Monday, February 9, 2009

Several books without which, like a craftsman without his tools, he would have been helpless - The Travels and Adventures of Benjamin III

My "Currently Reading" pile has spun out of control. It's all the fault of my Yiddish literature project. There are so many good books; they are not novels, mostly, which encourages me to dip into book after book. A Peretz fable here, a Sholem Aleichem monolgoue there, a few shtetl postcards from Yiddishland. So I end up with bookmarks in six or seven books, with a dozen more piled here and there. It's all been enjoyable.

Even the Yiddish novels are short, at least at the time I'm studying. Big bricks, like Chaim Grade's The Yeshiva (1967-68), seem to be a 20th century phenomenon. I've seen this pattern before, where new literatures from low-literacy populations results in short books. Big books come later.

S. Y. Abramovitsh's / Mendele Mocher Sforim's The Travels and Adventures of Benjamin III (1878), for example, fills 116 pages.* It's a little marvel, the best thing I've read by him so far. Benjamin is a shtetl Jew who decides to explore the world, like Alexander the Great, and like two previous (actual) Jewish explorers named Benjamin. He is an educated man, but only in Jewish religious texts, with no knowledge of geography beyond his own town. He's not alone:

"Once, by pure chance, someone brought a date into Tuneyadevka. How the townfolk flocked to gape at it! On opening the Pentateuch someone discovered that dates were referred to in the Holy Writ! Think of it! Dates grew in the Land of Israel, actually!" (Ch. 1, p. 19)

Benjamin reads about the Ten Lost Tribes and the legendary Lost Jews and the Great Viper, and sets off to find them (to avoid the last one, actually). On his first trip he makes it less than two miles from home before he gets lost in the woods. For the next attempt, he recruits a companion, Senderel the Housewife, the lowest of the low, as you can tell from his nickname. They sneak off from their wives:

"Next morning, long before the cowherds had driven their cattle to pasture, our Benjamin, hugging a bundle, was standing impatiently near the windwill. That bundle contained all the items he deemed essential for such a journey, to wit: prayer shawl and phylacteries, the prayer book Path of Life, the book A Statute for Israel, the Psalms and several books without which, like a craftsman deprived of his tools, he would have been helpless." (Ch. 4, p. 46)

Any reader packing books for his vacation will sympathize, or perhaps wince. Even Don Quixote did not take a pile of books with him on his travels. Yes, this is Don Quixote - the man addled by books, the abortive first expedition, the recruitment of Sancho Panza. Some of the later adventures parallel Cervantes closely, while others are original. Most are pretty funny, but the jokes are more at the expense of Benjamin's, and others', ignorance than his delusions. Abramovitsh's satirical purpose is quite different than Cervantes'. Maybe I'll postpone that for tomorrow.

The Travels and Adventures of Benjamin III has one serious defect that some readers may see as a fatal flaw. It is unfinished; it merely stops. Presumably more adventures were in the offing, but Abramovitsh never wrote them. I have a guess as to why - that's for tomorrow, too.

* I read the 1949 translation by Moshe Spiegel. There's a more recent version in a volume titled Tales of Mendele the Book Peddler, which also includes Fishke the Lame.


  1. I've never encountered a Yiddish literature project, but the idea is kind of genius. I've been meaning to read some books a friend recommended and really want to read the inspiration for "Fiddler on the Roof" (have you read it? Is it good?). Of course, every time I get near a computer or get to the library I forget all about it. Now you've caught me where I'm vulnerable. Thank you for that.

  2. You're a step ahead of me!. Tomorrow, Tevye. Oh yes, it's good.