Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Mendele Mocher Sforim - Benjamin III, Don Quixote, and the limits of satire

Don Quixote is a satire on romances. Don Quixote has his brain addled by tales of knights and heroes, but discovers that the world has changed, or was never really like that in the first place. Common sense reigns, so don't tilt at windmills.

Actually, I have never read that book. In the Don Quixote I read, Quixote may be crazy, but much of the rest of the world is completely insane. Quixote, to his benefit, travels the country, makes a new friend, and genuinely lives in the world he has imagined. I am exaggerating certain aspects of the novel to make this point, but before dismissing Our Lord Don Quixote, I ask two questions: have you read Part II, and do you want to side with the priest and the barber as they throw books out the window?

I mention this because Mendele Mocher Sforim's Yiddish Quixote has the same mixed purpose. It's a satire on the sterile ignorance that results from the religious education of his fellow Jews. But it also in some ways celebrates the foolish Benjamin and his sidekick Senderel. They're incurable ignoramuses, but they also do something original and perhaps even noble.*

In other words, Benjamin may be wrong to blindly believe the stories he absorbs, and is mistreated in various ways while he wanders from town to town. But he's happy in the innocent world he has created, and anyway, life in the real world, in Jewish Russia, is not so hot:

"The town's newly appointed Chief of Police ruled it with an iron hand: he had snatched the skullcaps off several Jews, cut an earlock from another, locked up several townsmen overnight for not having their passports with them; while from still another he had confiscated a goat merely because the animal had eaten all the straw from a neighbor's newly thatched roof." (Ch. 1, p. 19)

I mentioned yesterday that Benjamin III is unfinished. Soon after it was published in 1878, Abramovitsh / Mendele Mocher Sforim stopped writing for eight years, partly for personal and financial reasons, and partly because of worsening conditions in the Jewish Pale. After the 1881 assassination of the reformist Czar Alexander II, under whom Abramovitsh had begun his career as a writer, things grew even worse - pogroms and harsher restrictions on Jewish life. The great Jewish emigration began, mostly to America and Palestine. Abramovitsh himself eventually ended up in Switzerland.

When he returned to writing, he was no longer interested in satirizing or improving the character of his own people. They had enough problems. So he never returned to Benjamin, which is too bad.

* The wives in the story may have a different view of this. There's a separate stratum of the story, suggesting that although the men may be able to wander about with their heads in the clouds, if the women did the same, everyone would starve.


  1. This has nothing to do with Yiddish literature, but I just wanted to reprazent some love for Michael Malone, who re-thought Don Quixote in his fine book "Handling Sin." Once you get back to the 20th Century, I will insist that you read it. I just love it. There are those (okay, my agent and one review I read somewhere) who say Malone is the modern Dickens (which I suppose lots of people get tagged with, but in this case I actually agree). The part where Raleigh Hayes and his morbidly obese neighbor Mingo set off for New Orleans in his daughter's falling-apart, ancient compact car (license plate: KISSYPU) is right up there with the descriptions of the Chancery Court in Dickens, in my (admittedly not very valuable) opinion.

  2. No, this is interesting. Keep spreading the Michael Malone gospel.

  3. I think I read the same Don Quixote you did. Benjamin sounds marvelous. And isn't it usually the way that the women have to stay at home and take the practical side of things in order to keep everyone fed and clothed. Not fair really. :)

  4. The role of women is an omnipresent theme in this literature. That's what Tevye the Dairyman is largely about, for example. That's been a surprise to me.