Robinson Crusoe’s Many Jewish Incarnations

January 13, 2020 | Chen Malul
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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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