The Casualties of Exile
Pictures From a Brewery.
by Asher Barash.
Translated by Katie Kaplan. Bobbs-Merrill. 270 pp. $6.95.
by Chaim Grade.
Translated by Curt Leviant. Bobbs-Merrill 265 pp. $6.95.
The Eastern European Jewish town, or shtetl, which survives today only as a vestige of the imagination, was the locale in which Yiddish literature first arose and from which it drew its first stock of characters and themes. Indeed, Yiddish literature never truly escaped the site of its origin. In a remarkably brief period of time, it compressed a complete cycle of development, and passed from an early, ardent celebration of shtetl life to a harsh condemnation of its provinciality and its social and economic inequities; by the time of the latter phase, however, the shtetl, succumbing to the encroachments of modernity, was already on the path to its own dissolution, and the greatest Yiddish novelists, like Mendele Mocher Seforim, were turning back to the memories of their youth and romanticizing what they had once excoriated. Ultimately, the historical fate of the shtetl was sealed amid the destruction of Eastern European Jewry in World War II, but the image of this prototypical Jewish community of the modern Diaspora has nevertheless continued to exert a persistent hold upon Yiddish writers in the post-Holocaust era.
Yet even when Yiddish literature was at its height, the shtetl was hardly its exclusive property, as Asher Barash's Pictures from a Brewery, an early classic of modern Hebrew literature (published now in English for the first time) testifies. Barash, who has been called the father of modern Hebrew social realism because of his richly particularized renditions of Jewish life, was born in Galicia and emigrated to Palestine in 1913. Though he has been frequently compared with Agnon, who also wrote extensively about the Jews of Galicia, and whose biography bears striking resemblances to his own, Barash is far less allusive and less recondite than his better known peer. His gift was primarily that of a storyteller, and Pictures from a Brewery itself resembles a group of loosely-connected stories more than a tightly-constructed novel. In contrast to the emphasis placed by many Yiddish writers on the bleak, paralyzing aspects of shtetl life, Barash's fictional town of L. is an uncommonly tranquil, almost idyllic community, as yet undisturbed by either internal strife or external enemies. Even the foreigners who occasionally visit L., and offer its inhabitants their rare glimpses of the world beyond its walls, are seen more as objects of dumbfounded amazement than as emissaries of the powers which would inevitably destroy the gentleness of that life.
The center of the Jewish community in L., and the subject of this narrative, is the Aberdam family, a shtetl “dynasty” whose aristocratic, matriarchal founder, Hannah Aberdam, leases an abandoned brewery from the local Polish nobleman and turns it into a thriving enterprise which at one point supports the town's entire Jewish population. Beyond the initial prosperity which the brewery brings to the Aberdams, however, Barash hints of a grimmer destiny for them. Bracha, Mrs. Aberdam's only child, is a beautiful but cold and melancholic woman who is unable to bear children for the first fifteen years of her marriage; when she finally gives birth, first to twin daughters and later to a son, Bracha finds that her maternal instincts have atrophied. Her children, in turn, grow up to witness the loss of the brewery and with it, the wealth and influence of the Aberdam dynasty.
The downfall of the Aberdams comes in the wake of the appearance in L. of two learned hasidic Jews, who obtain the new lease to the brewery illegally and resist all attempts to dislodge them. Mrs. Aberdam appeals her case to the all-powerful rebbe of Belz, but he too proves powerless against the interlopers. Barash's portrayal of the end of the Aberdam dynasty does not necessarily reflect an anti-religious attitude; as his narrative makes clear, the two conniving businessmen trespass upon the family's rights not because of, but despite, their religious piety. The arrival of the brewery's new owners indeed signifies a new era in shtetl life, but one lacking the spirit of generosity and humanity which had once marked the community as totally as the rituals of the traditional Jewish law had once molded every aspect of its daily routine. Although Barash forgoes the scene of violence almost endemic to the denouements of shtetl literature, he begins and ends his account of the Aberdams with an eerily evocative image: the dream of a burning bed which consumes its occupant as he sleeps.
Yet what remains most unusual about this novel is the fact, again, that it was written in Hebrew, rather than in Yiddish. Barash began work on Pictures from a Brewery in 1914, a year after his arrival in Palestine, during a period when Jewish nationalists were engaged in a bitter debate over which of the two languages was to serve as the single “true” tongue of the Jewish people—Yiddish, the language of the “folk” and of socialist ideology, or Hebrew, the official language of Zionist aspirations. A parallel struggle was taking place in the literary arena: if Yiddish fiction, directed at a shtetl audience, was animated by the urge to enlighten and educate its readers, the mere gesture of writing in Hebrew was a kind of symbolic repudiation of all that the shtetl represented in Jewish history. That Barash in spite of this chose Hebrew as the language in which to convey his sympathetic, almost loving portrait of shtetl life suggests the ambivalence of emotion which the idea of Diaspora was already beginning to arouse in Jewish writers, an ambivalence that no writer in Hebrew has yet come any closer than Barash to resolving. For these qualities, both intrinsic and extrinsic to the narrative, Pictures from a Brewery makes a welcome addition to the body of modern Hebrew works now available to the English-reading public; Katie Kaplan's translation also makes it a lucid and elegant one.
Chaim Grade, a generation younger than Barash, was born in Vilna and studied at several of the great yeshivot of Eastern Europe until, at the age of twenty-two, he broke with his traditional upbringing and began to write poetry; he did not start to write fiction, however, until after he had emigrated to America following World War II. Grade's first published story, “My Quarrel with Hersh Rasseyner,” met with immediate acclaim and has since become a small classic of modern Yiddish literature. (Translated by Milton Himmelfarb, it appeared in English in COMMENTARY, November 1953, and is included in Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg's Treasury of Yiddish Stories.) Cast in the form of a dialogue between Chaim Vilner, a thinly disguised representation of Grade himself, and Hersh Rasseyner, a former yeshiva classmate who has since become the head of his own seminary, the story was written in direct response to the Holocaust, and questioned the possibility of faith in its aftermath. Although many of the arguments which the two men rehearse are by now familiar, the story remains a searingly powerful experience because, in Grade's skillful dramatization, their encounter is a head-on collision between the opposed value-systems of the religious and secular Jew, as well as between the two conflicting impulses within the author himself toward the problem of traditional Jewish belief. Indeed, throughout the story, one senses that its seemingly abstract discussions of theodicy are an intimate echo of the debate Grade held with himself before abandoning his Orthodox past, while the feverish tension of the confrontation—and its ultimate failure to reconcile either faith or the lack of it with the catastrophic fact of the Holocaust—is a clear indication of the pain Grade must have suffered in leaving the world of the yeshiva.
The contours of this personal odyssey, so strongly marked by ambivalence, are equally present in The Agunah, one of several novels in which Grade has attempted to recreate the inner life of his birthplace and particularly its religious dimension, as it was experienced most intensely within the walls of the yeshivot and among the more devout segments of the community. Because this world was traditionally cloistered, and hence rarely touched upon in literature with any semblance of accuracy, these novels are as valuable for the historical source material they contain as for their genuinely high degree of artistry. It is only to be regretted that Curt Leviant's translation is inadequate to the novel's epic character and fails to capture its style.
The Agunah takes its title from a Hebrew term—literally, a “deserted one”—describing a woman whose husband has disappeared under unknown or mysterious circumstances; according to Orthodox Jewish law, the woman is not permitted either to divorce or to remarry until two witnesses can be found to testify to the husband's certain death. The agunah of Grade's novel is Merl Tswilling, whose husband went off to fight in the Czar's army some fifteen years earlier and has never returned. Defying rabbinic ruling, Merl decides to marry again and thereby precipitates a bitter conflict between the elder rabbis of Vilna and one younger rabbi, David Zelver, who alone permits the remarriage on grounds of circumstantial evidence. The rabbinic conflict in the book centers then on the question of whether the demands of human compassion can be made compatible with strict adherence to the law; yet it is the “compassionate” ruling of the younger rabbi that, in the end, eventuates in unmitigated tragedy, in an epidemic of murders culminating in the suicide of the agunah.
The true protagonist of this novel, however, is neither Merl, nor the rabbis of Vilna, but the halacha, Jewish religious law, which, in all its murky complexity, hovers above the town and inexorably draws each character to his fate. Grade's attitude toward the halacha is too complex to be summarized as a mere indictment of its severity, even if, as in the dilemma of the agunah, he makes the law's specifications appear needlessly cruel. Like Kafka, he is more concerned with, even obsessed by, the impossibility of eluding the judgments of the law and the helplessness of his fictional characters to free themselves from their devout adherence to it. The halacha, as Grade conceive it, is not only the framework of Judaism but its sole content, wholly beyond human understanding, unremitting, and sometimes pitiless, in its claims to absolute authority: even the novel's “good” rabbi, David Zelver, admits that he permitted the agunah to remarry not so much out of compassion for her plight as out of his belief that the law actually permits it. Like Grade's other works, The Agunah ultimately fails to resolve those conflicts which characterize his ambivalence toward the halacha, but the real achievement of the novel is its attempt to personify them in the fate which overtakes the Jewish community of Vilna. The violence which, at the narrative's end, consumes the town only begins to suggest the urgency, if not volatility, which the demands of the law still exercise upon Grade.
Despite their differences in language, time, and place of composition, both The Agunah and Pictures from a Brewery share a common, specifically Jewish, experience: the casualties of exile. Barash's idyllic portrait of the shtetl, puzzling to a reader acquainted with the many literary portraits of the less tranquil side of Jewish life in Galicia, may have been intended, consciously or unconsciously, as an ironic response to Barash's own situation—that of a writer, living in Palestine, writing in Hebrew, who nevertheless felt himself to be in exile from the Diaspora. For Grade, the survivor of one Diaspora, and now, in the United States, the resident of another, the experience of exile has been less a matter of geography than of religious faith. The dilemma of the agunah may serve as Grade's metaphor for that peculiar limbo in which the Diaspora Jew has continually found himself: chafing at his allegiance to the values of his past, yet never wholly free to espouse other, new ones.