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Updated: Apr 13, 2021

Please note the date change! More time to read and discuss this 700-page book! Scroll to bottom to download a copy of this essay.

New Date: Saturday, May 1, 2021, 5:30-7:30 pm Pacific

At last! Der Nister! Or should we say, "Once again?!"

We last met to discuss Der Nister on a springtime evening at the home of Rabbi Haim and Lynn Beliak, on April 12, 2019, to be exact. You can correct me, but I think it was only just the third gathering of the yet-unnamed Yiddish Schmoozers.

A full year before the current pandemic, there was nothing unusual about the pleasure of a Friday night shabbos meal among friends and newly met friends-of-friends. Eager to discuss the stories of Pinkhes Kahanovitsh, born in 1884 in Berdychev, Ukraine ,we squeezed onto the blue velvet couches in the Rabbi's living room. Some perched on matching chairs brought in from the dining room. Leaning into the circle, we shared our insights and perplexities into this writer's, Der Nister's, stories.

Would it be going too far to say, in relation to that time and place, that we have been in exile?

Der Nister, Before and After "The Seven Beggars"

Over the past two years, we have been preparing ourselves for this re-encounter. And, in fact, Der Nister has been a recurring character in the Yiddish Schmoozers conversation, beginning with the first novel that we read together, The World to Come, by contemporary Yiddish scholar and author Dara Horn, right through to our last reading, "The Seven Beggars," in Nahman of Bratslav: The Tales.

This is not at all a random association. As Yiddish scholar and translator Dr. Miri Koral noted at our last meeting, the wonder stories composed in spoken Yiddish by Rabbi Nahman (1772-1810) and subsequently published by his disciples in Yiddish and Hebrew, are considered the starting point of modern Yiddish literature. A hybrid genre, somewhere between Slavic folktales and Biblical exegesis, these tales told by Nahman to his Hasidim defy rational expectations about the world and its meanings.

In "The Seven Beggars," for example, we were met with an upside-down and inside-out world of stories nested within stories, where the wise are proven fools, children wandering hungry in the forest are feed by beggars, and those beggars who appear most deformed and disabled turn out to be adroit masters of occult knowledge and power. One is blind, another deaf, one stutters, the next has a twisted neck, one has a hunchback, the next has no hands and the last has no feet.

Each specific sensory or bodily deficiency corresponds to a special attribute that the beggars urge the lost little girl and boy to emulate. When the children's marriage is later arranged, the seven beggars reappear, one each day of the seven-day celebration, to regale the guests with a fantastical tale about the gift he is about to bestow. By this time, the children have become members of the beggars' community, the beggars themselves arranged for the wedding, and, in one of the many paradoxical inversions typical of "The Seven Beggars" tale, the joyous wedding takes place in a pit covered with rubbish underground.

The qualities of defamiliarization and disjunction that pervade Nahman's tales point towards his inspiration in the Kabbalah, or mystical teachings, of Rabbi Isaac Luria (1534-1572). The Lurianic Kabbalah, in turn, rests on the book known as the Zohar ("splendor," "radiance"), a commentary on the Torah supposedly discovered--but, more likely, actually written--by a medieval Spanish rabbi, Moses de Leon, three centuries earlier. The core of Lurianic Kabbalah is concerned with the spiritual reconstitution of the broken pieces of the original Creation. This is the origin of the notion of "tikkun olam" (repair of the world).

Yet, as Rabbi Haim Beliak mentioned in our last session the contemporary idea of "tikkun" urges us to repair the world as we know it. But, Haim pointed out, in keeping with Luria's teachings, Rabbi Nahman completely rejected the world as we know it. In explaining Lurianism, a respected scholar of medieval Jewish mysticism calls attention to Luria's view rejecting this world as irredeemable by ordinary means. Not only does Lurianism reject the world, but the historical process itself, as Professor Lawrence Fine writes:

"The project of human life is to separate the holy from the material world, and thus divest that world of all existence. All existence will return to its original spiritual condition, a state synonymous with the messianic age. Lurianism is thus, again, like the gnostic myths of an earlier time, a complete rejection of the world as we know it, and of the historical process."

(“Tikkun: A Lurianic Motif in Contemporary Jewish Thought,"

This intellectual lineage from Luria to Nahman, explaining the world's brokenness and urging us to practice our peculiarly asymptotic Jewish spiritual aspiration, is found in Der Nister's writings. His is not a scholarly version focused on intertextual references to Torah and Talmud, but an original storyteller's version. Der Nister gives us a vernacular telling in his own time and place, such as Nahman himself offered those who would listen.

Reading Der Nister: Ethnography and the Realist Novel

Modern anthropology introduced prolonged periods of immersive observation and the recording of first-person interviews to the toolkit of the social sciences. Its precursors included the new journalism and the rise of the realist novel of the mid-19th century. Now, we can almost back-read Der Nister's Yiddish novel, Di Mishpokhe Mashber, as an ethnographic resource.

What can we learn about mid-19th century Jewish life in the once-Polish, now Russian-occupied town of 'N?' Der Nister is said to have used his home town of Berdichev, located in western Ukraine, in Kiev guberniya, as the setting for his novel (see map below). Der Nister describes this bustling town as a thriving hub of proto-capitalist activity for the region.

(Above) The town of Berdichev, the model for the town of 'N' where The Family Mashber is set.

The town of 'N' is replete with artisans, tradesmen, shopkeepers and venders. It has its share of rabbis, synagogues and prayer houses, of rich and poor who frequent them, of innkeepers, apostates, beggars, destitute wives who must support their husbands and children on scraps and a low-life couple that makes a business of taking in pregnant servants, only to further exploit them. 'N's' most important business, however, is the lending of money by early banking houses--literally, families with in-laws and employees--that supply credit on a large scale to wealthy borrowers, especially the disenfranchised and profligate Polish nobles.

Der Nister treats everything that can be seen in 'N' with a leisurely, lingering gaze that is as dispassionate as it is exact. His eye ranges across the town and its outskirts, stopping now in the center of town to observe the business practices of tradesmen, how they size up customers' ability to pay, what to charge, and how much courtesy and credit to dispense. Next he flies us over the sectors of the town including the most pitifully poor neighborhoods until we are with him at the furthest edge of town at the old cemetery. There, we begin to sense that this novel about a prosperous Jewish family will end with a death, accompanied by spiritual loss or destruction.

This birds-eye view of 'N' and its environs, my friend anthropologist Doris Francis noted to me, is similar to the methodology of the Chicago School of urban sociology, starting with the center of the town and moving outward in concentric circles. This is the first layer of Der Nister's description, to create a map where we will drop in at various points to see what is happening in relation to our main characters, Moshe Mashber, the provisional head of the family business, and his older brother, Luzi Mashber, a spiritual seeker and follower of the deceased master, R. Nahman of Bratslav.

These drop-ins allow the reader to slowly make connections among disparate people, activities and events in 'N' by way of what anthropologist Clifford Geertz, borrowing from the philosopher Gilbert Ryle, characterizes as "thick description." Thick descriptions are ones that make it possible to understand cultures from the inside, as the webs of meaning in which actors are suspended. Not least, we gain insights into both the everyday and the religious beliefs and practices among the different classes and sectors of a majority Jewish town in a predominantly Hasidic region in the Pale of Settlement. More to the point, we come to understand the lived experience and felt reality of specific actors in their unique situations, situations that in which the writer has deftly interwoven the cultural, social and acutely personal dimensions.

(Above) The Pale of Settlement was a consequence of the three partitions of Poland by Russia, Austria and Prussia in 1772, 1793 and 1795. Russia, which had expelled and banned Jews since the 16th century, now acquired territories on its western borders where large numbers of Jews were living. Russia set a boundary or "pale" around the annexed territories to confine, settle, restrict and control its Jewish subjects. The 1897 census reported 4,899,300 Jews living in the Pale (94% of Russia's Jews and nearly 12% the local population). Many towns, such as Berdichev had majority Jewish populations. The Russian Revolution of 1917 and restoration of the Polish nation and territory after World War I marked the end of the Pale as an administrative entity.

Against this background, the first couple of hundred pages of The Family Mashber prepares us to understand a chance incident that will bring down the banking system of 'N,' the symbolic assassination of the Tsar. This seditious act consists of nothing more than some Polish nobles taking a potshot at a portrait of the Tsar while carousing in a Jewish tavern. When the Russian authorities arrest the Polish lords, the town's Jewish leaders work behind the scenes to pay off the nobles' fines in order to maintain good relations and increase the likelihood that the freed nobles will be in a position to repay their prior debts. Moshe Mashber has to borrow funds to contribute his share and maintain his reputation. This overextension of credit will bring him down.

The word "mashber" in Hebrew means crisis. Digging deeper linguistically, the letters שׁ - ב - ר (shin-bet-resh) form the root "shevar." The associated meanings include to break apart, shatter, splinter or fracture. Other words from the same root express the idea of a division, a turning point, an opening and, in the same word used to mean a birthing stool (mashber), the possibility of rebirth and renewal. The book's central theme of shattering brings us back to Luria and Nahman. Tikkun (repair) cannot begin until the hold of the debased secular world has been broken.

The crisis that pries apart the brothers appears to evolve naturalistically. It begins with a drought that depresses the agricultural-based economy. Consequently, one of the Polish nobles in Moshe Mashber's debt is prevented from repaying a massive loan. When the shooting incident takes place, Moshe, as a leading member of the community who must raise funds to protect their debtors, is bankrupted. Is this a crisis created by God or an accident of nature? Either way, the crisis in the Mashber family represented by the brothers Moshe and Luzi shatters the family along the fault line of materiality versus spirituality.

Der Nister and Yiddish Literature in the Time of Stalin

There are limits to reading The Family Mashber as ethnography or realist novel. What is 'real' in this book is . . . well, layered.

At first, the descriptions appear to have been a product of direct observation, given that Der Nister was born into a Korshever Hasidic family in Berdichev (the model for the town of 'N') and that his brother became a Bratslaver. But the world that The Family Mashber describes is not his, but his parents' or possibly grandparents' generation. As in the realist novel, generally, the most significant events of The Family Mashber are animated not by direct reportage but, instead, represent a painstaking, imaginative reconstruction.

Also, in Der Nister's work--unlike, say, Israel Joshua Singer's realist novel, The Brothers Ashkenazi, which we discussed last year (Go to: Past Schmoozes, August 2020)--there is the eponymous element of "the hidden." On the surface, Singer's book, like Der Nister's, concerns two brothers of contrasting types in a Hasidic family that will face financial and familial ruin. But unlike the brothers in The Family Mashber, both Max and Jacob Ashkenazi cultivate greed and animosity. Their lives are equally an affront to their deceased father's pious wishes and instructions. We watch the brothers Ashkenazi suffer, but we don't suffer with them, I would suggest, because they behave as one-dimensional monsters. They serve to appall us and keep us turning pages.

Singer seems most preoccupied with the sweep of history in plain sight. Capitalism, socialism, communist and the fading remnants of Polish feudalism and Jewish communitarianism. In contrast, Der Nister delivers the early modern political situation of the Jews in Ukraine in broader strokes, while his characters are deep and complex. Unlike Max Ashkenazi, Moshe Mashber's thoughts and concerns are those of a plausible, basically moral individual, not an overblown personification of evil. Faced with bankruptcy, Moshe accepts history and custom as reasonable justifications for serving himself and his family--"protecting them"--at the expense of his creditors. Everyone does it. It pains him when Luzi Mashber, Moshe's older brother and spiritual conscience, a follower of the deceased Rabbi Nahman (who lived in Bratslav from 1802 until the year of his death in 1810), stands irrevocably opposed.

Der Nister's ability to probe his characters' complex interiority is a key dimension of The Family Mashber. He takes us beyond historical realism into the deeper realms of psychology and philosophy. And yet, much about the book still remains difficult to understand, obscure and hidden. The character of Sruli Gol, the unpleasant misanthrope who paradoxically does good deeds, is especially challenging. Who or what does he represent? Then there is Alter, the youngest brother who suddenly awakens to life after years of somnolence, just at the moment when the material foundation of the Mashber household is falling apart. And, finally, Luzi himself appears preoccupied by his spiritual discipline--a Lurianic rejection of the world and cultivation of simple joy as taught by R. Nachman. To the extent that we can't access his innermost thoughts, it seems likely that Luzi altogether avoids worry and reasoning with prayer.

Der Nister: The Hidden

The Family Mashber represents a radical departure in genre from Der Nister's earlier symbolist writing. Two years ago, when we read stories by Der Nister from his collection Fun mayne giter (From My Estates, 1929), we were not yet familiar with with R. Nahman's tales, with their convoluted stories within stories and internal system of obscure meanings. But, now, we can readily see R. Nahman's influence in stories such as "A Tale of Kings," "At the Border," "In the Wine Cellar," and even in the more evidently secular and personal story, "Under a Fence: A Review" (See attached stories and Guide to the Reader).

In the first encounter with Der Nister, we were very grateful to Mikail Krutikov (Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures and Preston R. Tisch Professor of Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan) for responding to Haim's email requesting guidance in approaching Der Nister's work. Dr. Krutikov kindly got us started and even sent PDFs of the early stories. Professor Krutikov's extensive critical reading of Der Nister is a crucial guide to perceive what else is hidden in The Family Mashber. This concerns Der Nister's choice of the realist novel as a genre for a Yiddish writer in Soviet Russia of the 1930s. Here we turn to Krutikov's comment that critics have been perplexed by The Family Mashber's “overtly realistic plot, setting, and narration . . . as these seem to demonstrate a radically different literary voice." To this point, Krutikov asks (in his essay "'Turning My Soul Inside Out': Text and Context of The Family Mashber") how Der Nister was able to publish a novel during the worst period in Soviet history for Jews and Jewish artists working in Yiddish.

Krutikov argues that by setting the novel in the past, Der Nister incorporated the dominant Marxist view of history as articulated by the leading historian of the 1920s, Mikhail Pokrovsky. Read from the perspective of materialist socio-economic determinism, the story of the main character, Moshe Mashber, presents, in Krutikov's words, "a case study of the transition from feudal to capitalist economy" and the "subsequent demise of these socio-economic categories" (p 121). The choice to write an historical novel, Krutikov argues, demonstrates Der Nister's ability to adjust to the general guidelines of Socialist Realist literature without "openly violating [them]" (p. 127).

A brief sketch of Soviet policies towards Jews might be helpful. After the 1917 revolution, Lenin lent support to the secularization of Jewish communal life. The Moscow State Jewish Theatre was founded in 1919 as an experimental venue for new Jewish culture. In densely Jewish Minsk, Yiddish was adopted as an official language in the 1920s. (We read about the secularization and modernization of Jewish Minsk in Moshe Kulbak's serialized comic novel, The Zelmenyaners: A Family Saga, which was serialized in the Yiddish press between 1929 and 1935.) Street signs in Minsk were written in three languages: Yiddish, Belorussian and Russian.

The establishment of a territory for the secular Yiddish-speaking Jewish nationality was authorized by Stalin in 1928. The project had been conceived in the early 1920s, and was intended to be a self-sustaining agricultural colony. Stalin located it, instead, in the remote, barely habitable, and contested region of Birobidzhan, where the project was doomed to fail. By the mid-1930s, the Jewish situation deteriorated much further. First, the Soviet economy failed and millions of poor people starved to death. This was followed by "The Terror," in which masses of people were accused of treason, deprived of justice and executed. Jews were prominent targets. Stalin's arch-rival Leon Trotsky was made into the symbol of the traitorous Jew, reinforcing more general antisemitic attitudes that Jews in general were different from other Soviet citizens, dangerous and not to be trusted.

So, in the final analysis, what does The Family Mashber tell us? Der Nister echoes Nahman's understanding of a spiritually broken world, a world of inversions and paradox. In bringing the story of the Mashber family's misfortune to Yiddish readers caught between the Third Reich and Stalin, did Der Nister have a message?

I am looking forward to our conversation. For me, having finished only the first half of the book at the time of this writing, my final analysis will have to wait. But for now, we must read under the surface of this overtly realist novel, as Naya Lekht's review of Estraik, Hoge and Krutikov's edited volume, Uncovering the Hidden: The Works and Life of Der Nister, appears to suggest. Lekht quotes Der Nister's own reflections in a letter sent in 1940 to fellow Soviet Yiddish novelist Dovid Bergelson:

"Everything that the people have experienced in a certain time, the most joyful as well as the most painful, should be recorded and embodied in types and half-types which are created by the artist’s writing. This writing is the people’s witness, which is unearthed from the people’s deepest innermost treasures, polished and clarified with the help of all means that the people’s artist and plenipotentiary representative is endowed with. "

Der Nister, a groyse dank.

--Gelya Frank

April 14, 2021

Gelya Frank's Essay on Der Nister
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At the Border
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Der Nister - Under a Fence A Revue
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