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.