Friday, March 16, 2007

Crowd scenes in the shtetl

...could be the subtitle of Israel J Singer's book 'Yoshe Kalb'. This is an old book, not only in content, written by the older brother of Isaac Bashevis Singer in the 1930s - my German version was translated straight from the Yiddish.

It's set in Galicia, the Central European one, not the Spanish one. Galicia was, at the time, in the Austro-Hungarian empire, when that empire still extended to somewhere in/near Poland/Ukraine - for example Lvov/Lviv in the Ukraine was in Galicia at that time. According to Wikipedia, at one stage its name was 'Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria with the Duchies of Auschwitz and Zator.' Hmm.

So the book, in three parts, set entirely in what seems to be very large Jewish populations, follows a young man through his life, though interesting the young man barely has a speaking part. It begins when, aged 14, he marries a girl of a similar age. Young Nachum comes from a refined rabbinical family and finds himself in another, much rougher, rabbinical family where the father (in law) is anxious to marry off his youngest daughter so he himself can take his fourth wife. Various events happen, and young Nachum runs away. He then appears in another town, does not say anything to anyone, gets a job, and in the end things go less well for him there. Finally he returns to the inlaw's house, after a long absence - and then things get even more complicated since he is now accused of being a bigamist (slight logic gap here since the book states that according to the Thora it is allowed to have more than one wife - but maybe that's a question of interpretation).

Now, I am weak on the Jewish religion and directions here, there and everywhere. But it seems that the father-in-law is of the Hassidic persuasion, which involves getting as many followers as possible since they finance his lifestyle. His many sons also try to get many followers, in effect competing for the same market. (Not entirely sure whether this is particularly Hassidic or otherwise, but I do know that the Gaon of Vilnius ran the Hassidic Jews out of town - they only returned about 10 - 15 years ago.) All events, weddings, court proceedings etc are celebrated with, it seems, a cast of thousands, from the richest to the poorest, from near and far, including many beggars who like to partake of the riches.

Singer's descriptions, especially of the crowd scenes and landscapes, are wonderful; what with these and an episode of a pestilence visiting a town the book has a bit of a biblical character. At the same time it is very funny, when for example a Jewish delegation visits the Austrian culture minister, interrupting him in a tête à tête with the heavenly dainty feet of the young ballerina Püppi Jarowitzi.

The structure of the book is a bit odd, in that the three parts seem not well connected except through our hero, who is never identified by name in the middle part (though the reader works out quite soon who he is). The book is very readable, though, and it's interesting reading about life in a shtetl. One gets the impression that life was very isolated; the book describes the shock/horror when they find that times are changing and the Russian court expects the children to attend state schools, not the yeshiva; in other places they are expected to learn German and could be given fields to work like Christian peasants. Oh no! (The book is a bit vague on country borders).

Some references are also made to Lithuania, of course, what with Vilnius being the 'Jerusalem of the North' - the Hassidim at the wedding of the 14-year-old couple see the bridegroom's parents and are heard to mutter: 'Litvaks, typical stuck-up unbelieving Lithuanian Jews'. Thanks to the Vilna Gaon, presumably.