An e-mail correspondent who signs as “Will” has the following query:
Will addresses this question to a Jewish language columnist, one assumes, because of the resemblance of “Youdi” to “Yehudi” — the Hebrew word for “Jew” and an Eastern European Jewish name in its own right, as in Yehudi Menuhin. Moreover, in French, the language in which the Irish-born Beckett wrote most of his work, “Molloy” included, youdi, though now somewhat archaic, was once a pejorative word for “Jew” on the order of “sheeny” or “kike.” Can Beckett’s having chosen such a name for his character be mere coincidence?
I doubt it. While not Jewish himself, Beckett knew many Jews and thought much about the significance of Jewishness, just as did his revered authorial model James Joyce, to whom he was secretary. (The central character in Joyce’s great novel “Ulysses,” it will be recalled, is the Irish Jew Leopold Bloom.) Several of Beckett’s Parisian Jewish friends were deported to the Nazi death camps, and there are anecdotes about how, prior to joining the French Resistance, he went about Paris with a yellow Star of David as an act of solidarity with the Jews forced to wear it — a gesture as unusual as it was brave. Such a man hardly could have called a character Youdi by chance.
Indeed, there is a small but impressive critical literature dealing with the place of Jewishness in Becket’s oeuvre. To take one example, Israeli scholar Mordecai Shalev published in 1990 a lengthy analysis of “Waiting for Godot” in which he argued — quite persuasively, in my opinion — that Jewish themes and allusions stand at the center of the play, in which a main character originally named Levi before this was changed to Estragon. Estragon is one of two tramps who spends several acts waiting in vain for the mysterious Godot to appear, and although it is quite possible to view the two as universal Everymen abandoned by a deity that no longer exists or can manifest itself, there is no necessary contradiction between such an interpretation and Shalev’s viewing them as types of the “Wandering Jew” — eternal outcasts condemned to roam the world forever beneath a merciless heaven.
Homeless wanderers recur in the comically surrealistic novels of Beckett, a prime example being Molloy himself — a lame old, mentally discombobulated man grotesquely peddling a bicycle with his one good leg while on a quest to find his mother in the region of Ballybaba. This quest is the subject of the first of the two-part “Molloy,” the second of which relates the adventures of a detective named Moran, who sets out for Ballybaba in search of Molloy after having received a directive to do so from a messenger named Gaber. Gaber has been sent by Youdi, also referred to in the novel as “the chief” — a shadowy figure as mysterious as Godot. Although Youdi is neither all-powerful nor omniscient, he has a way of keeping track of all Moran does and is both irascible and compassionate. “Youdi will take care of me,” Moran thinks at one point. “He will not let me be punished for a fault committed in the execution of my duty.”
Is Youdi, like Godot, a surrogate divinity? Perhaps. New York professor of literature Margaret Boe Birns believes that he is a “Hebrew God” of sorts, “with Gaber as the angel Gabriel.” And London critic Steven Connor points out that besides meaning “Jew,” Youdi can be read as a two-syllable reversal of the French word for God, Dieu. Connor, however, in writing about the novel, is less interested in Youdi than in Molloy — who, despite his Irish name, is taken by him to be a “Jewish” character, in whose lameness and lostness “Jewishness comes to epitomize displacement itself, the absence of the ground underfoot.” Connor connects Malloy’s preoccupation with his bad leg with Beckett’s familiarity with early 20th-century antisemitic literature, in which an awkward gait and bandy-leggedness are considered typical Jewish traits.
Any attentive reader of Samuel Beckett, of course, knows better than to attempt to straitjacket his work into rigid symbolic or ideational patterns. Beckett is not everyone’s cup of tea — “one long death rattle” is how someone once described his novels and plays to me — but even those who are bored or irritated by him must acknowledge that he is a highly complex writer for whom nothing has only one meaning. Youdi, the Jewish God looking for Molloy, and the aged and weak Jewish people also might embody or represent a dozen other things. Still, his name is no accident, and Beckett almost certainly was thinking in Jewish terms when he bestowed it.