Thursday, November 06, 2008

Isaac’s Torah

Angel Wagenstein, Isaac’s Torah, trans. Elizabeth Frank and Deliana Simeonova (New York: Handsel Books, 2008). 300 pp. $23.95.

The conventional wisdom that Jewish humor is self-mockery has caused no end of mischief. Comics like Woody Allen and Jerry Seinfeld have turned derision of rabbis and anxiety over circumcision into memorable skits—as if Jews secretly agreed with the creepiest antisemites, but were simply better at playing slurs for laughs. The idea, like so much else that is damaging to modern culture, can be traced back to Freud, and is founded upon the unproven assumption that humor is really a form of
hostility. According to the vulgar commonplace, joke-telling is a verbal means by which the teller distances himself from the butt of the joke.

Something like the opposite
is the case in Isaac’s Torah. The first novel by Bulgarian screenwriter Angel Wagenstein, originally published in Sofia in 2000 when he was 78, the book celebrates the “Golden Tradition” of Eastern European Jewry by collecting Jewish jokes and inventing occasions to retell them. My favorite comes early:

       Two Jews from two towns are arguing over whose rabbi is more capable of performing miracles.
       “Ours, of course, and I will prove it to you,” says the first one. “Last Shabbos our rabbi was going to synagogue when suddenly rain came pouring down from the sky. Not that the rabbi didn’t have an umbrella, but on Shabbos any kind of work is forbidden—so how can he open it? He looked up to the sky, God immediately understood, and there was a miracle, you won’t believe it: on the left side—rain, on the right side—rain, and in the middle—a dry corridor all the way down to the synagogue. What do you say to that?”
       “What I say, of course, is listen to this! Last Shabbos, our rabbi was coming home after prayer and what did he see? Lying on the road was a hundred-dollar bill! Well, how could he take it, when it’s a sin to touch money? He looked up at the sky, God immediately understood him, and there was a miracle: on the left side—Shabbos, on the right side—Shabbos, and in the middle, you won’t believe it—Thursday!”
Isaac Jacob Blumenfeld, the hero of Wagenstein’s two-decade picaresque, tells jokes to reattach himself to a lost world. The book’s humor is not an expression of hostility, but of gentle and thwarted affection.

Like a little boy collecting “treasure” on a playground, a novelist succeeds in recreating a world by picking up and arranging the smallest details of that world. Wagenstein is perhaps the first Jewish novelist to understand that jokes were as indispensable to Eastern European Jewry as kosher butchers, marriage canopies, and the muddy streets of shtetlakh. The jokes vindicate the tenderness that most Jews now experience when they reflect upon the lost world. Let’s be honest. Much fiction that looks backward upon Jewish life in Eastern Europe is fatally infected with nostalgia and cheerlessness. The Holocaust throws its shadow over an entire literature.

Wagenstein undertakes the more difficult thing—writing fond comedy that includes the Holocaust. Unlike Roberto Benigni’s 1997 film Vita è bella, the novel does not misrepresent the reality of the Konzentrationlagers, does not underplay the real danger and real violence and real death, does not reduce the mass of Jews caught in Hitler’s net to a faceless and nameless background, in order to get a few cheap laughs. For Isaac Blumenfeld, comedy is first of all an act of resistance, even defiance, in the service of survival.

When he is first transported to a labor camp in the Brandenburg forest, for example, Isaac is lined up with the other prisoners and addressed by the commandant (“I don’t know from racial theories,” Isaac says when he first glimpses the Nazi, “but if it’s true about the descendants of Siegfried being manly blue-eyed, blond, six-foot-six knights, then the grandmother of this nibelung had had something to do with a Hungarian Gypsy, or God forbid, with the corner grocer, Aaron Rabinovitch”).

The commandant asks the newly arrived prisoners, “Is there someone who speaks good German? Who doesn’t stutter it like a Galician Jew. . . ?” Isaac is offended. The commandant “was speaking in such a Saxonian dialect that his German was barely comprehensible,” and yet he accuses the Jews, whose Yiddish is “first cousin of the German,” of stuttering it! Isaac steps forward—“a linguistic step, so to speak, in defense of the native tongue.”

The commandant asks his name. “I almost said ‘Private Isaac Blumenfeld,’ but something grabbed at the coattails of my soul and I swallowed the answer, changing it in flight to ‘Heinrich Bjegalski, Herr Oberlieutenant!’ ” The commandant eyes him skeptically. “And you studied German?” he asks, raising his eyebrows. Isaac answers in the affirmative.

“And who, according to you, is the author of Faust?”

“Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Herr Oberlieutenant. 1749–1832.”

I have quoted this passage at length, not only to demonstrate how Wagenstein introduces comedy into the Holocaust without descending to Benigni’s clowning, but also to show how the novel’s humor operates. Isaac bests the commandant at his own game. As Ruth R. Wisse says of a similar scene in a different Holocaust novel, he proves just what the Germans most feared: that he can “infiltrate their culture so successfully he will usurp their very identity.” In doing so, however, Isaac binds himself more tightly to the Jews—makes himself more defiantly one of them—by resorting to the multilingual facility and successful acquisition of vernacular culture that their status as a despised minority in Europe had forced upon them.

The novel’s title serves a dual function—structural and thematic. Like Moses’s, Isaac’s Torah is divided into five books. Wagenstein does not belabor the parallel, but it does its job.

In the First Book, Isaac introduces himself as a tailor’s son in Kolodetz, a fictional Galician shtetl in what is now the Ukraine. Like someone else I could mention, he is taken out of his native land; he is conscripted into the Austro-Hungarian army toward the end of World War I. The Second Book spans the interwar years (“I went to war as an Austro-Hungarian, and came home a Pole”), concluding with the annexation of “feudal-aristocratic Poland” to the “workers-and-peasants’ fatherland, the great Soviet Union” three weeks after the outbreak of World War II.

The Third Book chronicles Isaac’s time as a Soviet citizen, dragging himself from Kolodetz to Lvov, till June 1941 when the German Nazis occupy the area. His Fourth Book is passed in the Lagers. He is transferred from the unnamed labor camp in the Brandenburg forest to Flossenbürg, where he is liberated in April 1945 by soldiers of the U.S. Army 97th Infantry Division.

The Fifth and final book is Isaac’s Deuteronomy, the repetition of the Torah. Having survived the Nazi concentration camps, Isaac is put on trial by the Soviets after the war, found guilty of concealing his Soviet origin (he insists that he was born in Austria-Hungary, even though Kolodetz by then belongs to the Soviet Union), and sentenced to ten years in a Siberian labor camp, “a traitor to the Soviet motherland and simultaneously a Nazi war criminal.” Once more from the top! he cries.

The title of Isaac’s Torah also serves a thematic purpose. As Primo Levi recounted in Se questo è un uomo, the Nazis’ prisoners told one another their stories, and even when they were forgotten they had to be told, “hundreds of thousands of stories, all different and all full of a tragic, disturbing necessity.” They were “simple and incomprehensible like the stories in the Bible. But are they not themselves,” Levi concluded, “stories of a new Bible?”

Holocaust literature is a new Torah. It is, in other words, the account of an event that is once and for all—an event as final as the revelation at Sinai. Because it has more than historical value, Holocaust literature aims not simply to preserve the Holocaust in memory, but to testify to its sheer magnitude—to make it unforgettable, terrifying, sublime. The aim is not knowledge alone, but also the power to excite ideas of fear and pain and danger, to produce the strongest emotions which the mind is capable of feeling.

Wagenstein’s purpose is not to record the horrors. Thus, in a remarkable passage that seems at first to owe more to Peter Novick and Norman Finkelstein than to Primo Levi, he writes:And now, please, save me from memory, heavy as a hundred-ton cast-iron mold, and allow me not to describe to you the hell in which we ended up! Many people before me have done it, and truly much better, too, than I would do it. The times of the first shattering discoveries have passed. . . . It became a profession to put systematically in drawers the self-admitted guilt of the repentant and the ambiguous blather of unrepentant butchers; filed away and numbered in protocols and shorthand records was the subdued weeping of the survivors, and from it, from this crying, some people erected an impressive and invisible pantheon of the Holocaust, while others built for themselves also impressive, but quite real, villas with swimming pools and two satellite dishes. Words like ‘Zyklon-B,’ ‘gas chamber,’ or ‘Final Solution’ gradually lost their original demonic unreality and became a daily ingredient of indifferent newspaper articles dedicated to commemorations and the like.The latter-day writer faces the same problem as a modern student of the Bible. How do you defamiliarize something that has become so familiar, but was originally strange beyond description? How do you restore the smoke ascending as the smoke of a furnace and the great quaking?

Wagenstein’s strategy is to place the Holocaust within the larger context of the Jewish comedy, making it merely the fourth book—the Numbers—of the Jews’ new Torah. Comedy begins in turmoil and ends in peace. Moses’s Torah ends just before the Israelites enter the promised land. Isaac’s Torah ends with him living in Vienna, “already more or less an old man,” flying away in memory to the future, “may it be good for everyone, amen.”

Richard Marcus reviews the novel here. Philip Witte reviews it here.


Richard Marcus said...

I have to ask - are you in anyway related to the author of the wonderful book about Poland with the amazine paintings that I reviewed some time ago? I gave my copy to my mother as her mother's family came from just outside of Krakow in 1913 so you'll have to forgive me if I'm unable to remember the title.

Have you had an opportunity to read Farewell To Shagnhai yet by Angel? Just as beautiful as Isaac's Torah but no where near the humour.

Anyway thanks for the mention at your blog