Jewish Identity Kept Alive by Storytelling


By David G. Roskies

Harvard University Press

419 pp., $37.50


By Abraham Joshua Heschel

Jewish Lights Publishing

109 pp., $12.95


By Abraham Joshua Heschel

Jewish Lights Publishing

336 pp., $18.95

In the chronicles of the ancient kings of Israel, it is written that workmen restoring the Temple one day discovered a lost volume of the scriptures.

The scribes brought the scroll to King Josiah. ''And it came to pass, when the king had heard the words of the book of the Law, that he rent his clothes.'' The king cried out: ''Great is the wrath of the Lord that is kindled against us, because our fathers have not hearkened unto the words of this book, to do according to all that which is written concerning us.'' (II Kings, 22: 11, 13).

David Roskies, professor of Jewish literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, cites this story at the beginning of his survey of Yiddish storytelling, arguing that modern Jews are ''the People of the Lost Book.''

Indeed, although the Jews of Germany, Poland, and the Ukraine no longer exist as a living culture, their world continues in a tradition of fables and humorous tales.

Generations of Jewish artists used Yiddish, the universal language of European Jewry, to record folk tales and legends and to create new myths. Through these written tales, the vanished world of the European Jews is preserved. Professor Roskies's account, A Bridge of Longing: The Lost Art of Yiddish Storytelling, begins with Reb Nahman of Bratslav (1772-1810). One day, in the summer of 1806, the Rabbi announced, ''The time has come for me to begin telling stories.''

The worsening social and economic status of Jews in the ''Pale of Settlement,'' the area of Russia where the Jews were allowed to live, combined with the internal squabbles and controversies among the feuding rabbis, made it impossible to speak openly. Only through parables could the truth be revealed.

From this simple beginning emerged a remarkable tradition, extending into our century. Written in a richly idiomatic language, these stories were accessible in every country, from the Pale to Palestine.

Roskies accompanies many of his translated excerpts with a generous selection of irresistible quotes, transliterated for the reader. A character in one of I.M. Dik's tales is described as ''a sly bird, strong and hearty, a hard drinker, a first-class boor, and not much of a Jew to boot.'' It is easy to see how these tales, read aloud in laughter from the local paper in Warsaw, London, or New York, created a shared folklore for the dispossessed.

From this wondrous, imaginative response to the sorrows of persecution and exile, one is led naturally to consider the magical world of Hasidism. Born in the 18th century, in the part of Russia that was once Poland, this spiritual movement was a response to the miserable lives of the oppressed Jews of the Pale.

As Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972) wrote: ''Never before in Jewish history was the sense of the power of evil so haunting and keen as in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Eastern Europe.... This state of mind led both to rapture and to sadness: the Jews felt the infinite beauty of heaven, the holy mysteries of piety, and also the danger and gloom of this world. Then came Rabbi Israel Baal Shem [who] banished melancholy from the soul and uncovered the ineffable delight of being a Jew.''

The Jewish Lights Press of Woodstock, Vermont has republished two of Heschel's works as part of their series of books ''that attract, engage, educate, and spiritually inspire.''

The Earth is the Lord's: The Inner World of the Jew in Eastern Europe, originally published in 1949, is an extended meditation on the lost world of the Jews of Eastern Europe. Written only a few years after the end of the war, this is not a lament for the lost millions but rather an exultation. As Heschel writes, ''A world has vanished. All that remains is a sanctuary hidden in the realm of spirit.''

Heschel was a brilliant scholar as well as a tzadik, or righteous man. His last work, A Passion for Truth (1972) is a remarkable and audacious tour de force. His final statement on Hasidism, it is a comparison of the Danish existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard with Reb Menahem Mendl of Kotz, known to Hasidics as der Kotzker. Heschel is quite aware of the vast differences between these two truth seekers. Kierkegaard, despite his brief life (1813-1855), published a shelf full of philosophical tome s; the Kotzker burned all his writings before he died. One lived in the light of elegant society, one in the obscurity of the Pale. And yet, there are parallels that Heschel teases out in fascinating detail.

In a series of short, aphoristic chapters, Heschel explores what it means to be a religious radical, for whom there can be no compromise. Typically, this exploration comes in the form of , parables about der Kotzker intermingled with quotes from Kierke- gaard's extensive writings. The astonishing result is that one begins to see that these two teachers did share a common idealism.

Heschel demonstrates that both would agree, in Kierkegaard's terms, that man must live in ''fear and trembling'' to achieve ''purity of the heart.''

It is through such stories that the lost word is preserved, not for it's own sake, as some nostalgic past time, but as a living force. We must remember the lost books, Heschel and Roskies would maintain, for our own necessity if not for those who lived and died for them.

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