The Mendele Review: Yiddish Literature and Language
              (A Companion to MENDELE)
Contents of Vol. 08.003 [Sequential No. 142]
15 February 2004
                          Felsenbaum Issue Two

1) About this issue of TMR  (Joseph Sherman)
2) A Critical Study of_ Mikhoel Felsenbaum's _Shabesdike shvebelekh_
   (Astrid Starck)

Date:  15 February 2004
From: Joseph Sherman
Subject:  About this issue of TMR

This issue of TMR is devoted to an essay analysing Mikhoel Felsenbaum's
novel _Shabesdike shvebelekh_, the opening chapters of which were
published in English translation in Felsenbaum Issue One [TMR 8.002 (15
February 2004].  The Yiddish text of these chapters is available at:
YIDDISH.  See also the interview in romanized Yiddish given by the
author, Mikhoel Felsenbaum, to Dr.  Astrid Starck in TMR 8.002.  A
Yiddish-letter text is provided by link.

Date:  15 Febrary 2004
From: Astrid Starck
Subject:  A Critical Study of_ Mikhoel Felsenbaum's _Shabesdike

Shabesdike shvebelekh: A postmodernist novel by Mikhoel Felsenbaum[1]

Astrid Starck-Adler, Universite de Haute Alsace, F-Mulhouse)


When one has compiled a list of books published in Yiddish after the
Holocaust, one is struck by two apparently contradictory factors:
firstly, by the number of relatively important texts published, and
secondly, by continuous assertions that Yiddish is either going to
disappear or has already disappeared.

If Nazi genocide and Soviet extermination have dealt a near fatal blow
to the continuation of Yiddish, it is fair to say that apart from, and
parallel with, those two historical tragedyes, Yiddish continues to be
the target of a notorious [2] and familiar campaign to discredit this
language which, in the actual state of things, makes its survival
difficult, quite apart from its general neglect by publishing houses,
theatres, bookstores and newspapers, by the journals and review-organs
that serve critical and scientific research, and by the dearth of new
translations from Yiddish, projects that often receive the smallest
share of financial support. The difficulties encountered by
contemporary Yiddish writers in trying to get their work published, or
in trying to find a theatre where their plays might be produced, are
practically insurmountable. Consequently, we ought to give vigorous
praise to contemporary Yiddish writers, those "neo-yidishistn"[3] who,
across a variety of genres, contribute to a literature that can rank
with the best produced internationally.  Mikhoel Felsenbaum belongs to
this generation of young Yiddish writers who were born after the
Holocaust and who grew up against a Jewish background where Yiddish
had never ceased to be part of daily life[4].

Felsenbaum was born in Vassilkoe, in the Ukraine in 1951, a year before
Stalin destroyed Soviet Yiddish literature.  A well-known contemporary
Yiddish poet, short-story writer and playwright,[5] Felsenbaum has been
awarded one of the most prestigious of Yiddish prizes, the Dovid
Hofshteyn Prize.  He studied theatre management, history of art,
literature and pedagogics in Leningrad (1968-1975), and became the
founder and leader of the Yiddish Cultural Association in Belz,
Moldavia, where he worked in the State Dramatic Theatre and in the State
Pedagogical Institute between 1976 and 1988.  In 1991 he immigrated to
Israel where he now lives in Ramla.  From 1993 to 1998 he was the
executive director of the Yiddish Cultural Centre in Tel Aviv.
Felsenbaum's numerous literary works[6] -- poems, short stories and
plays - have appeared either in journals like _Sovetish heymland_, _Di
goldene keyt_ and _Yidishe kultur_, or in book form under the following
titles:  _Es kumt der tog_ (1992), _A libe-regn_ (1994), _Der
nakht-malekh_ (1997)[7], _Un itst ikh bin dayn nign_ (1998).  His play,
_Halt dem zak un shit kartofliyes_, dedicated to Y.L.  Peretz and
published in _Der nakht-malekh_ (Peretz-Farlag, Tel Aviv 1997), was
performed by the Rocktheater in Dresden («Bonzie Schweiger»), where he
was also the play's director.  At this time of writing, Felsenbaum is
currently head of the H. Leyvik Publishing House in Tel Aviv, as well as
the editor of the Yiddish almanac _Naye vegn_ and the literary journal
_Yidish_, formerly entitled _Vortbild_, both published in Tel Aviv.  His
work has been translated into Russian, German and French.  A man of many
talents, Felsenbaum is also a singer, a pianist and an accordion player.
His latest poems, _Yidish-frantzoyzishe lider un tents in Elzas_ (with
drawings by Kanovitch) were published in _Naye vegn_ 10 (2002); Volume
11 (2003) of the same journal will shortly publish _A tants fun an elnt
shifl oyfn taykh_.  Felsenbaum is currently hard at work on a new novel,
entitled _Dem ofitsirs shtivl_ (The Officer's Boots).

Felsenbaum's novel _Shabesdike shvebelekh_ has excited my great interest
and that of my students, with whom I am working on translating this work
into German, since we regard it as of great importance to make known to
the general public works of contemporary Yiddish literature in
translation.  _Shabesdike shvebelekh_ first appeared in the Yiddish
almanac _Naye vegn_, in numbers 7 to 10, and will appear in book form
during the course of 2004; my analysis refers throughout to the proof
pages of the novel which were generously made available to me by the
author. _Shabesdike shvebelekh_ is Felsenbaum's first novel; and although
an intmate connection with Judaism and its religious observances are
very important and are always present throughout his entire oeuvre, in
this novel in particular « traditional » Jewish themes and motifs --
Cabalistic, Hasidic and Messianic -- feature more prominently than
anywhere else in his previous work. At the same time, one perhaps ought
to point out that the manner in which these themes and sub-themes have
been deployed can be regarded as highly « untraditional ».[8]

_Shabesdike shvebelekh_ is a polysemic novel which is set somewhere in
Rumania as well as in Jerusalem.  The narrative moves between ancient
and modern times, the Flood and the Holocaust, this world and the World
to Come, the Jewish and non-Jewish environment, folklore and scholarly
erudition, Hasidic and heretical views, in all of which realistic
representations and miraculous events coexist.  It resembles an
historical epic in which centuries of Jewish life and events are merged.
Benedict, the chief character of the novel, an illegitimate child whose
mother Miriam committed suicide, happens unknowingly to sleep with a
young woman named Katerina who turns out to be his daughter.  The events
that ensue cause him severe mental torment, during which the chief
character confronts fundamental questions about life and death; these
events culminate in an accidental death of his daughter.[9] In a
postmodernist manner, Felsenbaum's plot weaves together different
strands into a single narrative structured with the aid of paraphrase,
collage, citations and quotations, parodies and pastiche from sources as
varied as the Bible, the Talmud, the Midrash, and the Kabbalah.  Ancient
or actual historical events are interwoven with a melange of well-known
tales and legends, texts written by both Jewish and non Jewish authors,
drawn from Yiddish and non-Yiddish writers, to enable the author to
construct a vast fresco of « intertextuality » anchored in his vision of
messianic Judaism and the universal human condition.

On one hand, the reader recognizes the Hasidic world of Rabbi Nakhman
and Peretz or the mystical atmosphere of Der Nister, and on the other
hand one finds echoes of old biblical motifs of slander and incest that
have already been reworked by modernist writers like Friedrich
Durrenmatt[10] and Max Frisch; to such a recuperation we may also add
the « historical » themes found in Milorad Pavic's fiction.[11] Quoting
Rabbi Nakhman Bratzlavers _Sippurei mayses_ (Stories, 1815) [12], the
narrator reflects on the place of the human subject in the world :  -- «
Vu bin ikh in der velt? » (151), « Vu zaynen mir in der velt ? » (154).
In posing such questions, he becomes a human subject oscillating between
mysticism and the absurd, between tragedy and farce, between the serious
and the grotesque, between a past to be assumed, a tradition to be
endorsed, and a future to be reinvented.  This oscillation is
wonderfully dramatised in the situation of the novel's hero himself,
desperately trying to escape death on his raft during the flood and
reach the great red synagogue which is probably going to disappear under
the water.

As a storyteller steeped in the narrative tradition whose variety of
forms he uses in its different aspects and numerous variations and to
which he adds his own experiences,[13] Felsenbaum « [stands] in a long
and illustrious line of Jewish reinventors »,[14] where « every act of
re-creation is essentially subversive ».[15] At the crossroads between
tradition and modernity, postmodernism -- « di alte yente, nor andersh
geshleyert », as it were -- enables the author to combine these varying
traditions in a new and surprising way, which enables the reader, as
Roland Barthes would put it, to enter « the pleasure of the text ».

The novel carries a plot teeming with incidents, one that the narrator
claims took him ten years to write.  I wish to concentrate on some
characteristic aspects that demonstrate the narrative's «intertextuality
», [16] firstly in the space or frame which is connected to the notion
of time, because this frame leads to a kind of geological cut throughout
centuries.  The main events take place in Mikdorf, a shtetl[17] in the «
Zibnberg-tol » in Transylvania which extends across seven hills and
valleys, « vayl Zibnberg iz a goles-opshpiglung fun der heyliker shtot
Yerusholayim » (85).  This recalling of Jerusalem appears a second time
when the narrator tells the story of the Khazars who converted to
Judaism and whose « great white Temple », built on the island of
Kut-Balig, was « a farklenerte kopye funem beys-hamikdesh » (72).  This
resemblance is extended to the inhabitants of both places:  shepherds
and warriors in the Kingdom of the Khazars, shepherds in Mikdorf.  Like
Tyropoin, the cheesemakers' valley of Jerusalem, the «Zibnberg-tol »
produces cheese which is famous all over Europe and is the main industry
of the inhabitants, Jews and non-Jews, bound together through a shared

« Dos iz geven in yene gute tsaytn ven yidish iz geven di hoyptshprakh
nit nor bay yidn, nor oykh bay di hige pastekher, vayl Mikdorfer yidn
zaynen geven di eyntsike brik tsvishn Zibenberg-tol un der arumiker velt
» (20).

This geographical « continuity » is underlined by an important event
drawn from the literature of adventure:  the hidden treasure of the
Temple.[18] The door and the black stone which, thanks to the « kohanim
» (priests), escaped Roman destruction, were brought first to Egypt,
then to Djerba, then to the Khazars, and finally to a cave in Mikdorf
over which the great red synagogue was erected.  Deep underground, a
tunnel built in the rock provides a passage from Mikdorf to the mystical
town of Safed in the Holy Land where, after the coming of the Messiah,
as the reader is told near the tale's conclusion, the treasure will be
brought first until it is carried to its final destination, to the
«eternal Temple » in Jerusalem).  At the same time, particular
historical events are recalled:  the « geyresh » or expulsion from Spain
and, as a consequence, the birth of the kabbalistic movement in
Safed;[19] real and legendary kabbalists who are made to appear and
debate throughout the novel; the Kingdom of the Khazars, which is
presented as a safe place and a "homeland" for the Jews; the importance
of Vienna for assimilated Jews and Jewesses belonging to an elite; the
Franco-Prussian war of 1870 and, as a consequence, the economic
catastrophe it brings to the «Zibnberg-tol ».

On an individual level, the reader learns of the persecution of a
converted Christian, Isaac ben Abraham, whose little daughter perishes
in his house when it is burnt to the ground, and of the sentence of the
rabbinical court that declares Miriam's son a bastard and her consequent
suicide.  The superimposition of both landscapes and the collective or
personal historical events within a period of two thousand years
establishes on one hand a continuity and on the other hand a disruption;
it introduces an antagon ism that affects both plot and narration, and
reveals the way the text functions on a polysemic level.  The frequent
use of repetitions, which recalls the mode of biblical storytelling,
reflects the will to introduce a special time, an eternal time, and to
keep present the memory of the past.  On a different level, it exposes
the absurdity of human life and of deeds that depend upon chance.  For
example, Benedict tries to bury his mother who committed suicide and now
lies at the bottom of the « Fingerfeldz » where her son's « Joyous Cave
»[20] stands.  But he is unable to reach the bottom of the crevasse.
Like Sysiphus rolling his rock, Benedict tries again and again,
especially since his mother's body does not rot.  Time is suspended.[21]

Benedict has visions, always the same visions, in which he sees his
mother brought back to life.  The situation by which he is confronted
always assumes a twofold aspect:  the human -- the threatening presence
of death -- and the divine or miraculous -- the mother's body that
resists decomposition.  In seeking to defy the passage of time, the
novel attempts to transcend these antagonisms, beginning with the most
important, the opposition between the human and the divine, the prosaic
and the mystical, the ephemeral and the eternal, life and death.  In
these cross-currents between the human and the divine, dividing lines
are blurred and a kind of « intertext » is set up between the two, as
illustrated by visual and literary images.  The Archangel Michael, an
aspect of the union between heaven and earth, is presented sitting on
the rooftop of the synagogue like Hillel in the Talmudic legend; he sees
the righteous « dozing », not studying; his « cap of fog » renders him
invisible like Siegfried of the Nibelungen epic; he sketches the
movement of a dance, and the narrator mimes it in choreography:

« [er] hot getantst in di frishe regn-shtromen, -- a shpan oyf rekhts --
a gut-shabes aykh, yidn. a shpan oyf links -- yidn, zayt shtark in ayer
gloybn un hot moyre far gots shtrof. a shpan foroys -- zol di toyre
balaykhtn ayer veg in lebn. a shpan oyf tsurik -- yidn, zayt gezunt un
shtark. » (7)

Benedict is surrounded by his little goats, a device that reminds us of
literary elements to be found in the works of writers like Sholem
Aleykhem, Der Nister, I.B.  Singer, and the paintings of Chagall in his
Russian period.  The narrative use of the goat, especially on the raft,
can be compared to that in Der Nister's short story, « A mayse mit a
nozir un a tsigele », because it functions like a seismograph of the
feelings of human beings.  So does the bird Ziz which has been cast out
of Paradise and under whose wings the Almighty put Miriam:  « Un der
foygl iz geshtanen ibern yungn kerper un hot baveynt tog un nakht di
eydele yidishe neshome » (40).

In an interesting way, Felsenbaum uses an old story, taken over and
reworked by the Kabbalah, which permits him within his novel to focus on
two movements:  the vertical and the horizontal.  While using the myth
of a second flood,[22] the author creates a landscape that goes back to
the origin of the world: from Mikdorf, which floats away on a cloud to
Mount Ararat, one great stream runs into the River Jordan and the whole
landscape from the north to the south becomes simply one huge sea. The
author's choice, connected to his predilection for water,[23] is
humorously explained and illustrates the two levels, the human and the
divine, on which the novel is built:

« Azoy vi yidishe gelernte hobn gezogt az s'ken zayn nokh a mol a mabl,
hob ikh gezogt: 'Farvos nit ? Ot hot ir a mabl, in ekstreme situatsyes,
ven men ken nit arayngeyn, nit aroysgeyn fun der shul vu se zitsn tsvelf
yidn[24] un yidenes un a shabes-goy un tsvishn zey dreyt zikh arum der
malekh Mikhoel'. »[25]

The Archangel Michael, the « divine counterpart » of the author, is in
charge of the « production »:  to protect, by means of a deep ditch, the
great red synagogue and the people inside it, the « empty righteous »
(145), from the coming flood.  Creation was based on separation.  This
fundamental act is also alluded to in the novel's title, _Shabesdike
Shvebelekh_, which refers to the ceremony of Havdalah, the ritual
separation between the Shabbat and the rest of the week, the holy and
the profane.[26] Space is now connected to time:  there is a before and
an after.  From now on, the world appears to be split into two, and both
parts will be maintained until the end, when the flood breaks into the
great red synagogue, which means that the Messiah has already arrived.
Then, in the World to Come, an eternal world, separation in space and
time will disappear:  then the Havdalah will become meaningless, water
will replace fire.  The Archangel Michael, the nearest to the Creator,
has to organize the Messiah's coming in accordance with the Kabbalistic
vision that he will come after a great catastrophe, here in the form of
the flood which is not intended to destroy God's creation, but to
destroy the sinners.  Michael's orchestration of the events is described
humorously.  In a dialogue between him and the Angel Katriel, Michael
says he thinks that this time there is no need for any rehearsal, since
everything is in its rightful place; the three mythological monsters
that are to be eaten by the righteous are ready for their final battle
in which all three will be killed.  Like a stage-manager, the Archangel
Michael controls everything and everybody, so that this time the Messiah
will have no excuse not to come!

Opposed to this optimistic vision, the text contains facts which suggest
a critical attitude towards this event, that show an implicit
questioning and imply a condemnation.  The narrator tells us that on
Shabbat Eve, before God – to whom belong the keys of rain, of birth and
of resurrection [27] -- opened wide the flood-gates, the first « sinner
» to die was Rabbi Fayvl Talisveber, a pious man who taught the Torah to
Benedict, and who fell victim to the savage weather.  But the voice of
Reb Fayvl, like a moral instruction, will be heard after his death.
Through various serious or humorous voices, quotations and dialogues,
the author, through his narrator, gives us his point of view. « Der vos
vet bashteln di tsayt fun meshiekhs kumen vet nit hobn zayn kheylek in
kum endikn lebn »[28].  This teaching was formulated by the great rabbis
of the Middle Ages against the numerous false Messiahs who caused so
many massacres.  The way Felsenbaum deals with one of the most important
beliefs in Judaism reminds us of the treatment of the same theme given
by Isaac Bashevis Singer in _Satan in Goray_.  In his interview,
Felsenbaum explains that what he is criticizing is that narrow-minded
vision which mandates the coming of the Messiah only for one category of
persons, the righteous, who will eat and enjoy themselves, while all the
others will be excluded.

The novel's ending dramatises the fight between time and the World to
Come, which is opposed to the temporal world of here and now. The
strength of the novel lies in the way the author deals with what can be
considered its major theme, time, which is the major problem in human
existence. The description of life resembles a sixteenth-century painting
whose theme is the danse macabre:

“di foygl Ziz, der letster fun di gan-eydn-foyglen.[hot] nisht gevust,
az oyf der velt, in dem oylem-haze-orkester hot di tsayt a gor modner
partitur -- a mol falt ir oys tsu shpiln zeyer a poshete folks-melodye, --
eyn klap in poyk arayn, a poyze, un glaykh nokh dem kumt tsu an 'El mole
rakhamim'. Mit eyn vort, alts iz eynfakh un geoynish prost, -- a klap, a
poyze, un glaykh nokh dem -- a 'mole'. Bekitser, -- eyns, tsvey,
dray.ober der foygl Ziz, vayst oys, hot nisht gekent ot di o zeyer
populere oyf yeder velt folks-melodye" (148)

_Shabesdike shvebelekh_ embraces the numerous expressions of time which
are always a way of transcending its ephemeral character and of death
itself:  cyclical time whose rhythm is marked out by prayer, by Shabbat
and by feast days; time as historical continuity; Messianic time;
mythological time; the time of childhood, of legends and fairytales;
oneiric time; the time of the World to Come, which will be timeless; and
at last the time which assumes an independent character that exists
outside of ordinary time:

"di tsayt iz dokh groys bay zikh, zi fayft zikh oys oyf alts un oyf
alemen" (205).

The Kabbalistic use of the flood and the endless waiting for the Messiah
connected to it allows a twofold deconstruction: at the level of
historical, lived time, and at the level of textuality. In Felsenbaum's
novel, the myth and the story of Abraham related in Genesis are retold,
and burst into several metamorphosed elements spread out all over the
novel and occurring at different times. The shtetl Mikdorf flies away
«now » to Mount Ararat, some centuries ago, God's angel spoke, as he
spoke once to Abraham,[29] to Rabbi Mataniah who brought the holy
treasure to Mikdorf :

« mataniah ben zoyrekh, shtey oyf un gey arop in medines-ashkenaz. Un
geyn zolstu durkh shpanye. dort in berbern-land vartn oyf dir tsvelf
yunge un kreftike yidn mit zeyer gantsn hoyzgezint. un du vest zey firn
keyn mizrekh. un ir vet kumen in land fun berg, un ir vet zikh bazetsn
in zibnberg-tol, vayl zibnberg-tol iz a goles-opshpiglung fun der
heyliker shtot yerusholayim. » (85)

Like Abraham trying to save Sodom from destruction and making a deal
with God about the ten sages, Rabbi Osher, some centuries after Rabbi
Mataniah, tries to save Mikdorf's community which has committed the sin
of slander against Miriam, driving her to death, so that the Messiah
can come; but he also fails.  Here the narrator combines two modes of
storytelling: an implicit mode, recalling the Bible, and an explicit
mode, a Hasidic tale, a pastiche filled with muddle and humour, which is
in fact a good deed performed by Rabbi Osher's grandfather who spoke
with God. It assumes in addition the character of miracle stories, of
Eliahu the prophet disguised as a beggar and the Archangel Michael as a
nobleman, « a goy ». There is a witty discussion between the community
members about the goodness of non-Jews as opposed to Jews:

« me redt, me redt un me shushket zikh, -- hot zikh ongerufn leyzer der
shoykhet, -- vos mir a goy, ver mir a goy. s'iz dokh geven der malekh
mikhoel, farshtelt far a firsht a porets. a malekh zol zayn a goy,
azoyns hob ikh nokh nisht gehert. » (187)

Among the most obvious works or passages used by the author and
«woven» into the novel, as the author puts it in his interview -- « der
suzhet iz gevebt vi a nets »- are Rabbi Osher's visions (25-27) to which
he adds the bird Ziz's « smelling » of the coming of the Messiah (39-40),
and the monologues with God: quite like Job, Benedict questions the
Almighty about the evil in the world, about the world's injustice and
the reason for the death of innocent people (35-36); not only men but
also animals question God:  the Leviathan wants to know why it was
victim of an injustice committed by the Almighty (140-141).

Considerable use of quotations most frequent in Jewish and Yiddish
literature [30] is made throughout the novel:  they are drawn from
different sources and have to be seen in their own context, as well as
in that of the novel. One may cite a few of them at random:

1. from the Mishnah :  « To God belong the keys of rain, of birth and of
resurrection » (Ta'anit 2 a)

2. from the Aggadah, combined with Hasidic tales, with a completely
different moral: a righteous man who used to wear his talit and
tefilin after the prayer of « Hodou » is found guilty and has to come
back to earth to repair his sin; he makes following deal: after
prayers, he would immediately go home and get completely drunk, in
order not to commit any other sin.  This is a way of integrating Noah's
drunkenness into the story of the flood.[31] This celebration of wine,
which appears throughout the novel, can also be connected to Joseph
Roth's miraculous story, « The Ballad of the Holy Drinker »

3. from prayers: « The Almighty will reign for ever « (« Shimenesre »)

4. from the Midrash :  the endfight between the « shor habor » and the
Leviathan, to which the novelist adds the bird Ziz. Benedict , who is
the one quoting the Midrash he was told as a child by Fayvl Talisveber,
points out the difference between the prophecy and the « real » event
(« In der emesn hot ober alts oysgezen andersh », 194).

5. from the Lexicon Corsi: « punkt vi fun vayn vern nit groy di hor,
oykh azoy vet di dertseylung nit shatn. »

6. from « mayn froys toyre »: « der rebe hot gezogt freylekh zayn,
nor nit meshuge zayn » (70).

7.  from the historical letter of Joseph, the King of the Khazars, sent
to Hisdai ibn Shaprut.

8. from a scene with the Rabbi of Miropole from the « Dybbuk », An-ski's
most famous play, which was made into a film:  Isaac ben Abraham tells
Rabbi Osher of the strange events which are happening inside and outside
the great red synagogue, and every time Rabbi Oshers says, « I know.  I
know. I know ».

9. from the author himself who writes under several pseudonyms and whose
quotations appear in italics :

a) « Israel Drerdman » :  he uses mostly the folksong as a genre; the
rewriting of « hulyet, hulyet, kinderlekh » concentrates on its morbid

« est, kinderlekh, trinkt, tayere
freyt zikh, makht a lebn
ober fargest nit
az gekumen zent ir tsu a levaye »

b)  « Velvl Vays », the author of a so-called work « Yidishe Vertn I,
II & III » which reflects the existential and philosophical point of view
of the writer as a man and as a Jew:

« ir zogt -- shvarts, iz zol zayn shvarts. ober ikh hob es gezen andersh.
ikh bet aykh, reb oreman, baruikt zikh, zetst zikh anider oyf a benkl,
trinkt oys a glezl vayn un fargest nit az ir zent a yid. gleybt mir oyfn
vort -- ir hot nit keyn ander breyre. oyb ir vilt vayter zayn a yid, --
fargest in dem. tsu zayn a yid is vert milyonen. a zise tragedye » (5).

The novel deals with former used literary procedures:

1. The narrator leaves his characters for a while; he speaks to the
reader and invents the novel's genealogy (« Kurtse poyze », 151).

2. The description of fights within the Jewish community and in the
synagogue -- here about kosher or unkosher cheese.

3. Motifs used by the « historical novel »: the discovery of an old
letter in a book -- here the Book of Psalms or the search for an old
manuscript containing a life secret in a cellar which resembles a
labyrinth. But the letter is burned by mistake and the manuscript has
no miraculous secret to reveal, only a human one, an aphorism: « Gloyb
di mentshn mer vi zikh aleyn un zay a mentsh » (180).

4. Motifs taken from tales or legends or invented from that genre:  next
to Miriam's grave Benedict finds planks with which he can built a raft.
The animals speak and here, in this novel, they behave, speak and feel
like human beings.

5. Motifs used in theatre, for example the situation comedy:  Herr
Ferenc, the shabes-goy, is a known as a drunkard. Whatever he does or
says is connected to this vice. But since he cannot get to the bottle
of slivovitz that he usually drinks on the Shabbat because the door of
the synagogue is locked, he witnesses the truly tragic events. Nobody
believes him, because everybody functions with their own prejudices.
One could say that Herr Ferenc « sees » the outside because, as a
non-Jew, he does not belong to the inside. This fact of being a
stranger is pointed out in a tragicomic manner in his way of reflecting
on the catastrophe: « Vos bin ikh shuldik ? Ikh bin afile nit keyn
yid !» (17), and in his not understanding for whom he should be
waiting (157).

6. The former patriarch who becomes a Don Juan:  while filling the world
with a great many bastards, all of whom look the same, Benedict becomes
the father of a whole tribe.  One thinks of Moyshe Kulbak's novel
«Zelmenyaner » and Milan Kundera's novel «The Farewell Waltz ».

The novel deals also with modern procedures, of course:

1. Different logics:  the strange events in the synagogue are explained
by the same character, Rabbi Osher, either mystically when he discusses
them with Rabbi Isaac -- they are based on the gift of the second sight
-- or rationally, when he discusses them with Herr Ferenc -- then he
explains them in terms of the presence of electricity because of the
storm.  One thinks here of Kafka's manner of deploying two systems of
logic, one thing and its contrary .

2. The rewriting of old stories in different contexts which give them a
new perspective, mostly a critical one: Benedict, exposed to danger on
his raft, is set in contrast to Noah in his ark and protected from

The use of dialogue and characterization is drawn from the theatre.
This is a deliberate act of choice on the part of the author who takes
pleasure in observing his characters and the relations they establish
among themselves in this extreme situation. He slips, as he says, into
the skin of the various protagonists, men or women, mineral, vegetable
or animal, and attempts to discover the hidden, mysterious and mystical
meaning which is revealed quite naturally to the righteous and the
angels -- and of course to writers who are, in their own way, the
«masters of creation ». Through numerous dialogues and several
monologues the author returns to the oral tradition, to the tradition of
teaching (« undzere khakhomin zogn ») and of storytelling.

3. Felsenbaum creates what is known in literature as «Welttheater»,[32]
and his novel is influenced by the techniques that typify this genre:

« me zet as der teater-tsugang iz a klorer. me zet di tsol dialogn on
komentarn; der iker zaynen dialogn, groyse dialogn: dos iz oykh a
teater-tsugang tsu proze. dos iz di hashpoe fun hemingvey, lange
dialogn mit zeyer kurtser replik. ikh hob zikh gelernt bay im un ikh
hob gefilt as dos iz mayn ineveynikster tsugang, vayl alts vos ikh tu,
afile in dikhtung oykh, hot zeyer a groyse hashpoe fun dramaturgye.»[32]

I have tried to point out the way Felsenbaum, who is a storyteller and a
writer, who works on the level of the spoken word as well as on the
level of the written work, deals with the notion of time in his novel
_Shabesdike shvebelekh_ which strikes by its richness themes, motifs and
characters.  The Kabbalistic background, the alchemical presence of the
four elements, the variety of plots within one frame, the philosophical
and moral dimension, the tradition and its meaning and use, and finally
the absurd and grotesque, all this belong to a novel which could very
well be illustrated through the description of its « hero »:

« in benedikts neshome un gefiln iz geven a mishmash fun farsheydene
minhogim, gleybenishn un ayngleybenishn. a yid un nit keyn yid, a
mamzer un nit keyn mamzer, a khamereyzl, an ibergegebener zun, a
pakhdn un a giber, -- iz er geven a filfarbiker knoyl fu n viderananden.
un efsher davke dos hot im tsugegebn koykhes tsu lebn. » (48).

[1] The novel is dedicated to the Chief Rabbi of Rumania, Moses-David
Rozen, of blessed memory.  The rabbi's name appears on page 152, but as
the author points out in the interview I conducted with him on 17 May
2003, in his fiction he deals with invented stories. The prototype of
the synagogue of Mikdorf is the inside of the Bucharest synagogue,
Templul Choral.

[2] This campaign is not new.  Solomon Birnbaum, amongst other scholars,
pointed it out in the nineteenth century.

[3] In his preface to _Shabesdike Shvebelekh_, which will appear in 2004,
Velvl Tchernin introduces this concept.

[4] Cf.  Fater, Yisakhar:  _Nusakh Ashkenaz in vort un klang_.  H.
Leyvik-farlag.  Tel Aviv 2002.  (On Mikhoel Felzenbaum 92-97).

[5] One of the best Yiddish playwrights and prose writers nowadays.  Cf.
Lev Berinsky, one of the best Yiddish poets nowadays, who won the
Itzik-Manger-Prize :  «Som optsusamen di zhukes» (« Poison to poison
cockroaches » in _Der nakht-malekh_, op. cit. 22 3-227.

[6] A complete bibliography of his work deserves to be compiled.  His
poems and short stories have appeared in the most important literary
Yiddish journals:  _Sovetish heymland_ (Moscow), _Yidishe kultur_ (New
York), _Di pen_ (Oxford), _Di goldene keyt_ (Tel Aviv), _Oyfn shvel_
(Mexico), in the newly created _Toplpunkt_ (Tel Aviv), and in the
Yiddish almanac _Naye vegn_ (Tel Aviv).  His work has appeared also in
Hebrew in _77_ (Tel Aviv), in Russian in _God za godom_ (Moscow), in
German in _Federmenschen_ (Berlin 1996), in _Yidishe textn_ (Solothurn
2001), and in the collection _Vidervuks_ (New York 1986).

[7] This is a collection of short stories and plays.

[8] Cf Lev Berinski, op. cit. p. 225.

[9] Cf Max Frisch's novel, _Homo Faber_ (1957).

[10] Here his play, _The Visit of the Old Lady_, performed for the first
time in 1955 at the Schauspielhaus in Zurich.

[11] Milorad Pavic: _The Dictionary of the Khazars_.

[12] R. Nahman Bratzlaver:  « Sippurei mayses».  Musterverk fun der
yiddisher literature nr. 30.  Aroysgegebn fun Shmuel Rozhansky.
Buenos Aires, 1964.

[13] Cf Walter Benjamin:  "The Storyteller.  Reflections on the Works of
Nicolai Leskov" (1936).  In _Illuminations_, trad.  Harry Zohn, ed.  Susan
Sontag (New York 1968) 83-109.

[14] David G. Roskies : _A Bridge of Longing.  The Lost Art of Yiddish
Storytelling_.  Harvard University Press 1996 (3rd ed.) 5.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Cf Julia Kristeva:  _Semiotik_.  Recherches pour une semanalyse
(Paris 1978) 85:  ".tout texte se construit comme mosaique de citations,
tout texte est absorption et transformation d'un autre texte.  A la
place de la notion de subjectivite s'installe celle d'intertextualite
et le langage poetique se lit, au moins, comme double."(Every text is
constructed as a mosaic of citations, every text is a kind of
assimilation and transformation of another text.  In the place of a
subjectivity of the author is installed that of intertextuality, and
poetic language is read at least as a double).

[17] Mikdorf is a combination word formed of the Rumanian word _mik_,
'small' and _dorf_.  One thinks of Sholem Aleykhem's Kasrilevke,
the stereotype of the shtetl.

[18] It is recounted that in 161 BCE, "les successeurs du roi Antochius
Epiphane, qui avait profan? le Temple et derobe les objets sacres du
culte, les auraient offerts a Antioche".  In :  _Juedisches Lexikon_.
Vol.  IV/2.  Juedischer Verlag bei Atheneum.  Francfort-sur-le-Main
1987. 914 sq.  One thinks also of Steven Spielberg's film _The Raiders
of the Lost Ark_.

[19] This was the practical Kabbalah, trying to find out how to bring
the Messiah immediately.

[20] So it is called, because he brings « his » women » there and is
proud of his sexual ability, « khamer-eyzlshe feyikeytn », which refers
to another stereotype, a sexual one, _The Golden Ass_ of Apuleius.  It is
interesting to note here the juxtaposition of sexuality and death, Eros
and Thanatos.  We will again encounter the same juxtaposition later when
Katerina finds herself lying at the side of Benedict's mother, at the
bottom of the crevasse, when the two will appear to be of the same age.
Here the text itself seem to add the ambiguity that suggests an
incestuous relationship with the mother:  « [Benedict] is geblibn lign
tsvishn di tsvey froyen - katarine fun rekhts un miryams kerper fun ken men oysklaybn tsvisn khoyv un libe ? » (80)

[21] This idea of a suspension is very important for the author, because
it characterises the end of the novel as well.  In the end, the novel
seems simply to be hanging in the air.

[22] The use of ancient myths like the flood, or the dead floating in a
boat on the water as in the legend of Joseph's coffin floating back
home, (5) and retelling a new story is one way of dealing with
postmodernism.  On the flood, which is a widespread theme in literature,
cf Theodor H. Gaster:  _Myth, Legend and Custom in the Old Testament:  A
Comparative Study with Chapters from Sir James Frazer's Folkore in the
Old Testament_ (New York 1969) 82-131; on the flood revisited by the
Kabbalah, cf Yaakov Shapiro:  _Beshviley-geulah_ ("Oyf di vegn fun
geule") (Israel 1947).

[23] This is one of the main theme in his work.  Cf the poem "Regn
boygn", in:  _Vidervuks_ (1986), the collection of poems _A libe-regn_
(1994), A tants fun an elnt shifl oyfn taykh (which will appear in _Naye
vegn_ nr. 11), the short stories "A tsherepashke in a regn" and "Trern",
in _Der nakht-malekh_ (Tel Aviv 1997), etc.  Cf Gaston Bachelard, _L'eau
et les reves:  Essai sur l'imagination de la mati?re ((The Water and
Dreams:  An essay on matter and the imagination) (Paris 1942, reprint
1980).  Bachelard connects water to sadness.  So does Felsenbaum.  Water
is opposed to earth:  an interesting point in the novel is Benedict's
wish not to die in the water, which is hostile to him, but as a shepherd
on the earth amidst his herd.  Ch.15

[24] Amongst the righteous is a proselyte, Isaac ben Abraham, a shepherd
and a learned man.

[25] Interview, op. cit. p. 1.

[26] At the end of the novel, the reader is told what the title means.
It seems contradictory, because it contains two antithetical elements:
on Shabbat, it is forbidden to kindle fire. But after sunset a candle
is lighted for the ceremony of Havdalah. « Shloymele der kleyner »
who is in charge of it, though a real character -- the author met him
in the synagogue of Bucharest -- is much more of a fictional character:
during seventy years this silent, modest man will find his greatness in
lighting the Havdalah candle and in the act of separating the Sabbath
from the days of the working week. The irony of the end is as follows:
if the Messiah comes, Havdalah will disappear.  His matches fall into
the water and burn.

[27] Ta'anit 2a.  On the interpretation of time based on a quotation
from the Talmud see also Sylvie Anne Goldberg, _La clepsydre. Essai sur
la pluralit? des temps dans le juda?sme_ (The Clepsydra.  Essay on the
Plurality of Judaic Time)( Paris 2000). p. 83: « La creation et
l'origine du temps » (The Creation and the Origin of Time).

[28] Gen 18, 16-25.

[29] Cf.  Sholem Aleykhem

[30] One can find him in a former story, "Me darf nit shrayen", in _Naye
vegn_ 3 (1994) 65-93.

[31] Cf Hugo von Hofmannsthal. _Das kleine Welttheater_.

[32] Interview, op. cit.
End of The Mendele Review Vol. 08.003
Editor, Leonard Prager
Associate Editor, Joseph Sherman

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