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Some Reflections on Olga Tokarczuk's The Books of Jacob

Updated: May 28, 2023

by Haim Dov Beliak



Early on, I acquired The Books of Jacob in its Hebrew version. It was published before the English translation in an excellent translation by Miriam Bornstein. Strangely it was easier for me to read the Hebrew over the English even though Hebrew is a later acquired language for me. The book seemed more native in Hebrew. First, it read in the “correct” direction … right to left. Second, it accorded me another level of “midrashic play” that is readily available to Hebrew Bible reader. The Hebrew translation made this book not only about a character named Jacob but also about the biblical Ya’acov. Tokarczuk is likely as aware of this Biblical and Midrashic connection as was Jacob Frank himself. I make this claim based on the one putatively direct source by Frank, the book Zbior Slow Panskirch (ZBS) or, The Book/Collection of the Words of the Lord. The work purports to summarize Frank’s teachings at the end of his life.

Ya’acov of the bible who presents himself to his starving brother and overturns nature to become the first born by employing a bowl of lentils; would deceive people who are blind to various matters with smooth face and turban, not mind discovering that he slept with a different sister – in the morning; could employ profound name changes by sending in seconds to negotiate these matters, and build/pimp allegiances through daughter (Dina) in an amped up version basic biblical stories. These are all biblical themes that could appear in a Faulkner novel. But it is clear from ZBS that “other” biblical themes are receiving hyper-readings such as the sharing of matriarch Sarah with Pharaoh (Genesis 12) and Abimelech (Genesis 23).


Many of the daily evocative elements of Jewish life are absent from Torkarczuk’s book. Only a rare mention of tallitot (prayr shawl), tefillin (two exceptions), challah, and Elijah. The absence of the dailyness of Jewish life and its symbols are missing even if in anachronistic portrayal because they do not exist in the Poland of the author’s day. Most are absent from Frank’s account, ZBS. This is not a dismissal of the many colorful voices – Polish elites, Yente, Nahman’s authorial ruminations are all excellent. But I do not recall someone in the novel asking if we need to jettison the cholent in our new status as “neophytes.” Instead, diligent researcher Tokarczak has incorporated the latest discussion of Yiddish narratives of women as the primary education of Yenta. The hostility against the parvenu mixed with traditional theological tropes of hostility to Jews feels practiced in the mouths of even the neophytes benefactors such as Katazyna Kassakowska and quite naturally, Bishop Kajetan Soltyk. (Shmuel Feiner’s The Jewish Eighteen Century: A Eurpean Biography 1700-1800).


II


The Supplication to Archbishop Lubienski 508 esp. 506

The Seventh Point of the Disputation p. 450


Reading about the “seventh charge” of the contra-Talmudists – the use of Christian blood -- at Easter/Passover time is not an intellectual exercise. A review of the libelous ritual’s history in Western European shows its persistence. This element of folklore begins with Hugh of Lincoln (1135-1140) and is fully documented in Magda Teter’s, Blood Libel 2020.


I was initiated into the fearful accusation, as a 14 year old November 1963 when President Kennedy was assassinated. It is part of my Polish heritage, imported by my Polish mother’s primal fears as the accompanying motif of national tragedy, blame the Jews. In Phoenix, Arizona my brothers and I stayed home from school on Good Friday. But, Olga Tokarczuk’s Frankists Jews are anti-Talmudist Jews accusing Talmudic Jews. The gravity of the accusation, the public debate much of it too technical for people to follow results in the decision not to decide until October 28, 1965


The apparent willingness of willingness of the Talmudic Jews to push other Jews out of the faith by turning to the Catholic authorities invites some of the most creative constructions of the middle third of the novel. The fear that the Jews would be accused of distorting or defaming Christianity is one of the theories alluded to in the historical record and debated in the novel. But there is not debate it is gripping narrative, it is not necessary to read looking for the historical seams. It is Tokarczuk’s skill in introducing the latest historical theories modulated through one voice or another that veils the enormous amount of learning and research woven in the master tapestry.


Often a character in this case, Pinchas, the father of Gitla and the demoted secretary to the rabbis who presents us with the historical case for caution and restraint in dealing with deviance in the community. Pinchas is eloquent in his ability to second guess the rabbis. He is one of them but now sidelined. It is Pinchas too, who doubles as a stand-in for Shakespeare’s Shylock. His concern is his daughter above all else. No ducats for this rabbinic paragon. Pinchas partners with physician Elisha who is Gitla’s rescuer. The self-effacing physician provides through his knowledge the another traditional method of dealing with deviance/heresy in the community as well as a proposal for abating the plague while getting along with Talmudist, anti-Talmudists, and Catholic authorities, both city and church appointed.


Gitla’s voicing the concerns of women for birth control as a result of their physical debilitation through numerous and unsustainable pregnancies is both ancient and modern. Not only a modern concern in Wisconsin but at home in Poland and worthy of capturing the “eternal” voice of women. Another, opportunity for Tokarczak’s crtics in Poland to hold her in suspicsion.


Tokarczuk’s masterful employment of the multivoiced strategy at the lead up to the accusation and the trial and the trial itself is a dramatic challenge to every reader but especially the Polish reading world. At one and the same time, the on-going cultural critique of the Catholic Church in contemporary Poland is carried on through the historical seconds of the parties to the Talmudist and anti-Talmudist. The culminating rueful reflection of Father Mikulski (page 415), at the baptism of Jacob Frank and his nearest followers and relatives, who will seek titles and social status. One hears the voice of the reaction to the rapid rise economically if Jews in neighboring regions of what we call Italy, Germany, and Austria.


III

Some topics that I would like to discuss


a. What was life like in the short-lived republic of Iwanie?

b. Antinomian and nomian behavior

c. Hassidism – Sabbatism and their close affinity


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