Unhistorical Novels
by Judd L. Teller
Satan in Goray. by Isaac Bashevis Singer. Translated by Jacob Sloan. Noonday. 239 pp. $3.00.
The Prophet. By Sholem Asch. Translated by Arthur Saul Super. Putnam. 343 pp. $4.00.

The two foremost living Yiddish writers of fiction, seventy-five-year-old Sholem Asch and Isaac Bashevis Singer, younger by nearly a quarter of a century, are each represented on the publishers’ lists this season with a novel in English translation. It is a little unfair to set The Prophet and Satan in Goray side by side, one of Asch’s poorest books, one of Bashevis Singer’s test. Satan in Goray established itself as a classic some twenty years ago, and is still so regarded. The Prophet, on the other hand, is Asch’s latest work, the fourth of his “neo-Christian” novels and perhaps the least successful. Like the originals of most of his recent books, the Yiddish version of The Prophet has remained in manuscript.

Even in translation one can sense how different these two writers are as Yiddish stylists. The contrast is not merely personal; Asch and Bashevis represent the two basic modes of Yiddish prose developed during the half-century embraced by their work. Asch’s style, which always seems baroque and a bit too precious in translation, is a wondrous thing to behold in the original. Out of mutilated syntax, whorled phraseology, and entangled jargon, emerges an art primordial and overwhelming in its effect.

This rarely comes through the translation. By contrast, Bashevis is a careful, meticulous craftsman. His images are precise, his effects are deliberate, and when he uses, as he often does, obsolete and archaic Yiddish, it is by choice, to create an atmosphere, and not for lack of linguistic resources. Asch fuses apocryphal and neo-romantic strains; Bashevis is almost a naturalist, but given at times to hallucinations.



Asch deals with contemporary Polish Jewry, and even the American Jewish scene, as though he were writing about the ancient or mythical past. His sympathetic characters have the dimension of lamed vav or saints; his negative characters are either penitents or incorrigible sinners. This is not to imply that Asch cannot draw from life; but he always contrives, whether fortuitously or by design, to add that extra dab of color, that extra degree of stage-lighting, which somehow converts everything into a performance. It is probably this knack for pageantry that accounts for the commercial success of Asch’s latest novels.

Asch was born in the last days of Haskalah, when that movement was beginning to view the ghetto more benevolently and to romanticize Hasidism, without, however, yielding any of its aspirations for intercourse with the modern world. From the yeshiva, he went to Peretz’s literary court in Warsaw, and from there to Berlin (where Thomas Mann and others acclaimed him), and finally to the United States. Along the way, he managed to get a glimpse of Russia on the eve of Bolshevism. With all its catastrophic changes, this was not life, but a historical pageant. Hasidism had already disposed Asch towards the mystical, the Messianic, and a pietistic kind of sensualism (the essence of Hasidism being the revelation of God in all natural phenomena). The life of the Polish aristocracy around him in his youth gave him his first view of a different kind of sensualism. The lurid backgrounds of his “neo-Christian” novels are really drawn from his early Polish environment, and their apocalyptic visions probably from his impressions of the Russian Revolution and post-1918 Berlin.



The environment in which Bashevis spent his formative years was quite different, and not at all conducive to a feel for the spectacular or voluptuous. Asch’s shtetl was close to nature: children played in orchards, got lost in forests, swam in rivers. Bashevis’s adolescence knew only the squalid streets of the Warsaw Jewish district. His father was a needy and ascetic rabbi, strait-laced and austere. Polish Jewish society at the time of his first literary efforts had already been jarred by the 1914 war and the Orthodox way of life was beginning to disintegrate fast, with no new principle of order arising to take its place. Polish nationalism excluded the Jew; Communism meant a ruthless dictatorship; Zionism, hampered by British White Papers, assumed the aspect of another false Messianism. The anticipation of Messianic Redemption that had brightened the era into which Asch was born had faded, leaving Polish Jewry disheartened and disoriented. If life could strike Asch as a pageant, to Bashevis it looked more like a bad dream, and in The Family Moskat, published in English translation some years ago, he depicted the drifting of postwar Polish Jewry in that light.

Both Asch and Bashevis are attracted to apocalyptic periods, but where Asch views them as a beginning and promise, Bashevis sees them as doom. This opposition is evident in the two novels at hand. Satan in Goray shows us the crumbling fabric of Jewish life in a mid-17th century community (an actual one) that, having endured the horrible Chmelnitzky pogroms, was overwhelmed by the mad hopes and despairs of the Sabbatai Zvi movement. The Prophet treats of a somewhat analogous situation (analogous perhaps because Asch makes it so)—the Babylonian Diaspora at the critical moment when Cyrus’s conquests were stirring dreams of deliverance among the exiled Jews-dreams to be realized in part by the restoration of Judea, not as a sovereign state, but as a Jewish national home. Asch here is at his most baroque, sacrificing character to pageantry.

Bashevis writing with remarkable felicity in the archaic style of the Hebrew pinkassim (a kind of community chronicle) manages to achieve a veritable tour de force of Hebraic Yiddish. The English translation by Jacob Sloan, though it falls short, as it must, of the original, is superb, and conveys a real sense of the author’s virtuosity as a Yiddish stylist. The effect of the novel as a whole is marred, however, by its conclusion—a rhymed prayer, or “counsel”: “Let none attempt to force the Lord; to end our pain within the world, etc., etc.”—which seems too cutely pietistic coming from the pen of a modem author.



Although the novelist is not obliged to tell the whole historical truth, the reviewer may point out where, in his failure to do so, he might mislead the uninformed reader. Goray was the scene of a fateful struggle between traditional rational-legalistic Judaism and a prophetic pseudo-Christianity that sought to insinuate itself into the House of Israel. Rabbinic Judaism won out, but Bashevis does not do sufficient justice to its victory. Indeed, when the decrepit, ailing Rabbi Ashkenazi, who represents the Rabbinic answer to Sabbatai Zvi, dies in a state of hallucinatory excitement begging to be taken from the “battlefield,” we are left with a feeling that there was no victory here at all. In point of fact, the note of despair on which Bashevis’s novel ends was not the dénouement, but only a concomitant of the events in Goray.

It is in line with Bashevis’s tendency to simplify the story and keep it intra-mural that the role played by Christian influences in the Messianic delusions of the Jews of Goray is virtually overlooked. The only extenuating circumstance he grants his Jews is the suffering and martyrdom at Chmelnitzky’s hands which preceded their self-abasement. Asch, on the other hand, glories in a kind of Christologizing Messianism, even projecting it back into a Jewish movement that was essentially national in spirit, and that long pre-dated the birth of Messianism.



The facts are quite simple. In Babylon the Judean exiles met the Israelites, their predecessors in dispersion, and found it possible to re-achieve unity with them in an alien land. Tribalism thus matured into nationalism. Zealots among the exiles established contact with like-minded groups back home in Judea and all sorts of plots were laid for an insurrection against the Babylonian overlord. The prophet Ezekiel delivered repeated warnings against any rash undertaking, which, he declared, would only end in calamity and compound Jewish martyrdom. Then news came of Cyrus’s amazing conquests.

Like Napoleon, the Persian King entered the scene as a liberator of subjugated peoples and a champion of religious freedom. Having realized early the Jews’ importance in the Babylonian economy, he understood that a restored Judea could serve as a buffer between his Persian home-base and a recalcitrant Egypt. Napoleon’s famous appeal to the Jews to join him in “liberating Jerusalem” was probably modeled on Cyrus’s call. The Jewish return from Babylon, then, was the result of a national movement aided by a great power.

When he depicts the vicissitudes of Babylonian Zionism, Asch in his present novel seems for a time to be reporting contemporary events, or events still within living memory. The acclaim, rejection, and re-embrace, followed by further rejection, that were the lot of the Second Isaiah, who believed in Cyrus’s good intentions and was hopeful of the restoration of Judea under his rule, were also the lot of Herzl and Weizmann. The political divisions among the exiles likewise have their contemporary analogies. There were those who feared that agitation for a Return would lead to their forced expulsion from Babylon; those who argued that the Jewish genius would fulfill itself most richly in Babylon, and that the Return could only convert the Jews from a universal into provincial people; and finally the party which “knew that in Judea savage struggle awaited them with those who had encroached upon their borders and taken . . . their lands. . . .”

But halfway through his book the author jettisons this theme. The Second Isaiah suddenly moderates his Zionist enthusiasm, having come to believe that the Return presages greater suffering, and that only after the “man of sorrows” appears to act as scapegoat for all Israel and humanity can Redemption come. Asch draws upon Chapter 53 of Isaiah, which reads in part (in the translation used in The Prophet) :

He is despised and rejected of men,
A man of sorrows. . . .
Surely he hath home our griefs,
And carried our sorrows;
Yet we did esteem him stricken,
Smitten of God and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions. . . .
And with his stripes we are healed. . . .
And Jehovah has laid on him the iniquity of
us all. . . .

Jewish tradition has never found this passage any more obscure than similar prophetic texts, treating it as only another parable describing the transgressions for which the Jews were banished to Babylon, and stating the conditions for their eventual Redemption or Return. Christianity, however, has interpreted these verses not as a recall of the past, but a presentiment of the future—not as parable about the Jews, but a foreshadowing of the coming of Jesus. This view of a Messiah who by suffering atones for the sins of all mankind is rightly presented by Asch as a sweeping departure from Isaiah’s—and, we might add, from all previous-prophecy. But he is wrong in thinking that the Jewish interpretation of the passage is without support from either history or tradition.



The era with which the novel deals has not been unexplored by historians, and we know that it was only later, after the Return from Babylon, that apocalyptic literature (most of it ultimately relegated to apocryphal status) had its flowering among Jews, although the tendency is already apparent in Ezekiel. The Messianic movement related to this literature developed, however, only in the final stages of the Second Commonwealth, and its apocalyptic ideas, out of which grew Christian Messianism, were never accepted by more than a small minority.

The purpose and direction of Asch’s strange theological meanderings are better understood by reading The Nazarene, The Apostle, and Mary along with The Prophet, which obviously serves as the prelude to the others. We can trace the pattern back to a remarkable early work, Salvation (Der T’illim Yid), which Jewish and other critics hailed as a perceptive study of Hasidism when it first appeared, for it seems to me that Asch’s interest in Hasidism lies somewhere at the source of his Christological leanings. Hasidism in its extreme varieties teeters perilously on the Christological, as for example in the case of that morbid sect, the Bratzlaver Hasidim, who were also called the “dead Hasidim” because of their perverse adherence to the long deceased Rebbe Nachman of Bratzlav.

All in all, Asch’s “theology” is an unhappy midway passage, a tragic pattern familiar at crucial junctures in Jewish history. The 17th century in East Europe, which serves as the setting of Bashevis’s novel, was such a juncture. We are now living through another.


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