Robinson Crusoe’s Many Jewish Incarnations

Jan. 13 2020

First published in 1719, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe was translated into numerous Jewish languages between 1784 and the early 20th century: Judeo-German, Yiddish, Hebrew, Judeo-Arabic (in Tunisia), and Ladino. In some of these languages, it was translated multiple times, and many of the translators took liberties with the text, sometimes working not from the English original but from an  18th-century German adaptation. Perhaps the most transformed, writes Chen Malul, was Yosef Vitlin’s Yiddish version:

[Vitlin’s] is probably the most successful Jewish adaptation of the novel in the 19th century; we have much evidence of its great popularity. . . . The book’s title translates as “Robinson: The History of Alter Leyb: A True and Wonderful Story for Entertainment and Education.” . . .  A rich Jewish merchant from Lemberg (Lviv), Alter Leyb starts out as a drunk transgressor. As the story unfolds, the translator takes several opportunities to teach readers about the basics of sailing—how to use an anchor and what a lighthouse is—while also offering instruction in Jewish law.

Alter Leyb isn’t the only character with Jewish characteristics; his companion, named Friday in the original novel, is called Shabbos (Sabbath) here. Shabbos teaches Alter how to light a fire quickly and Alter teaches Shabbos about monotheism, the Torah, and the Sabbath customs. Seeing as Alter Leyb’s prayers are answered time and again throughout the novel, it’s hard to say which of the two benefited more from their friendship. The story concludes with a good Jewish ending: Torah study, proper spouses for Alter and Shabbos, and lives lived happily ever after with plenty of cute children all around.

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Read more at The Librarians

More about: English literature, Jewish language, Ladino, Translation, Yiddish

Iran, America, and the Future of Democracy in the Middle East

Nov. 23 2022

Sixty-two days after the death of Mahsa Amini at the hands of the Islamic Republic’s police, the regime has failed to quash the protest movement. But it is impossible to know if the tide will turn, and what the outcome of the government’s collapse might be. Reuel Marc Gerecht considers the very real possibility that a democratic Iran will emerge, and considers the aftershocks that might follow. (Free registration required.)

American political and intellectual elites remain uneasy with democracy promotion everywhere primarily because it has failed so far in the Middle East, the epicenter of our attention the last twenty years. (Iraq’s democracy isn’t dead, but it didn’t meet American expectations.) Might our dictatorial exception for Middle Eastern Muslims change if Iran were to set in motion insurrections elsewhere in the Islamic world, in much the same way that America’s response to 9/11 probably helped to produce the rebellions against dictatorship that started in Tunisia in 2010? The failure of the so-called Arab Spring to establish one functioning democracy, the retreat of secular democracy in Turkey, and the implosion of large parts of the Arab world have left many wondering whether Middle Eastern Muslims can sustain representative government.

In 1979 the Islamic revolution shook the Middle East, putting religious militancy into overdrive and tempting Saddam Hussein to unleash his bloodiest war. The collapse of Iran’s theocracy might be similarly seismic. Washington’s dictatorial preference could fade as the contradictions between Arab tyranny and Persian democracy grow.

Washington isn’t yet invested in democracy in Iran. Yet, as Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has often noted, American hostility toward the Islamic Republic has been damaging. If the theocracy falls, Iranians will surely give America credit—vastly more credit that they will give to the European political class, who have been trying to make nice, and make money, with the clerical regime since the early 1990s—for this lasting enmity. We may well get more credit than we deserve. Both Democrats and Republicans who have dismissed the possibilities of democratic revolutions among the Muslim peoples of the Middle East will still, surely, claim it eagerly.

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Read more at Dispatch

More about: Arab democracy, Democracy, Iran, Middle East, U.S. Foreign policy