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The Books of Jacob: Notes (and New Sources!) for the Daunted Reader

Updated: May 29, 2023

Sunday, March 5, 2023

pp. 965-643

Sunday, April 16, 2023

pp. 642-327

Sunday, May 28, 2023, pp. 323-1

All dates: 3:00-4:30 Pacific Time

Discussion Facilitator: Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak*

More about The Books of Jacob

Welcome to our second meeting to discuss The Books of Jacob on April 16!

Last month, in our first meeting, we grappled with foundational questions raised by this book. Our efforts went mainly to clarifying the history and philosophical underpinnings of the Sabbatean and Frankist movements emerging in the mid-to late 18th century. The epicenter of these anti-rabbinical, anti-Talmudist movements maps onto present-day western and southern Ukraine, Moldava, Romania, Bulgaria and Turkey.

We noted that author Olga Tokarczuk's richly textured tapestry of the people inhabiting the southern borderlands of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth implicitly (and certainly deliberately) challenges the right-wing revisionist fantasies of today's Polish Christian nationalism. The diversity and syncretisms she portrays of Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim beliefs and practices are evidence of a long-standing robust cosmopolitanism, held in check by the strong arm and long reach of Catholic ecclesiastic authority.

A signal triumph of The Books of Jacob is Tokarczuk's ability as a writer to do justice to the prolific scholarship and controversies concerning Jacob Frank, while developing the nuanced characters, dramatic conflicts, and richly detailed scenes and sequences that we expect of great historical novels. I'm thinking here of Tolstoy's War and Peace and of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall trilogy as apt comparisons.

Polish writer and public intellectual Olga Tokarczuk and translator Jennifer Croft were both credited in the 2018 Nobel Prize citation for this thousand-page epic. Jennifer Croft's essay (see below) provides valuable insight into the essential and thorough going contribution of the translator. Our discussion facilitator for this book, Haim Beliak, plans to briefly report on differences he noted in reading the English and Hebrew versions on the novel.

In preparing for the discussion, we look forward now to responses to the book as a novel, a story, and a literary achievement. I am also adding an essay about the book by Elliot Wolfson a nd interview with Olga Tokarczuk that should inspire discussion and debate, if you are so inclined. Warm thanks to Michael Nutkiewicz and Ilana Maymind for sending copies.

Here, if you missed it, begins the essay posted last month:

Like most of us Shmoozers, I was very eager to start reading this novel. But once I began, it took me several passes--both in print and listening on Audible--to finally get my bearings. After acquainting and reacquainting myself with the first few sections of the first "book" (there are seven books), I still couldn't say:

Who were the key characters? When would the story actually begin? Why couldn't I get my bearings? Where the heck was page one? Was my perplexity intentional on the part of the author? Was this why Tokarczuk titled this first of her novel's seven books, 'The Book of Fog?'

If you are somewhat daunted, as I was, hang in there. First, this is not a casual read. Make time, sit down and take it in. Once you are 'in,' you can put it on the table next to your bed stand and read bits at a time. Now that I have finished the first third of the book (pages 965-643), I offer below some reflections of "a wondering Jew" (title of a book by one of my heroes, the philosopher Morris Raphael Cohen) who comes to this task by way of my profession, anthropology.

This background leads me to the related, but not entirely synonymous terms, millennialism and messianism. I will discuss the former as a wide framework for considering the activities of Jacob Frank and his followers. And I will hand off the question to our facilitator, Rabbi Haim Dov Beliak, to discuss the origins and permutations of messianism in Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) and the subsequent history of Jewish thought and Jewish communities.

Let's start with The Books of Jacob's maddening pagination, which reviewers explain

as the author's nod to Hebrew textualism. Reading from left to right or "back" to "front" confronts the reader by reversing Western (European) expectations and customs. Keep in mind the messianic and millennial message reported by Jesus's followers Luke and Matthew: "The first shall be last." The Books of Jacob should be read less as the biography of a single character or protagonist, the apostate and false messiah, Jacob Frank. It is far more an immersive, imaginative foray into the world of the most significant millennial movement in the history of the Jewish people. This begins with the author plunging you into the text "backwards," a disorienting and defamiliarizing practice.

My background as an anthropologist, including studies of California indigenous resistance to American domination, is what leads me to frame the events concerning Jacob Frank that Tokarczuk describes in terms of millennialism. Certain tribes of central California, whose history I wrote about with legal scholar Carole Goldberg in the book Defying the Odds: The Tule River Tribe's Struggle for Sovereignty in Three Centuries (Yale University Press), were participants in the Ghost Dance, a late 19th century millennial movement that I'll offer by way of an introduction to millennial thinking.

The Ghost Dance originated in Nevada around 1870 with the Paiute prophet Tavibo and was reintroduced in the late 1880s by the charismatic Paiute holy man or prophet, Wovoka. The rationale for the U.S. Army's massacre (pogrom!) of the Lakota at Wounded Knee was none other than to suppress the Ghost Dance. Its central practice was a repurposing of the tribes' traditional round dance. Wovoka's teachings included elements of Christianity. His followers referred to him as their messiah.

Millennialism is the product of collective suffering among an oppressed, colonized group. It breeds a radical desire and accompanying mythos or belief system to justify overthrowing the established order. Millennialism is a social phenomenon not restricted to the West. Not is it even exclusive to the sphere of religious beliefs and practices--i.e. theology and/or beliefs in supernatural phenomena. On this last point, the Encyclopedia Britannica explains that although initially religious, millennial movements in the West began to acquire a secular and not exclusively religious character in the 15th century:

"From the Renaissance onward European culture developed an ever-more secular strain of millennialism. In a sense, the longer God tarried, the more humans took over his job of bringing about the perfect kingdom. Utopian and scientific traditions and radical democratic movements such as the French Revolution, radical socialism, and Marxism, as well as Nazism and, in a modified form, Zionism, can all be seen as secular millennial movements...."

Part of what anthropologists find so interesting about indigenous millennial movements such as the Ghost Dance and the Cargo Cults of the South Pacific (both produced by American colonization and exploitation) are not only the beliefs they embody. Equally important are the embodied practices through which followers channel their collective desire to reverse the status quo. The Ghost Dance's promise according to songs and teachings was to bring deceased Native people back to life, repopulate the diminished buffalo herds, provide protection from bullets by wearing prescribed garments ("Ghost Shirts"), and induce a natural disaster that would destroy the American conquerers. Defamiliarization of conventional practices and usages were key.

We find this to be the case also in the millennial movement that crystalized around the obscure, ordained rabbi Shabbatai Tzvi, born in 1626 to a merchant family in the port city of Smyrna (today Izmir, in Turkey). Shabbatai Tzvi proclaimed himself to be the Jews' long awaited Messiah. The Sabbatean movement took hold mainly in parts of what is now Ukraine, Romania, Moldava, Bulgaria, and in certain cities in the Ottoman Empire. Although religious tolerance in the 17th century was generally greater under Islamic rule of the Sultan than in Catholic Poland, Shabbatai Tzvi was accused of sedition. Offered the choice by Mehmed IV's vizier of converting to Islam or being put to death, Shabbatai Tzvi donned the turban and converted. Paradoxically, Shabbatai Tzvi's followers took this perverse act as evidence that he was indeed the true messiah. They remained faithful, while acknowledging that the messiah's work of turning the world upside down and inside out was not yet finished.

Olga Tokarczuk's novel, The Books of Jacob, begins in 1752, in the town of Rohatyn, near Lviv. There, the Jewish population lives precariously and mainly in poverty under the dominion of Polish Catholic landlords and church authorities. Speaking their own languages, Yiddish and Hebrew, they live among and trade with their non-Jewish neighbors. But they are heavily taxed, restricted in how they can earn a living, prohibited from owning land, subject to property seizure and expulsion, and, as falsely accused of the blood libel and made to pay penalties of extortion, torture, and death.

The Sabbateans in Rohatyn keep a low profile and watch closely for signs of the messiah's next incarnation. He comes in the person of Jakub Lejbowicz, a commonplace but strangely charismatic individual, born in 1726. Traveling back and forth between Ukraine and Turkey, he becomes known as Jacob Frank. His outrageous behaviors and theological turn in defense of the Christian trinity are among the signs that convince his Sabbatean followers that he is the true successor to Shabbatai Tzvi. All this is chronicled by his devoted follower and prophet, Nathan of Gaza. (Postscript: This should be Nachman of Busk. Scroll down for comment by Rodger Kamenetz.)

As a novelist, Tokarczuk first focalizes the Sabbatean situation in Ukraine through the personage of the shopkeeper Elisha Shorr. Slowly, author Tokarczuk pulls back the curtain on the hidden but rampant Sabbatean rebellion taking place against rabbinic Judaism. In this, Shorr, a distant relative of Jacob Frank, is a leading figure. The reader becomes gradually aware of the Sabbateans' heresies, their calculated violations of Jewish law and custom, and their profane and prohibited sexual liberties. Shmoozers will remember encountering this upside-down world of holy licentiousness portrayed in I. B. Singer's first novel, published in 1933, Satan in Goray.

Rabbi Haim sent me a few very brief comments for the discussion on March 5. Among them, he notes the enigmatic phrase "God's exhaustion," on page 871, and an historical reference to the gnostic sect, Bogomilism. . . . . I will leave you for now with these clues to ponder. As for me, I am wondering:

--What is the origin of messianism in Judaism?

--Why does reference to the Messiah appear so late in Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible), not until Kings?

--What does messianism have to do with the Hebrew view of God

in Genesis and of the goodness and completeness of Creation?

--What later influences account for the perverse view that wide-

scale sin will bring the End of Days and redemption?

--What is the relationship of such views to that of tikkun olam

(Heb. "repair of the world of the world by just deeds")?

--What is the relationship of messianism to fundamentalist

Christian eschatology and relationships to Jews and the State

of Israel today?

Please bring your own reflections and questions on March 5. And we invite you to join the discussion now! Scroll down to post your comments below!

We look forward to seeing you!

--Gelya Frank, February 26; Rev. April 14, 2023

About Haim Dov Beliak

Haim Dov Beliak is a rabbi, scholar, and social justice activist. Reading The Books of Jacob with Rabbi Beliak will be a uniquely rich experience, drawing on his career of 35 years as a university and congregational rabbi, and his extensive experience in post-Soviet Poland.

In 2008, Haim Dov visited Poland as guest rabbi at Beit Warsawa Synagogue, the country's first Reform congregation since the Holocaust. In subsequent trips and untiring efforts in the United States, Haim took the helm as Executive Director of Beit Warsawa's parent organizations Beit Polska and of Friends of Jewish Renewal in Poland.

"This work" to support the reemergence of Progressive Judaism in Poland "is personal," Haim writes: "My family — and over 80 percent of all Jews — are descended from the Polish lands. . . . As a child of survivors and as an adult after rabbinical school, I studied Holocaust era rescue efforts. I imagined that the work of rescuing Jews was connected to lost opportunities in the past. . . ."

Among its ongoing projects, Friends of Jewish Renewal in Poland currently provides child care, food, clothing and mental health services through the Janusz Korczak Childcare Centers serving Ukrainian families living in Poland as a consequence of the war in Ukraine. You can make a donation in honor of Rabbi Haim Dov's teaching and to support direct aid to Ukrainian mothers and children:


Jennifer Croft

"The Order of Things: Jennifer Croft on Translating Olga Tokarczuk. What It Took to Render The Books of Jacob Into English." Literary Hub, February 1, 2022.

Elliot R. Wolfson

The Apocalyptic Secret of Judaism and Olga Tokarczuk’s “The Books of Jacob," Marginalia, March 31, 2023.

Download PDF • 158KB

Olga Tokarczuk

The Art of Fiction, No. 258. Interviewed by Marta Figlerowicz, The Paris Review, Issue 243, Spring 2023.

Paris Review Olga T.
Download PDF • 1.89MB

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. His outrageous behaviors and theological turn in defense of the Christian trinity are among the signs that convince his Sabbatean followers that he is the true successor to Shabbatai Tzvi. All this is chronicled by his devoted follower and prophet, Nathan of Gaza. — Probably just a slip but the chronicler is Nachman of Busk in a series of excerpts titled Scraps. I listened to the audiobook over a period of six months. I felt immersed in a strange new world. There are many difficulties including the fact that all the characters change their names after conversion. But I didn’t care. The work is of immense force


Thanks, Rodger, for your comment and for the correction about Nachman of Busk. I was amazed to learn that so many of the characters, including Nathan of Gaza and Nachman of Busk were real historical characters. This also goes, much to my surprise for the priest Benedykt Chmielowiski, the author of the encyclopedic New Athens, and Elżbieta Drużbacka, the Polish Baroque poet, at the opening of the book. The reviewer David Biale in The Jewish Review of Books takes issue with Tokarczuk's inclusion of these characters and considers them to be irrelevant to the story, but I am dazzled. I have the feeling that Jacob's grandmother Yente is the only wholly fabricated character, and she is fabulous as…

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