03 December, 2006

Desire from the Shtetl to the Kibbutz

The greatest literature not only reflects the inner workings of the authors' psyches, but also those of the greater community. This universality is one component by which literary quality is judged. While universal empathy is desired, a core of truth is a must. This truth is generally found in the lives of the authors and the communities around them.
The early writers in Hebrew’s return to a new position as a language of literature wrote in a time of tremendous upheaval. European Jewry had lost much of its direction. The community had splintered into those who fled from religion, and those who attempted to hold onto the tradition, often viewed as oppressive in its reaction to those whom had broken away. Even those trying to maintain the traditions found themselves affected by the changes in Jewish society and the world around them. In times of change, some long for the days of yesteryear, and some look yearningly toward a new future.
Desire is one of the stronger passions found in humanity. Throughout literature, there exist countless examples of the power which desire wields over man. While human desire can be uncomfortable, its object can say much about those gripped by the desire. In literature, desire is the purview of the author. In literature of quality, there are no accidents; each element of desire is chosen by the author to frame the message that he has chosen. This is especially true of the Hebrew literature of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The collapse of the communities of faith, coupled with the difficulties of living in a secular, economic society left much to be desired. These desires, both romantic and erotic, forge a microscope trained on a people’s longing for the stability of the past as well as a freedom from traditional restrictions. In some works, the desires of the characters reflect a yearning for a simpler time. Other works describe, through their characters’ desires, the dangers of the disintegration of a religious and moral society. Still others can be seen, through the desires of the characters, as arguments toward a new model, integrating the best of both worlds. In the works of , Simchah Ben-Zion, David Frischmann, and C. N. Bialik, we find a microcosm of the wants and desires found in the Eastern European Jewish community.
In “At the Bride’s House,” Simcha Ben-Zion provides an example of the desires of a simpler time. The tale concerns Yossele, a young bridegroom, on the holiday of Shavuot. The holiday, a celebration of Israel’s receiving of the Torah, helps Ben-Zion establish the Bride’s dual function as a human bride as well a symbol for The Torah. Yossele, the son of a Rabbi, trained in Torah, finds himself onset from every direction with thoughts of his Bride and Torah. “For she was as unforgettable as the Tikun which lay in front of him,” Ben-Zion writes, “she, too, was always before his eyes, for everything in the room, every object large or small constantly made him aware of the presence of this slender girl.”
The level of erotic tension is also built on, in part, by the almost palpable descriptions that Ben-Zion gives. The “rich warm smell of frying butter,” “the rustle of her freshly-ironed dress,” “fragrant, budding springs that bore the scent of paradise,” and the bride’s “grey eyes...veiled by her long, dark lashes” create a sensual world which mirrors the heightened level of description of the Torah’s reception by The People at Sinai. The Bride’s function as both a character and a symbol for G-d’s teaching is handled skillfully. Through the double meaning, Ben-Zion is able to show concrete desire for a life of Torah. Yossele yearns for the simple bride, as well as the life given to, and commanded of him.
The relationship between the young couple is conducted strictly by the religious rules of the community. At one point, Yossele seems overly concerned with having broken the principle of tzeniut by handing the bride a cluster of blossoms. This possible infraction doesn’t serve to overthrow the rules of modesty, but rather to intensify Yossele’s desire for her and to strengthen his resolve to operate within the structures of his society.
Yossele’s desire for a relationship within the traditional laws and one fully accepting the religious nature of the relationship reflects the desire of many within that community to reject the growing secularism of the time. Forget those who would have you abandon the Torah, and embrace tradition and life may be simple and wonderful again. There are elements of another character, however.
Much is made of the Bride’s family’s wealth. This coupled with the absence of books, even a Talmud, prevents the example in the story from being a complete acknowledgement of religious ways. The bride’s background is not as religious as Yossele’s. Even the father of Yossele, a Rabbi, “when he had looked around him at the beautiful objects in the house...had said, ‘The bride, long may she live, appears to be a wonderful person.‘” The Rabbi’s evaluation of the bride occurs not while he’s examining or interacting with her, but rather when he appraises the beautiful possessions of her household. How ironic, that the character most entrenched in the religious norms of tradition most blatantly expresses the modern secular economic values. The modern world cannot be expunged, but Yossele and his bride, both of whom embody the innocent, tradition bound reference to life, seem to face a simpler, enticing future.
An example of a less appealing future can be found in David Frischmann’s “The Dance.” The object of desire in this story is not representative of Torah. A gentile, Putth, “so tall and handsome that all the women and young girls in the cap followed him with their eyes all day long, seeing him even in their dreams” provides the focus of desire.
Putth and the other gentiles in this story do not threaten the Jews, as many of the gentiles of Eastern Europe did. Rather they simply travel with the Jews from Egypt. This does not lessen his function as a symbol for those gentiles. Often, in Eastern Europe, non-Jews coexisted peacefully with Jews. A romance develops between Putth and Timna, one of the Jewish women. Assimilation is not the focus here, as they continue to exist within the Jewish community. Instead, the question becomes one of the appropriateness of seeking a mate outside the community. Timna’s desire exists without question, but should she follow her desire? The women of the community, jealous, quickly resort to lashon hara regarding her. First, the community’s regard for Timna is damaged, and then Putth disappears.
For Timna, wandering and longing follow. As a surrogate, or “EveryJew,” Timna’s plight symbolizes a common occurrence in Jewish history: the inconstancy of gentile affection. As many Jews of The Enlightenment, Timna faces a choice: does she give up what has sustained her in the past. For the Jews of Eastern Europe, this meant abandoning traditional religious practice. For Timna, this is a choice with literal and figurative consequences. If she gives her ring, the gift of her beloved, she gives up the object which has sustained her hope through the wandering. In addition, symbolically, if she gives the ring to create a forbidden idol, she defies the will of G-d. The later reading is another similarity with the Jews who gave up their tradition.
When Timna relinquishes her ring, she is left without comfort. Alone, she seeks the only thing of comfort which she has known: the ring. The ring no longer exists independently. It has become part of The Golden Calf. As Timna dances before the calf, Frischmann reveals the dangers of idolatry and paganism. In the story’s finale, with Timna ecstatically losing herself, the dance, Timna, her memories, and the calf become one. While for Timna, the release seems preferable to her previous solitude, Frischmann’s description, using words like “writhing convulsively,” “cold and afraid,” “stony,” and “maelstrom” do not paint a picture many would view as a pleasant death.
The desire in H. N. Bialik’s “Behind the Fence,” again is felt by a Jew toward a gentile. Bialik is able to portray the desire of Noah, a Jew, for Marinka, his gentile neighbor, as well as to show symbolically the qualities of the gentile world which enticed many Jews of his time. Bialik himself was subject to these desires. In Hayim Greenberg’s essay, “A Day With Bialik,” he describes Bialik’s fascination with a gentile girl. “To have such a child at home,” Bialik told Greenberg, “I am willing to renounce all the pleasures of this world, and if you insist, also of the pleasures of the other world.” While some degree of hyperbole must be attributed to Bialik’s comments, it is beyond doubt that he felt the attraction to the Gentile world.
Bialik’s description of the world of “Behind the Fence” portrays one ripe for interplay between Noah and Marinka. Noah’s community has strayed from tenets of their religious observance. They behave unneighborly to the gentile in their midst. They steal from her carts. The community seems more concerned with the letter of the law, rather than the spirit behind it. Even the physical description of Noah’s family’s house gives evidence to this interpretation. A new roof is built atop the old. The house, “with its new hat and it’s old yarmulke. Both sank into the earth from year to year-as in fact the ever-widening space between hat and yarmulke bore witness.” The new roof, the “hat” resembles greatly the black hats worn by the Orthodox of the time. The “yarmulke,” represents the “truer” Judaism, one concerned with behavior towards others. To the narrator, the distance between the two is growing.
As if in response to Bialik’s admitted attraction to gentile things, Noah is drawn inescapably to Marinka. Her value as a symbol for things gentile is illustrated in a scene where Noah longs to get to Marinka on the other side of a fence. Instead, he "remembered the phylacteries and turned away." The tefillin, phylacteries bound on a worshiper’s body, arguably the most tactile of all Judaism’s symbols serve as a reminder of the religion’s dictates, and Noah does not climb the fence.
Eventually, Noah does succumb to the desire, and he and Marinka consummate their relationship. We’re not informed exactly why, but this does not lead to their marriage. Instead, Noah and a Jewish wife live on the opposing side of the fence from Marinka and Noah’s illegitimate child. The reader is left to wonder if this is how the existence of Marinka came about, with the bitter gentile woman who raised her having an affair with a previous neighbor. Nothing has come of Noah’s desire, good or bad. The status quo is maintained.
In another of Bialik’s works, “The Legend of the Three and Four,” the desire of one of the characters is able to initiate change. In this work as well, the desire is between a Jewish man and a gentile woman. The barriers between the two, within the story, take many forms. The gentile, a princess, has a station far above the Jew. In addition, she is locked in a tower on a deserted island with no entrance reachable from the ground. The environment of Jews and gentiles creates the same obstacles of class for couples of differing faiths. The difficulties of entry into the tower mirror the restrictions placed by gentile and Jewish society on interfaith couples. Instead of flinching from the obstacles however, Netanyeh, the Jew, overcomes them and marries Ketziyah, the gentile. Netanyeh and Ketziyah have the true and lasting union that Noah and Marinka do not have. This is not done with a rejection of religious tradition on Netanyeh’s part. The desire is not malignant. Instead of causing Netanyeh to go against G-d, the desire actually fulfills G-d’s wishes. King Solomon, the voice of wisdom says of paired male and female; Netanyeh and Ketziyah; and by extension, possibly Bialik or some future lover of a gentile:

G-d implanted within them the urge and desire to cleave to each other as one, and when they longed for each other from afar....they knew no rest. Is this not that great and eternal love...It suffers neither end nor destruction, and when it bursts forth and reveals itself, it blazes mysterious roads and paths never foreseen or hoped for by man.

When true desire is confronted righteously, it may open new pathways and possibilities. Desire may be just another method in G-d’s creation.
Tumultuous times inspire many strong emotions. Desire is common in times of uncertainty. When trapped between an uncompromising religious contingent and an often hostile secular world, many Eastern European Jews desired a surrender to the earlier period where religious observance came without question or conflict. Others feared this desire in themselves and their community. Many puzzled with their desires and whether the desires were positive or negative influences. Finally, some engaged their desires and combined the world that they dreamt of with that of their background and forged an often auspicious future. Examples of all of these desires have been immortalized in the literature of the period. As with all things, which interpretations prove legitimate will be decided by history.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

He is no longer single, so leave him alone. He is all mine.