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Beauty for Ashes
The Yiddish short story "If Not Higher" by I.L. Peretz was published in Warsaw in 1900, decades before the holocaust. Fifty years later, the short supposedly true story of "The Kozshenitser Rebe" was published in Yiddish by Orenshtayn in a book of memorials to Jewish leaders. Both stories tell of the behavior of a specific (assumably Hassidic) rebe on an important Jewish holiday. However, apart from this basic similarity, these two stories are radically different. This may be partly a function of having different authors and of coming from different historical areas. However, if the differences between style and content with these two works is indicative not of the personal styles of the authors, then one is left with another option: namely that the striking differences between these two works is a result of the holocaust and the slaughter of the Jewry of Eastern European. If these two works are representative of the short story genre before and after the holocaust, then it appears that this traumatic event may have drastically changed the way that Eastern European Jews view themselves and their culture.
Both stories have a strong and obvious moral to them -- they are essentially modern fables of a sort. However, one of the striking differences between these two pieces is the way in which this moral functions. One is a story with religious and mystical morals, while the other is a story with explicitly political and social morals. As might be expected, it is the later story which is political in nature. This shift away from religious devotion as the focus of the work seems to indicate a degeneration of faith in favor of a strong sense of the importance of social activism.
Peretz's piece has essentially a mystical and religious social moral. In this work, the story focuses on the great faith of the rabbi which is manifested in good deeds. The social conflict between Jewish sects, as personified by the way the Litvak doubted and scrutinized the rabbi (not to mention the way he was treated by the narrator), is one which is resolved within the story precisely at the point where faith is highest. The moral is twofold, first that man is closest to God ("if not higher") when he is caring for his fellow men as a service to God, and secondly that the division between Jews can be healed by the existence of a strong and selfless faith.
Orenshtayn's work, on the other hand, has the sentiment of a political illustration. In it the religion of the Rebe is illustrated not so much in good deeds as in his role as a patriarch and a center of social existence. His actual faith is never touched upon. What is pointedly brought up is the division among the Jews. The Rebe is asked why he does not take action to protect his people, and he replies that he does not like other neighboring Rebes. Unlike the rabbi of Peretz's story, he does not have a sort of universal sense of Jewishness and humility in service. This is his downfall, for in the final section he is old and broken and dying in a Jewish ghetto. The political moral is that those who refuse to band together for defense in the beginning will merely be forced together in the end --after it is too late to fight victoriously. Activism is a huge part of the morality of this story.
This difference in purpose and in the moral is accompanied by a significant difference in tone. The first story has a very light and playful tone that addresses its readers as privileged members of its own community, assuming they will know precisely what it means to be a Litvak, for instance. The story is conversational, and feels like part of a long oral tradition that has come to take itself at least a little bit humorously. While the subject matter itself -- a holy rabbi who goes out to bring wood to the ill and dying of his community under an assumed name, as part of his service to God-- is very serious, the story itself has a tricksterish air to it. On the contrary, the latter story has a very serious and almost journalistic tone. Even when it is describing a scene of hilarity and joy, such as the Purim festival, the author sounds so grave that one is tempted to think there is something rather wrong with the scene he is describing (maybe that he disapproves of the gluttony of the Hasids). This tone is consistently detached but grim rather he is describing dancing Jews at Purim or starving Jews in the ghetto. If Peretz's story strikes one as an oral tradition passed down over bedtime stories, Orenshtayn's strikes one as a very gloomy newspaper article, if not a eulogy or obituary.
Strangely, though Peretz's story is less gloomy feeling, it still shows Jewish life before the holocaust as being poverty-ridden and somewhat gritty. There's a sense of realness about it, and one gets the impression that he is not sanitizing the culture, or changing it for the sake of the story. The world which Peretz's characters inhabit is difficult, in some ways. An elderly woman is freezing without firewood while her son is about: this is certainly tragic. There are divisions among the Jews in town, with the Latvik representing one of those factions. Yet at the same time that there is this real sense of joy and humor to the narrative. It is a tough world, but it is a world in which God moves and gives direction to his people.
Orenshtayn's narrative, however, opens on a scene in which the Jews are acting very wildly, for any orthodox people. Of course this is because the story takes place during Purim -- however, the very fact that such a story would seem so appropriate shows the degree the post-holocaust culture was ready to deal with its themes. In it, the Hasids are eating and drinking together in celebration, and even dancing and self-flagellating. In many ways, one sees the Jews in this story being portrayed as decadent. One might look at them and see to some minor degree a parallel of the corrupt Germanic world which has spawned the strict fascism and anti-Semitism of the Nazis. The Jewish characters are not seen as being poor or existing in a gritty or difficult world until after they have been forced into the ghetto, even though it seems certain that Jewish poverty existed well before that.
One of the greatest differences between the two, however, is the direction to which the works seem to be looking for meaning. In the earlier story, it is as if the writer and his readers are scouring daily life in order to discover elements of meaning and insight into the nature of the divine and of religious truth. The actions of the rabbi in life are meant to help the reader understand how to live his or her own life. The meaning of penitence and of becoming closer to God is in this work bound up with the work of charity and faith-building. The rabbi is said to ascend up to be next to God because he is doing the work of God. In short, his physical daily life is meant to provide insight both in how one ought to live and also into the meaning of the divine.
In the second work, however, the daily life of the Jewish people is being scoured for a different kind of meaning: it is being perused for the meaning and the cause of the holocaust. It is as if the actions of this one respected Rebe and his disciples might somehow be able to explain why the holocaust had to happen. So the main Jewish character refuses to give up the comforts of life or abandon his sectarianism and the scene in which he makes this refusal is directly linked in narrative and through the continuance of specific characters (e.g. -- the director of the choir) to the coming of the ghettos and of Hitler's power over the Jewish people. The story seems to imply, though this would not have been historically true, that if the Polish jews had protested against the kosher slaughter laws this might have had some power to prevent the crimes of the Nazis. More realistically, it also implies the Jews would have been better able to defend themselves if as a race they had all banned together to fight for their freedoms, instead of depending on a righteous few.
These differences are all relatively plain to the awake reader, but what is perhaps less clear is precisely what the nature of the change was that swept over Jewish literature. Certainly the massacre of six million members of one's race and religion would leave a bit of a psychic scar, and the trauma of that could be expected to change the face of…[continue]
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