Tragedy; Or, Yiddish in the Postwar World
By Aharon Megged, translated by Marganit Weinberger-Rotman
Toby Press, 277 pages, $19.95.
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For those readers acquainted with the torrent of novels, story collections, reportage and histories pouring out of Israel, it is hard not to be struck by the wrenching re-examination of the past that characterizes much of it. It is a body of work that ranges from the cannibalism in Oz Shelach’s “Picnic Grounds” to Amos Elon’s bizarre paean to German Jewry in “The Pity of It All: A History of Jews in Germany 1743-1933” (a book that might be better called “The Sorrow and the Self-Pity”). And while much of it has focused on the gap between myth and reality regarding the establishment of Israel (and the struggle between the Zionists and Palestinians), there were other conflicts lying just below the surface, ones obscured in the rush of history. For along with the struggle to reclaim the birthplace of the Jewish people, there was an equally ambitious effort to reclaim Hebrew, a language that had fallen into disuse except on the Sabbath and High Holy Days, displaced in the diaspora by Yiddish. In “Foiglman,” which won the 2004 Koret Jewish Book Award for fiction, Israel Prize-winning novelist Aharon Megged reflects upon the cultural war waged by Zionism against the Diaspora — and the linguistic attack on Yiddish in particular — and on the guilt and remorse that inevitably attend the aftermath of victory.
Narrated as a series of flashbacks by Zvi Arbel, a self-described “pessimistic historian” whose area of expertise is European Jewish history, the novel opens some months after the suicide of Arbel’s wife, Nora, and after the death of Shmuel Foiglman, a Yiddish poet whom Arbel had befriended. Arbel recalls the poet’s funeral, an event he meant to forgo yet attended in spite of himself. Finding himself surrounded by Israel’s dwindling community of Yiddishists and literati, Arbel is seized with the urge to flee: “It was like finding myself in some East European quarter whose breaths, smells, and whispers would be repulsive to me.” And when, at this bustling “marketplace of the dead,” another Yiddish poet pushes his own manuscript at Arbel, the historian is propelled into the past, reflecting on the role he played in his wife’s suicide and the death of Foiglman, and how the two are linked.
Four years before, Arbel had received a book of poems in Yiddish from Foiglman, an obscure poet living in Paris. Although Arbel is only modestly impressed by them, the flattering note from Foiglman plays to his vanity, a weakness the historian would be loath to admit. When Arbel replies and praises the work, a correspondence starts up between the two. Foiglman responds with a longer, more effusive letter in which he mentions that he is a survivor of the Petliura pogroms, the massacres that accompanied the Ukrainian civil war of 1918 — a tragedy remembered today mainly by historians. Coincidentally, Petliura has become Arbel’s latest area of interest.
Having responded to Foiglman, Arbel now finds it virtually impossible to shake him; Foiglman clings to him like a dybbuk, eventually selling his apartment in Paris and moving to Israel. It is a move that ultimately will kill the poet, who like some sensitive, delicate plant is not meant to be uprooted — or was never meant to be rooted. At the same time, Arbel is drawn to the poet’s warmth, as well as to Yiddish, its ghetto sound, that rap, that hoot/howl/curse-from-grave. The historian goes so far as to find and underwrite a translator and publisher for Foiglman’s poetry, because he finds that there is a kind of voice that achieved its full “spiritual quality only when speaking Yiddish.”
The deeper Arbel is drawn into this strange and decaying orbit of Foiglman and his fellow Yiddishists, the greater grows the gulf between him and his wife, Nora. The two are a mismatched couple: he is the historian steeped in the dead past; she is the biologist engaged in the living moment; he, the bookish, brooding intellectual; she, the lithe sensualist; he, the product of Zionism, drawn by the dream, she, the child of assimilated refugees from Germany, fleeing the nightmare.
When Nora finally meets Foiglman, she is repelled by him. This feeling, Megged implies, is a reflection of the conflicts simmering within her, related to her childhood and family. Even though Nora has grown up in Israel, her connection to the land is as tenuous as Foiglman’s: The mere fact that she insisted on being called Nora, rather than adopt the Hebraicized “Nurit,” speaks to the wish to remain apart and maintain her identity in opposition — a source of both strength and suffering. And while she comes to despise Arbel for the nostalgia he feels for the Yiddish poet (and the culture of which Foiglman is emblematic), she recognizes that it is that same nostalgia, not love, that binds her to Arbel. Her death, like that of Foiglman, has an inevitability about it; ultimately neither can exist in the landscape.
“Foiglman” is a work focused on language — specifically the duel between languages, and in this respect is reminiscent of A.B. Yehoshua’s “The Liberated Bride.” Here, the struggle is between Yiddish and Hebrew, whereas in “The Liberated Bride,” it is between Hebrew and Arabic. The two novels feature historians as their protagonists, and both are concerned with the issues of translatability. There are other coincidences, too — I emphasize the notion of coincidence, since “Foiglman” was written some 15 years before Yehoshua’s recent novel and is set in the early 1980s, in the aftermath of the Lebanon War. And yet one of the curiosities is that it feels utterly contemporary, as if Megged were writing against the backdrop of the incursion into Jenin rather than Lebanon, the standoff in Bethlehem, not Beirut. The fact that “Foiglman” feels so au courant lends support to an idea that preoccupies Arbel throughout the book: the recurring nature of Jewish history.
“A poet’s homeland is his language,” laments Foiglman toward the end of this brief, complex book. But this is too pat. A poet has no homeland: Language is but a small, wooden boat carrying one across the water. Yiddish was shattered beneath the perfect storm of Hitler, Nazism and hatred of the Jews — not by the resurgence of Hebrew, though that rebirth was accompanied by all the contradictory love and hatred of two siblings vying for their parents’ love. The poignancy of “Foiglman” lies in its portrait of a castaway hanging onto the bow of that shattered vessel by the skin of his teeth, and the remorse it evokes in us, the onlookers, as we peer helplessly from the safety of shore.
Robert Rosenberg, a short story writer, is at work on a novel about survivors of the Holocaust and their children.