There isn’t a such factor as studying for its personal sake. Once we learn tales and poetry, whether or not we intend it or not, we’re looking for ourselves in these works, for solutions to our personal most urgent questions. That doesn’t imply we’re solipsistic readers. It means we’re readers, individuals who consider in a shared human expertise. Literature is communication, a profound message gifted to us from throughout area and time, one whose worth lies in its resonance proper now, to us.
Which is why, after the current bloodbath of Jews in a Pittsburgh synagogue, I’ve been rereading an epic Yiddish poem that has haunted me since I first encountered it greater than 20 years in the past. It’s about surviving a bloodbath, however it’s actually about the disfiguring and inexpressible worry that comes afterward. It was written by an American who was thought-about the best Yiddish poet of the 20th century, and it’s titled “The Wolf.”
The poet H. Leyvik (pen identify of Leyvik Halpern) had the type of life that may make for maudlin fiction. Born in 1888 in at this time’s Belarus, Leyvik grew up in a two-room, dirt-floored hut together with his mom, his eight siblings and his abusive father. If that weren’t enjoyable sufficient, he quickly decamped for the lifetime of a yeshiva scholar, which concerned an existence corresponding to homelessness—sleeping on synagogue benches and “consuming days,” the Yiddish time period for a board system the place group members took turns internet hosting college students for meals. The success of this technique is probably greatest illustrated by the leg wounds Leyvik sustained because of hunger throughout his yeshiva years.
H. Leyvik, circa 1940. (Photograph: Wikipedia)
Leyvik turned a revolutionary activist earlier than he was out of his teenagers. In 1906, he was arrested and sentenced to 4 years in jail, adopted by exile in Siberia for all times. Leyvik spent these 4 years in shackles, typically in solitary confinement, a interval throughout which he wrote his first epic poem, “Messiah in Chains.” (He was not a very humble man.) Siberia was hardly a aid, as he was pressured to journey there on foot whereas nonetheless in chains.
The journey took 4 months. As soon as arrived, he made contact with some revolutionary associates who have been capable of help him in escaping. He journeyed by horse-drawn sleigh again throughout Russia, and eventually boarded a ship to New York.
Renouncing Communism after Stalin’s pact with Hitler, Leyvik turned an outspoken and deeply revered determine in American Jewish life, and continued writing till a couple of years earlier than his dying in 1962. His poetry was grandiose and superb, evoking historic Jewish legends and making use of them to his personal dramatic life and the lives of his Jewish readers.
Once I first learn “The Wolf,” I stored turning again to the copyright date, astounded that its story of a sole survivor amid heaps of ashes wasn’t concerning the Holocaust. It’s not. Written in 1920, the poem (or “A Chronicle,” as its subtitle proclaims) makes it clear that the Holocaust was merely an exponential enlargement of earlier massacres. This episode of mass homicide was the Petliura pogroms, which swept by way of Ukraine in 1919 in the course of the Russian Civil Conflict and concerned the slaughter of a “minimal credible estimate” of 50,000 Jews, in response to the YIVO Encyclopedia.
“The Wolf”—obtainable in Benjamin and Barbara Harshav’s anthology American Yiddish Poetry, whose translation I quote right here—opens with a solitary determine, recognized solely as “the Rov” (rabbi), awakening from unconsciousness on a mound of ashes to find that he’s the one individual left alive in his destroyed city. He wanders the smoldering panorama looking for different survivors, then for perpetrators, then for corpses, after which even for physique elements to bury. However the victors have left, all human stays have been torched, and, because the poem retains repeating in a haunting refrain, “the Rov didn’t know what to do.”
The Rov lastly removes his footwear and begins to recite Hebrew laments historically sung to commemorate the Temple’s destruction, a central ritual of communal Jewish mourning, however “he had forgotten the phrases of the laments.” He then makes an attempt to recite the every day prayers, however “he had forgotten the phrases of the prayers.” As night time falls, he flees barefoot into the “forty-mile forest” surrounding the city.
That’s the place issues get fascinating. Caught in a snarl of barbed wire within the woods, the Rov someway loses his garments and falls onto all fours, and his transformation begins. Bare and struggling, his physique sprouts hair, his fingers fuse and develop claws, his neck and shoulders merge, his tooth develop sharp, his lips droop, his eyes glitter, and he howls out his ache. When this Jewish werewolf emerges from the forest, issues get even worse.
Again within the destroyed city, Jews expelled from different areas transfer in and rebuild. Dedicating their repaired synagogue, they’re celebrating their renewed life on this desolate place once they hear “an extended drawn-out howl of a beast” within the distance: “At first, indignant and roaring, as in a second of devouring prey, / Then skinny and determined, because the wailing / Of a canine baring his coronary heart to the moon, / And eventually, quieter and quieter and whining, / Just like the cry of a human being.”
The nighttime howling terrifies them, however extra horrifying is the looks of a stranger the subsequent morning in a rabbinical coat and fur hat. At first they hurry to greet him, hoping he’ll exchange their very own murdered Rov. However quickly they see that he’s bare-chested and bloody beneath his coat, his ft naked and his face sunken. He enters the synagogue and takes the Rov’s seat beside the japanese wall. After which he speaks, railing at them for rebuilding the ruins. Quickly he falls at their ft, begging them to kill him. They crowd round him in sympathy. That’s when he bites somebody’s hand. The congregants flee.
Every night time, the howling continues, till all of the sudden, on the eve of Yom Kippur, it ceases, with out anybody connecting the sound to the Rov. The congregation rejoices, relieved. However on the very finish of Yom Kippur, on the shofar’s last blast, the “wolf” enters the synagogue and assaults the prayer chief. At that, one congregant takes a picket lectern and smashes his cranium. The complete congregation then pummels him till he lies lifeless on the ground—“And the congregation burst into nice weeping / For on the ground, tortured, in a river of blood / Lay not a wolf however a Jew in a rabbinical fur hat.”
Once I first encountered this poem years in the past, I used to be riveted by the Rov, whom I understood as an individual disfigured by trauma. The poem, I assumed, was a name for empathy for survivors, and a warning about how “harm individuals harm individuals”—although the latter concept on this context felt false to me even then, an affordable After Faculty Particular concept about “prejudice” that was unfaithful to the survivors I knew, and in addition unfaithful to the poem itself (the place solely the Rov winds up lifeless).
However after the Pittsburgh bloodbath, I learn this poem in another way—and, I think, in a means a lot nearer to how American readers in 1920 might have learn it. Insert right here all of the insultingly apparent caveats about how a lone gunman murdering 11 individuals by no means resembles 50,000 lifeless. These caveats don’t matter for this poem, as a result of this poem isn’t about historical past. It’s about worry.
The poem, as I now perceive it, isn’t actually concerning the Rov, whose perspective hardly figures within the work. It’s concerning the different Jews, whose shared feelings are intimately described—and all too acquainted. These Jews rejoice of their survival, however they’re additionally haunted by the horrific proven fact that different Jews have been murdered whereas they’ve randomly been spared—the defining reality of post-Holocaust American Jewish id. The wolf’s presence of their midst is an embodiment of that haunting, the deep consciousness of complete vulnerability that lurks simply beneath the floor of their every day lives.
Leyvik tells us as a lot. Because the poem’s Jews take heed to the wolf’s midnight howling, “they might not hear a factor anymore / Besides the beating of their very own hearts.” Later, because the howling grows louder and nearer, “in every flip of the voice was heard / A hidden problem, an attraction, and above all, a pleading; / Which chilled their hearts greater than something, / For it reminded them of the cry of a human being.” This disfigured beast crying for mercy is inseparable from who they’re. It’s a part of them, considered one of them, the buried a part of hundreds of years of ache. They need that wolf to go away, however they can’t kill it with out killing themselves.
After the Pittsburgh bloodbath, I wrote a bit for The New York Occasions about how totally different this assault was from others in Jewish historical past—how first responders hurried to assist, how help poured in from neighbors and strangers, how non-Jewish People stepped as much as announce that this isn’t what our nation is. Many readers thanked me for giving them hope. However what surprised me was what number of Jewish readers wrote to me privately, doubting that I used to be proper. Deep of their bones the place purpose can’t attain, they heard the wolf on the door.
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