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Yehuda Elberg: In Memoriam

Alberto Manguel

The works of the late Jewish writer may have appeared deceptively quiet, but within those words lay a profound understanding of space and time.

Sometime in the tenth century, continuing an already long tradition of fleeing persecution, the Jewish population of northern France migrated to the Rhineland, which at the time held a vague reputation for tolerance. In order to communicate with their Germanic hosts, who spoke what we now call Middle High German, the Jews quickly learned the new language and later carried their version of it to other European countries on their everlasting peregrinations. From the very beginning, however, the language of the Rhineland Jews had its own characteristics. It was rich in Hebrew and Aramaic elements, it contained numerous Romance words brought over from France and it was written in the Hebrew alphabet. When, under the name of Y iddish, it finally extended to most Jewish communities in central and Eastern Europe, it also acquired a number of dialectical differences in the West, in the East and in the area known as Mitteleuropa. In spite of these variations, from the mid-thirteenth to the sixteenth century, Yiddish became a fairly uniform literary language from which only a handful of poems, Biblical translations and bureaucratic documents have come down to us—including an Arthurian romance, the Artushof, in which Arthur is a Jewish prince and Merlin a wise rabbi. The Yiddish of today owes much to these early transformations.

Language and its incarnation, the Book, lends Jews a sense of place, a fixed point carried through time, from country to foreign country, from pogrom to pogrom. And of all the languages spoken by the Jews, including Hebrew, it is perhaps Yiddish that best expresses the uncertainty of this life. On October 19, 1921, Franz Kafka wrote in his diary: “Moses fails to enter Canaan not because his life is too short but because it is a human life.” It is this heroic quality of failure that Yiddish (in its wise humour, its skepticism, its sense of ultimate justice) reflects. And the Yiddish writings of Yehuda Elberg, available now for the first time in French translation, preserve that ancient quality in the language of the Jewish resurrection.

There are writers for whom the world is the circumscription of their room, experience and memory lined up as objects on the singular shelf above their bed; for others, the universe is not vast enough, and their subject is both the farthest star and its reflection at their feet. A rarer breed transforms the immediate and private space into the cosmos, so that everything they tell is both firmly centred and yet generously distant. Pascal’s famous definition of God as a circle whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere applies to this breed of people. Dostoevsky, Joyce and Goethe are among them. So too, I believe, is Yehuda Elberg, whose deceptively quiet writing poses colossal questions and whispered hints of an answer.

Yehuda Elberg was born in Zgierz, Poland, in 1912, heir to a long line of rabbis dating back to the celebrated Rashi. Though ordained a rabbi himself, Elberg never followed the calling and worked instead as a textile engineer until the outbreak of World War II. He became a member of the Polish underground and later, after the war, took part in the Hapala Action, spiriting Jews away to Palestine from behind the Iron Curtain. In 1947 he arrived in Paris, where he became the managing editor of the prestigious Yiddish literary magazine Kiyoum. A year later he travelled to the United States as a delegate to the international Congress of Jewish Culture, and in 1956 he moved to Montreal.

In the 1980s, he received both the Israeli Prime Minister’s Award for excellence in literature and the Itzhak Manger Prize, presented to him by Golda Meir.

Underlying all of Elberg’s writings is the knowledge of the universe’s coherence. Disparate events and disparate fates connect or intersect unexpectedly, but with utter precision. It is as if, for Elberg, the whole of time were a grid on which human destinies are played out according to rules of which we are not aware, but that are rules nevertheless.

In what is, for me, Elberg’s best book, The Empire of Kalman the Cripple, the hero is the grandson of the respected Reb Jonah Swerdl of Dombrovka, Poland, and on his shoulders fall the expectations of a long and honoured line of sages. The grandson, Kalman, has no recollection of his earliest years—of what illness it was that crippled him, what he felt for his father, who left when he was still a baby, or for his mother, who died shortly afterward. From his grandfather Kalman learns discipline and piety, from the town rabbi, kindness and scholarship. But out of these instructive elements, Kalman brews his own spiritual concoction. He has grown into a loveless, vengeful, cunning scoundrel, and his sense of discipline becomes harsh, his piety unorthodox, his kindness self-centred, his scholarship profitable only to himself. But Kalman’s indulgence is not what makes him guilty; according to a Talmudic proverb, “A man is to give account in the Hereafter for any permissible pleasures from which he abstained.” If guilty of anything, Kalman is guilty of surviving against all odds, becoming the most feared and most powerful man in the Jewish community of Dombrovka, and causing havoc among the well-to-do and the poor, the fools and the sages, even among the gentiles.

Throughout Kalman’s inexorable progress, Elberg contrives in shifting the reader’s sympathies: pity for the crippled child turns to outrage at his deviousness, which in turn becomes, through a twist in the plot that is absolutely right, pity once again, and even admiration. At the root of Kalman’s saga is the relentless Jewish reminder that our wits rarely allow us to perceive the truth before us, that the events we see tell a different story from the one we think we are following, and that God’s wisdom is always greater than His mystery. In this sense, every Jewish story is the story of Job.

The world to which Kalman belongs (the world he imagines he controls and that he attempts to define) is that of Elberg’s better-known fellow writer, Sholem Aleichem, who died barely four years after Elberg was born. But in these pages, Aleichem’s bittersweet shtetl is anything but picturesque: the Leave It to Beaver quality of Aleichem’s stories is violently changed by alarms of rape and murder, and through ambiguous characters and ambivalent conclusions. The very ending of the novel, when the reader has apparently been reconciled with Kalman’s dubious career, celebrates in birth the promise of a future, in a circumcision party given on a Tuesday, “a lucky day,” announcing that Kalman’s legacy has found an heir. This particular Tuesday, the last paragraph tells us, is January 31, 1933, the Tuesday on which Reich Chancellor Hitler became Germany’s new leader.

Ultimately, Elberg seems to say, there is a meaning to all this—except that the meaning must remain obscure, incomprehensible, a light burning in the face of a blind man who can feel its warmth but who cannot guess its illuminating nature. God’s word is, to our imperfect ears, of infinite ambiguity. Language, the words we are made of, reflects that uneasy state of being both explicit and implicit, surface and concealment, and the source of constant light just beyond our understanding.

The Empire of Kalman the Cripple has unsuspected echoes of Dostoevsky’s great Christian novel, The Idiot. But while in Dostoevsky the hero is set apart from the rest of society by his fatal innocence, Kalman (and here Elberg harks back to the earliest Jewish mystics) reflects or contains all the qualities of his society, a receptacle of both its innocence and its corruption, becoming thus both its victim and its executioner.

Yehuda Elberg died in 2003, forgotten by almost all. Even so, I find it surprising that such a writer, whose work, according to Elie Wiesel, “no doubt will have a place among the most important contributions to the literature of the Holocaust,” should still remain unknown to so many readers. And yet I’m confident that in the future, readers perhaps wiser and more literate than we are will grant Elberg his much-deserved place among the keenest, most affecting witnesses of our horrible times.

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Alberto Manguel

Alberto Manguel is the award-winning author of hundreds of works, most recently (in English) Fabulous Monsters, Packing My Library: An Elegy and Ten Digressions, Curiosity and All Men Are Liars. He lives in New York. Read more of his work at manguel.com.


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