

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