I love running across magazines and books I've never heard of before. But though it's exhilarating in one sense, there's a measure of frustration to it as well. I'm always a little miffed that I allowed something to get by me.
Still, if the item I've come across proves to be a real find, then the frustration dissipates, and I just allow myself to enjoy the pleasures of this newly discovered gem.
Such was the case with Dovid Bergelson's small book of stories The Shadows of Berlin, in a translation by Joachim Neugroschel. The first major surprise was the publisher, City Lights, which brought these eight generally brief tales out in an original paperback edition. City Lights is the San Francisco-based maverick publisher that put the Beat movement on the map, most prominently with its small chapbook-sized edition of Allen Ginsberg's ground-breaking poem Howl back in the 1950s. City Lights Books is still where it's always been – on Columbus Avenue, site of the famed City Lights Bookstore – and the books are still being edited by one of the most famous Beat poets of them all, Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
Why City Lights seems so surprising is that they've never really gone in for ethnic publishing of any sort in their more than half-century history, and have never been much inclined toward Jewish-centered fiction or poetry, even though a number of their most prominent writers were Jewish. Their specialty has always been anything that attempts to demolish or shake up the status quo – anything that's aimed at disrupting bourgeois complacency.
A Foreshadowing of History
These stories are disturbing for a different reason. Bergelson, as the brief book-jacket biography notes, lived from 1884-1952, and was always considered one of the best of the Soviet Yiddish writers of that period. He was executed, eventually, like so many of his colleagues, as part of Stalin's final purge of Jewish writers.
These stories, however, deal with the period between the two World Wars in Berlin, and there is much foreshadowing of the cataclysm that Europe was rushing toward (though, like so many others, Bergelson had no inkling of the horrors Nazism would unleash). The author had left his native Ukraine after one of the region's infamous pogroms and settled in the German capital at a time that was marked by political turmoil and stress, but also by considerable creative ferment.
According to translator Neugroschel's introduction, between 1922 and 1929, Berlin was "a place of exile for many Yiddish intellectuals, who had escaped the battle zones of World War I and the pogroms. Their works were put out mostly by several Yiddish newspapers and publishing houses in Berlin and other cities, including New York. These exiles also had fruitful contacts with German Jews and gentiles; in fact, the German translation of Bergelson's earlier novel, When All Is Said and Done, was reviewed very favorably by Thomas Mann. On the other hand, some leftwing Yiddishists denounced Berlin's Yiddish intelligentsia for deserting Eastern Europe."
While in Berlin, Neugroschel tells us, Bergelson, whose fiction had until then dealt with the "bleak and wistful decay of the shtetl," turned to his new hometown's "postwar poverty and sorrow and with women as complex individuals – an innovation in modern Yiddish literature, which had generally reduced female characters to negative stereotypes."
The city is a distinct presence, but it never overwhelms the characters, who are the true focus of Bergelson's artistic interest. As the translators notes, the author "focuses on individuals trapped in their own isolation and alienation."
Typical of Bergelson's fabulist mode of storytelling (he has a more naturalistic approach as well) is "For 12,000 Bucks He Fasts 40 Days," which Neugroschel points out was probably influenced by Franz Kafka's far more famous and influential tale "The Hunger Artist."
Bergelson's story opens on "the eve of the Ninth of Av (when Jews mourn the destruction of the Temple)." It was also a time when the rebbe at the narrator's Jewish elementary school "would tell us about Rabbi Zadok, a great Talmudist, who lived in the days when the Temple was destroyed. Rabbi Zadok refused to tolerate the destruction, and so he fasted during 40 whole years.
"Naturally Rabbi Zadok shriveled up like a fig, all skin and bones, and his face grew as transparent as glass. When he then devoured a Holy Land fig after his 40-year fast, people could see through his transparent skin and they watched the fig sliding slowly, slowly down his throat, taking a very long time to drop. By now, of course, his hair had turned grayish and had mostly fallen out: all that was left were a few tiny hairs around his shrunken mouth. Nor could he speak, he could only gesture or else twitter like a bird. His whole skin was drawn tight like yellow parchment. And all his fasting was fairly useless – the Temple was destroyed … "
The narrator returns to describing the crowd outside the synagogue on the eve of the Ninth of Av, who had listened to the rabbi's tale about Rabbi Zadok and his fasting. Among the crowd, as always, was Yankl the Heretic.
"A lie … a lie," Yankl would say in response to the story of Rabbi Zadok. " … not only can't a man fast for 40 years, he can't even fast for 40 days. After two or three days of fasting, he'll lose all his strength and he'll collapse like a wild beast … "
The narrator was just a small boy back then and would gawk in alarm at Yankl, just like all his friends did. "We were amazed that the older Jews didn't smack him even though they hated him. They hated him for gaping at the moon with glassy eyes and reading somewhere on the rising moon that the story of Rabbi Zadok was a lie. Yankl the Heretic was Rabbi Zadok's sworn enemy and therefore my enemy too, because I passionately loved the emaciated rabbi. And I loved him precisely because he had achieved nothing with his 40-year fast. The Temple was destroyed anyway, and all the poor man could do was refresh himself with a Holy Land fig. To a certain degree Rabbi Zadok was a failure, and contrary to grownups, all little children usually side with people who fail. With gritted teeth and clenched fists, I glared at that adult, Yankl the Heretic, and I wanted to get my revenge."
Which the narrator hoped would occur when, several years later, a rebbe arrived in town from Rakhmenstrivke. Everyone said he had been fasting for more than 20 years, consuming only "a glass of raw sour borscht each evening." And like Rabbi Zadok, he had sallow, transparent skin "with just a few tiny gray hairs around his mouth."
Still, Yankl the Heretic didn't believe the rabbi's story.
"What about at night?" Yankl asked. "Who watches him at night to make sure he doesn't wolf something down? Who watches him when everyone else is asleep?"
It's not, in fact, until the narrator moves to Berlin that he managed to get his real and total revenge on Yankl the Heretic.
"In the very heart of Berlin, which is always teeming with heretics from all over the globe, a boy had been fasting, free as a bird, for some 20 days, and he had as many more days to go. True, he wasn't doing it to … prevent the destruction of the Temple. If he survived his 40-day fast, he would simply be paid 50,000 gold marks. But that was secondary. The chief point was that, as if to spite Yankl the Heretic, the boy was already on his 21st day of fasting. Half of Berlin had already come to stare at him, and the other half was planning to go and stare at him too."
The narrator wishes that he could bring Yankl to Berlin. Then the skeptic would see that "under a large sealed glass, where you can take three steps to and three steps fro, a waxy emaciated boy was pacing up and down – the boy who was the talk of every Berlin cafe and every Berlin home." Tens of thousands of visitors came to see the boy each day, even lining up for hours in drenching downpours just to get a glimpse of this wonder.
Bergelson' story comes to no real conclusion, much like the others in the collection which, when realistic in manner and tone, have a slice-of-life quality to them. But this example of Bergelson's art has an eery prescience to it, as if the writer, like Kafka, could somehow divine in the urban misery around him the more horrible tragedy that awaited the Jews, who would be made to starve in the glass-like isolation of ghettos and camps.