Leyb ben Oyzer’s “Description of Shabbetai Zevi” (Bashraybung fun Shabetai Tsvi) is a fascinating Yiddish text, apparently never wholly translated into English, but available in a sparkling new translation into French by Nathan Weinstock, published in November 2011 by Les éditions Honoré Champion. “Description of Shabbetai Zevi” first appeared in 1718 in Amsterdam, where its author held various responsibilities at the Ashkenazi synagogue.
Ben Oyzer says he interviewed contemporaries of the notorious False Messiah who died in 1676, people who “ate and drank with him,” to understand the staggering historical deception. Its depth of human aspiration and disappointment, ranging from elation to shame, made this text especially compelling to poets, such as Haim Nachman Bialik, who owned the original manuscript for a time, and passed it along to Zalman Shazar, poet and third President of Israel. Shazar’s posthumously published 1978 edition inspired scholar Chava Turniansky to write that “Description of Shabbetai Zevi” ranks as the “first known historical prose narrative written in Yiddish” (previous such narratives survive only in verse).