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The role of the storyteller - Sholem Aleichem and Elie Wiesel.

PAUL FUSSELL, IN THE GREAT WAR AND Modern Memory, explores the manner in which literature functions to help communities maintain their cohesiveness in times of crisis. A crisis, for Fussell, is a time in which old myths break down in the light of new events. His book explores the collapse of the myth of Progress during thc Great War, and how literature served both to destroy old myths and create new ones. Judaism faces a similar breakdown in its central myths, that started with the Enlightenment and culminated in the Holocaust. Modern Jewish literature responds to this crisis by reformulating the older mythology of classical Jewish literature into a modern vein. Comparing the work of Sholem Aleichem, the most famous and acclaimed of Yiddish authors, to that of Elie Weisel, a modern writer of less iterary stature but similar influence, allows for an exploration how Jewish myth is being reformed, and a sense of where modern Jewry is moving.

Sholem Aleichem and Elie Wiesel construct an historical connection to a Jewish past that fits into the tradition of Jewish responses to catastrophe. While they break with the older models, they do so through recasting the old myth into new terms. David Roskies' Against the Apocalypse traces the development of Jewish responses to catastrophe. His argument demonstrates that Wiesel and Sholem Aleichem share three key elements with the traditional responses.

First, they attempt to assert the continuity of an event with Jewish history by mixing a modern catastrophe with images of older ones. In "Kasrilevke Nisrofim," Sholem Aleichem juxtaposes a modern tragedy, the burning of Kasrilevke, with an ancient one, the destruction of the Temple. The Rabbi of Kasrilevke tells his people that

...our mourning will avail us nothing, and secondly, we shall be proving to Him Who lives eternally that we consider the destruction of Kasrilevke to be a worse calamity, heaven forbid, than the destruction of the Temple.(2)

While this reference to ancient history is tongue-in-cheek, Sholem Aleichem recognizes and reinforces the manner in which Jews deal with the present through remembering the past. Wiesel portrays a similar view of the past in The Oath. The main character of the story is reading the pinkas, or community record, which tells of all the calamities that have befallen the town of Kolvillag since Jews first settled there. He reads these stories of catastrophe at the same moment that a pogrom rages around him, reinforcing the connection between past and present.

Second, in this assertion of historical continuity, both authors forge a connection to that past and a need to preserve it through retaining one's ties to it, further linking them to traditional responses.

Third, they address theological issues that revolve about trying to understand God's failure to respond to the cries of His people. Here, in addressing God's role, Sholem Aleichem and Elie Wiesel become distinct and revolutionary in their reformulation of older myth.

The paradigmatic response to catastrophe, the old myth, comes from the Biblical books of Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Lamentations. The Prophetic view of catastrophe lays out a relatively simple theme of the people's sin leading to punishment by God. Jeremiah calls on the people to "hear the voice of the Lord" or else the "sword that you fear shall overtake you there."3 When the Israelites fail to heed the commandments of God, retribution quickly follows. In Lamentations, the author says of the destruction of Jerusalem:

Her enemies are now the masters, Her foes are at ease Because the Lord has afflicted her For her many transgressions.(4)

These Biblical responses portray God as both just and merciful, for redemption follows once the guilt of the sins has been explated through punishment. Isaiah writes:

Truly, the Lord is waiting to show you grace, Truly, He will arise to pardon you. For the Lord is a God of justice Happy are all who wait for Him.(5)

A cycle emerges from the Biblical response to catastrophe, beginning with the redemption from Egypt. The Jews are redeemed, witnessing the signs and wonders of God. As time passes, the Jews forget the power of God and begin to transgress the law, whereupon God punishes them. However, God sees the suffering of the people and redeems them through His great mercy.

Sholem Aleichem's stories demonstrate that he believes this traditional model no longer functions for its adherents. In "The Clock That Struck Thirteen," he portrays this destruction of the traditional responses and their inability to meet the problems of the modern world, which leads to the collapse of the Biblical paradigm. Reb Nochem owns a clock which dates "straight back to the days of Count Chmielnitzky"(6) in the mid-17th century, showing the continuity with Jewish history. Even here, Sholem Aleichem questions traditional Judaism by implying that historical continuity is achieved by dating from tragedy to tragedy, complaint to complaint, the inability to remember when good happens: after all, Count Chmielnitzky was responsible for a huge pogrom in the early 17th century. Men from all directions set their watches by the clock. It is more than just a clock. It was "the town clock ... always faithful to us and to itself,"(7) Sholem Aleichem uses the clock to symbolize the tradition and its obsession with time, for

...what is Jewish life without a clock? How many things there are that must be timed to the minute - the lighting of the Sabbath candles, the end of the Sabbath, the daily prayers, the salting and soaking of the meat, the intervals between meals.(8)

The Jews of the town order their lives around this clock because of the importance placcd by the tradition on correct times. Only Reb Leibesh, "a man of learning and philosophy,"(9) doubts the clock, insisting that his own watch is far more accurate. One day, Reb Leibesh compares his watch to Reb Nochem's clock, only to find Reb Nochem's clock to be a mintue and a half fast! The failure of the clock represents the first sign of a break in the ability of the tradition to function.

Yet, the clock does not merely cease to function. Instead, it picks up weird malfunctions requiring extravagant repairs. The first real foreshadowing of shadowing of trouble after Reb Leibesh's complaint comes when Reb Nochem's son, the narrator of the story, realizes that the clock has struck thirteen, symbolizing a far greater failure of the tradition. Initially, his father simply yells at him for doubting, but when his mother confirms the problem, Reb Nochem realizes that something must really be wrong. He takes the clock apart and cleans and polishes all its parts, after which the clock returns to its normal functioning, except that the family "heard the clock wheeze when it got ready to ring."(10) Reb Nochem solves this problem by adding a little weight to the pendulum. This works only temporarily, and more and more weight has to be piled on the pendulum until the clock crashes to the ground under all the weight that is piled on top of it.

The clock, by symbolizing the centrality of time to the tradition, comes to represent the tradition as a whole. Reb Leibesh's challenge to the primacy of the clock indicates the importance of Rabbinic control over time in maintaining the tradition; by extension, the clock's breakdown indicates the erosion of Rabbinic control over Judaism. Reb Leibesh's measurement of time by outside sources means that his time-piece cannot be considered valid by the tradition without the tradition admitting itself incapable of undertaking its most important ritual function, the measurement of time. Yet, the tradition is clearly running down despite all of the attempts to fix it. More and more weight must be added to what was once a smooth running system, until, finally, the weight piled on to the clock to save it pulls it down. Sholem Aleichem juxtaposes the final collapse of the clock with a story about a pogrom, and re-emphasizes the failure of the tradition to cope with the modern world. Muma Yenta is telling the Nochem family a story about a tragedy that hit a neighboring community when they hear the clock fall. The family thinks "that robbers were attacking our own home."(11) Only the storyteller retains her calm, saying, "It's just the clock... What's strange about that?"(12) The collapse of the clock causes the family to believe that outside forces are about to destroy them. However, in reality, all that has happened is that an antiquated clock has fallen off the wall. Since the tragedy is an internal one, the previous method of maintaining connection, by remembering from one tragedy to the next, breaks down.

Sholem Aleichem turns away from the Prophetic conception of Jewish history towards that of Job, in whom he finds a more fluid model that can teach a different message than the one taught by the Biblical paradigm. Tevye is a Job-like figure, a lost soul communicating with God, but no longer sure of the meaning of the conversation and no longer sure of God's intentions in this strange world. Throughout the stories about him, Tevye engages in theological comments that indicate his inability to understand why the world treats him in the random way that it does. In "Tevye Strikes It Rich," he says,

They say You're a long suffering God, a good God, a great God, they say You're merciful and fair; perhaps then You can explain to me why some folk have everything while others have nothing twice over? Why does one Jew get to eat butter rolls while another gets to eat dirt?(13)

Tevye questions faith in God's mercy, calling into question the equity of the system as well as the tradition's ability to motivate values. Implicit in this question is a rejection of the traditional answer: the poor have sinned and the rich have performed good deeds. God's will is beyond understanding, and, possibly, is even capricious, although Sholem Aleichem backs away from so radical a view despite hints of it throughout his stories. In "Today's Children," Tevye questions the mercy of God and the justice of God's will when he says:

The trouble is that the same merciful God who's always practicing His miracles on me, first seeing how quick He can raise a man up and then how fast He can dump him back down, has let me know in no uncertain terms, "Tevye, stop ... think[ing) you can run the world!"(14)

Tevye has no sense of the clear cause-effect nature of God's will as evoked in earlier Jewish responses to catastrophe. In this strange new world, all that he can count on is his family and his community. In the conclusion to "Lekh-Lekha," written in the year that Sholem Aleichem died (1916), Tevya (talking to his own author) says about the Redemption:

I don't even care if He does it just to spite us, as long as He's quick about it...Say hello for me to all our Jews and tell them, wherever they are, not to worry, the old God of Israel still lives!(15)

God is incomprehensible, and the meaning of trust in God becomes ambiguous in Sholem Aleichem's world. Here, he pushes even the model of Job to its limits, for the powerful affirmation of God's awesome might at the end of Job becomes only Tevye's message to Sholem Aleichem. A strange message at that, similarly evocative of the mystery of God, but in a strange manner: God might redeem us only to spite us. The radical difference between the end of the Book of Job and Tevye's last monologue suggests that Sholem Aleichem uses Tevye as a starting point from which to build a new way in which to view Jewish history. The affirmation becomes more important than what is affirmed, the storyteller more important than the story.

Wiesel has a similar conception of the failure of the tradition to provide answers to modern problems, and a similar attraction to the Book of Job. As always, with Wiesel, the Holocaust stands as the backdrop against which he raises his issues of faith with the tradition. Yet, rather than defining and limiting the issues that Wiesel can deal with, the Holocaust symbolizes all of the difficulties of living in the modern world. Again, the Biblical model in Lamentations, Jeremiah, and Isaiah returns. For Wiesel, God should have rescued the Jews from the Holocaust, and His failure to do so points to a breakdown of the old ways. The covenant with God, that the Jews will obey the Torah and God will protect the Jews, has been broken by God. This reverses the traditional paradigmatic response to catastrophe, where the Jews break the covenant and God waits for the people to fulfill their part of the covenant. Wiesel and Sholem Aleichem refuse to accept this parallelism, unwilling to believe that the Jews could have possibly sinned grievously enough to deserve the length and severity of the Exile. Wiesel particularly refuses to accept the possibility that Jews committed acts so heinous that they deserved the living hell that was the Holocaust. Much as the Biblical writers use the destruction of the Temple, Wiesel uses the Holocaust as the defining point around which theological questions are organized, and the model against which all other tragedies should be judged.

"Yom Kippur: The Day Without Forgiveness," takes place in Auschwitz. The holiday is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when the "heavenly tribunal would sit and pass sentence."(16) Wiesel reverses the Prophetic answers. The world of the Holocaust that he evokes itself appears to be the antithesis of such claims. Only by reversing the answers can the questions be met. Pinchas, the narrator's teacher, decides that he will not fast because he no longer trusts in God's judgment. He has "decided to tell Him: |It is enough.'" The narrator observes all of the ritual, washing his hands and preparing for the fast. He attends Kol Nidre services, and another traditional image is reversed:

His voice [the cantor's] stirred my memories and evoked that legend according to which, on the night of Yom Kippur, the dead rise from their graves and pray with the living. I thought: "Then it is true; this is what really happens. The le nd is confirmed at Auschwitz."(17)

All the models are confirmed, but they turn out to be curses, a twisted, ironic version of the redemption. This vision saw the ghetto and concentration camp as a "surrogate shtetl and a demonic City of God, the last ingathering of European Jewry before their final destruction." (18) The irony is complete because the Christian world has finally created St. Augustine's vision of a City of God, just as the words of the Prophets are fulfilled by the ingathering of the exiles. The old models are twisted into their opposites, and the meaning of the old answers questioned.

Pinchas' final response to this theological question becomes a similar reversal of traditional theology. He decides to fast, but

...not for the same reasons. Not out of obedience, but out of defiance. Before the war, you see, some Jews rebelled against the divine will by going to restaurants on the Day of Atonement; here it is by fasting that we can make our indignation heard.(19)

Wiesel carries Sholem Aleichem's reversal of the Biblical model to its extreme. No longer can either of them accept the cause-effect relationship of sinning followed by punishment, because the punishment seems too terrible to fit any crime, let alone the limited crimes of the Jews when compared to the gross injustices of the outside world. Wiesel then goes one step further. The covenant must continue to be honored because the only way to accuse God "is by praising Him."(20) Wiesel cannot accept the answer of Sholem Aleichem, an answer which calls for continued patience and continued belief in God - but, without praise. He has seen more of the conflicts in the modern world, witnessing the Holocaust and knowing about the first World War. Both use Job as their model, but Wiesel goes further by using praise as a vehicle for questioning the traditional answers. In Messengers of God, Wiesel denies the ending of the Book of Job when God's supremacy is asserted, by saying:

I prefer to think that the Book's true ending was lost. That Job died without having repented, without having humiliated himself; that he succumbed to his grief an uncompromising and whole man.(21)

Sholem Aleichem follows the questioning of job but cannot fully break from the model. Tevye proclaims God's existence and accepts the Divine plan even though he cannot proclaim God's justice. Elie Wiesel refuses to accept the Divine plan, demands that God redeem His people, and recasts the image of Job as refusing to relent towards God until God atones for His violation of the covenant. Wiesel's response is a radical one: praise God and so accuse God, for, by continuing to honor the covenant with God, retribution can be demanded from God.

Yet, if the traditional answers no longer provide meaning to the modern world, Judaism, to survive, must find another source of meaning. Both Sholem Aleichem and Elie Wiesel turn to storytelling as a way of finding that meaning in the modern world. This conception of storytelling as a meaningful act comes from Hasidism's conception of storytelling as a religious act, as well as from earlier Midrashic traditions. Just as the Hasidic veneration of certain texts written in Yiddish provided the first sense of Yiddish as a language worthy of literary expression, so the Hasidic view of storytelling as a religious act provides the same seed for Sholem Aleichem and Elie Wiesel's focus on storytelling While other means of religious expression besides storytelling exist within Hasidic communities, "the mere telling of these legends was viewed as a mystical experience....To tell a legend about a Hasidic rebbe became itself a religious act."(22) Hasidic storytelling has earlier origins in the Midrashic strand of traditional Judaism. After the destruction struction of the Second Temple, the Rabbis used homilies and story-telling to re-interpret the Tradition and to fill Jewish lives with meaning. Traditional Midrashic creativity dried up some time in the 11th century, supplanted by the mystical and philosophical traditions.(23) Hasidism reopened the realm of Aggadic myth for its adherents once more, to provide meaning to people's lives in the midst of the vast changes of the contemporary world. Yet, Hasidic storytelling proved meaningful to only a portion of Jewry. When it appeared to Sholem Aleichem and Elie Wiesel that other types of religious expression no longer provided meaning, as storytellers they naturally turned to, and expanded upon, this Hasidic conception and strove to re-open Aggadah for all Jews.

Sholem Aleichem's world is a world defined by storytellers. His characters maintain their connections to the Jewish community largely through telling stories. "Station Baranovich" most explicitly examines the power of storytelling on the community. The first level of the story is about a man telling a story to a group of Jews on a train. The second level is a story full of bizarre turns and twists related by this man on the train. Sholem Aleichem demonstrates the power of storytelling in "Station Baranovich" by drawing the reader "into the story's events because of the climactic movement of the narrative."(24) That is, because of the unexpected twists and turns in the story, the reader becomes drawn into the second level of the narrative, and loses his or her superiority the characters in it. The train provides a microcosm of a shtetl community with the same ritual behavior and the "same penchant for conversation."(25) "Station Baranovich" draws in the reader through the irony of the story. Initially focusing on the arrest of a Jew and his subsequent escape with the help of the community, the story goes in a different direction than the reader expects. After Kivke, the innkeeper who was arrested, is released, the storyteller pauses to find out what station it is: "If you want to liear the rest of it, though, you'll kindly wait a few minutes."(26) The reader expects the continuation of the story to be a problem with the authorities or a mistake of the comically portrayed shtetl Jews.

Instead, Kivke successfully escapes, and the narration switches emtirely to a story of extortion by him. He sends letters to the community asking for money, first for a dowry, later for a business deal, finally for bailing himself out of a business deal. The letters first state his problem and then end by saying that if the money is tiot sent at once, his disgrace would be so great that only one choice would be left, either [to] drown himself on the spot or to come hell bent back to Kaminka."(27) Should he return to Kaminka, the community would have problems with the authorities, because they faked his death to facilitate his escape. This section of the story draws the reader into the story "because of his [the readcr's] broken expectations."(28) Sholem, Aleichem, as the narrator of the frame story, finds himself frawn into the story within the story as well, wanting "to hear the end of the story just as much as the internal audience does."(29) When the train arrives in Baranovich, the storyteller leaps off the train and Sholem Aleichem, rather than bringing any conclusion to the story, expresses his frustration at missing the end of it by concluding with: "I wouldn't mind if Baranovich station burned to the ground."(30)

In "Station Baranovich," Sholem Aleichem explores the real power of storytelling and its ability to lift people above their surroundings. The Kaminka Jew's telling of the story creates a community from within, a group of chattering Jews, united by a common interest and a common story. When he briefly leaves to find out where the train is, all the other Jews in the compartment talk about the story or about similar experiences. Even the well-travelled Sholem Aleichem cannot rise above the storyteller's power. Though that common experience becomes a disappointing one, they become united for a brief moment, and remain united because the story does not end. The story cannot end because it provides meaning to Judaism through its telling. Its ending would signal an end of creativity and a return to the study of a canon from which Sholem Aleichem wants to move away.

In general, his Railroad Stories, a collection that includes "Station Baranovich," focus on the power of storytelling as a community act. They are all told by a variety of interesting characters to a traveler in the third class section of the Russian railway system. In one story, "Third Class," Sholem Aleichem draws a picture of a community of Jews in a third class cabin, sharing food and wine as well as ritual objects like tallis and tefillin, prayer shawls and phylacteries. What really pulls the community together, however, is the talking and the storytelling. Everyone has a story, and "everything is being told to everyone. The whole car is talking together at once in a splendid show of Jewish solidarity."(31) Storytelling functions to bring a disparate group of Jews together and to create a living Jewish community throughout the Railroad Stories. Every Jew is accepted and has a chance to tell a story. As Roskies put it, concerning Sholem Aleichem:

In the end, it was the story itself that kept hope alive, or more precisely, the ability of Jews to reconstitute themselves wherever they were into a community of listeners, whether as third class passengers on a Russian train or on board a ship bound for America.(32)

Sholem Aleichem's portrayal of storytelling stands directly against his portrayal of traditional Judaism. Traditional Judaism proves unable to provide for a house full of daughters, as Tevye's wife tells him, and the tradition has been weighted down trying to deal with the problems of the modern world as portrayed in "The Clock That Struck Thirteen." Sholem Aleichem as narrator lives in a world where everyone has a story to tell, and through telling the story there opens up the possibility of people understanding their own lives. Most of his characters find the answers of the traditional world unsatisfactory, and need to justify themselves through telling stories to Sholem Aleichem. The desire to relate experiences, emphasizing the common features of the story, provides a uniting anchor for Jewish communities. Wiesel's characters are similarly concerned with telling stories, but in a more explicitly religious way. They concern themselves with religious themes and issues, in sharp contrast to Sholem Aleichem's lack of attraction to "the Bible, the midrashim, the medieval romance, the stories of Nahman of Bratslav, and of Shivhei Ha-Besht [Praises of the Baal-Shem-Tov]."(33) Wiesel focuses on this type of material, retelling Hasidic and Biblical tales. Yet, both see storytelling as critical to community formation even though they conceive of stories differently. Sholem Aleichem's idea of storytelling as anchor is a secular conception, while Wiesel's storytellers bear witness, and function in a more explicitly religious context through their concern with religious themes and legends.

Wiesel's Legends of Our Time looks at various fictional events in the life of the narrator, who bears a striking resemblance to Wiesel himself, and many of the stories may be based on real events. Wiesel's conception of himself as Rebbe, a charismatic Hasidic leader sometimes also known as a Zaddik (a saintly or righteous person), is further reinforced by this collection, which parallels the Shivhei Ha-Besht, stories about the miraculous works of the "Besht," first published in 1815. In contrast to this more traditional collection, however, no stories of ritual objects or of faith healing are related. Wiesel focuses on miracles of faith that stem from belief and a willingness to see the world in a particular way, rather than those stemming from magical powers inherent in some person or object. The book creates a conception of Wiesel as a mystical figure in a world filled with strange happenings and wonder, in which Wiesel can encounter anyone, whether a prison guard from Auschwitz or the Prophet Elijah. The book is also about the power of storytelling, and Wiesel's belief in its importance. The introduction to the book is an encounter between Wiesel and his Rebbe from before the war. The author no longer fits into the traditional mode, because he "was no longer his [the Rebbe's] disciple,"(34) now being his own Rebbe. Wiesel tells the Rebbe that he has been writing, and the Rebbe questions the importance of that act, trying to understand this new path. Wiesel responds by saying that "some writings could sometimes, in moments of grace, attain the quality of deeds."(35) They discuss the nature of fiction, the Rebbe insisting that Wiesel writes lies. No, is the reply, "Things are not that simple, Rebbe. Some events do take place but are not true; others are - although they never occurred."(36) The Rebbe should know this, should understand that stories function to communicate meaning, because he is familiar with the old Aggadic tradition and the new Hasidic tradition of storytelling. Stories function to build connections between people and to provide meaning in a seemingly meaningless world. Wiesel tries to place his storytelling into context as a meaningful Jewish act by drawing on the older traditions and re-telling them in modern ways. The Rebbe's failure to respond is a failure of traditional Judaism, evoking the same critique of ineffective and sterile leadership that Sholem Aleichem uses. Wiesel seeks to re-open Aggadic creativity despite the objections of the Rebbe, or, rather, because of them.

Souls on Fire, Wiesel's first collection of Hasidic tales, explores the effect of storytelling as a larger force in terms of its influence on Hadism's development. It focuses on the Besht's heir and disciple, the Great Maggid (story-teller) of Mezritch and his disciples. Wiesel presents a fictional account of how Hasidism became institutionalized as a movement through focusing on the character of the Maggid, and concerns itself more with emphasizing the connections between individuals, forged by Hasidic storytelling, than with actual historical facts. He points up the importance with which the Maggid's storytelling was viewed in the doctrine by saying:

"When the sick Maggid told a simple story," said Israel of Rizhin [a third generation Hasidic Rebbe who was a disciple of the Maggid], "the bed he rested on would shake violently, and so would the privileged few present."(37)

Wiesel has another disciple of the Maggid, Rebbe Wolfe of Zhitomir, express the importance of storytelling in a different way:

Thought is essentially infinite ... What confines it is the spoken word. Then why does man try to express himself? I'll tell you why: the spoken word's function is to humanize thought.(38)

Meaning and thought can be communicated only through speech, through the act of talking and of telling.

From this, a particular representation of Hasidism, that exaggerates the role of storytelling in the actual historical movement, emerges from Wiesel's stories. While storytelling occupies an important religious function in Hasidism, traditional study - both of Talmud and of mystical texts - occupies at least as important a role. Yet, Wiesel emphasizes storytelling as the critical religious act defining Hasidism. The leaders whom he portrays are storytellers who bring people back to Judaism through telling stories and through personal contact. For Wiesel, the act of telling the story becomes religious because it serves to awaken and reinforce faith. Readers are pulled in by the seductive quality of his literature and placed in a stylized Jewish world, enticing them to see the world in the way in which Wiesel wants, and tempting them to accept Wiesel's version of Jewish faith. Hasidism was a response to Rabbinic Judaism, and Wiesel portrays it as responding through stories. In his translation of the Tales of Nahman of Bratslav, Arnold Band relates the contention of Yosef Dan and Mendel Piekarz that "whereas the telling of tales had previously been frowned upon by Jewish authorities, it was regarded as a worthy pastime by Hasidic masters."(39) Wiesel's stories pick up a religious aura because they are designed for the same purpose that he ascribes to the Rebbes: to bring people back to Judaism, to respond to a Judaism where creativity has dried up, leaving a tradition incapable of responding to new issues and, therefore, incapable of providing meaning. His attempt to parallel late twentieth century Judaism with the time of the Besht and the Maggid reinforces this parallelism of his stories with theirs. Storytelling becomes a religious act capable of inspiring and maintaining faith because it is creative and can respond to new issues, and because it can open up the tradition through presenting new ways of thinking.

Storytelling becomes an individual and community act that provides a center for culture and common identity for both authors. The individual level comes from the person actually picking up an Elie Wiesel or Sholem Aleichem collection, and reading it. Yet, this serves two community functions at the same time that it reaches the individual Jew. First, it provides a common literature that allows many Jews to respond to one another on the same level, from their common basis in reading Wiesel or Sholem Aleichem. Second, both Wiesel and Sholem Aleichem portray storytellers within their stories. Their characters need to speak to one another and relate their experiences for their existences to have any meaning. They call upon the reader to see communication between Jews as a religious act capable of opening avenues to God, or at least as an act essential to community that gives meaning to Jewish existence.

Yet, the Hasidic origin of storytelling suggests a flaw in Sholem Aleichem's and Wiesel's conception of storytelling. The Hasidim conceived storytelling as a religious act, but Gershom Scholem, in his essay on Hasidism, in Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, shows the importance of theology, both written and oral, to the Hasidic movement. Scholem agrees that the new element of that movement was its "spontaneity of feeling generated in sensitive minds by the encounter with the living incarnation of mysticism."(40) Yet, the philosophic framework was essential to creating the ethos of individual contact that Wiesel prizes. In this essay, Scholem explores the Kabbalistic writings of the Great Maggid, who, Wiesel incorrectly claims, "put nothing down on paper."(41) Scholem uses these mystical writings by the Great Maggid to construct the internal theology of Hasidism. Hasidic theology depends on mystical writings that Wiesel insists were not even written. For the ethos of storytelling to function, an existing framework needs to surround the storyteller, one that provides meaning to the terms used in the stories. Hasidism could not have existed without traditional Judaism because the mystical terms and the ways in which the Hasidic mission was conceived all came from traditional Judaism and traditional Jewish mysticism.

Just as Hasidic storytelling functions within a greater context of Jewish traditional life, so do the stories of Sholem Aleichem. He tells stories to people who understand Jewish ritual. He reaches people through using child narrators for whom everything is new and wonderful, thus making his myths accessible "to all Jews because, inasmuch as every Jew had once been a child, celebrated some festival or other in one way or another, and knew how to talk,"(42) they can understand his narrator. The problem with this conception is that it provides no means for perpetuating the faith. Ritual practice constructs a community through shared practice. If every Jew reads the Haggadah and has a Seder on Passover, a sense of identity as a group is forged in a concrete manner. Narrative can provide reasons for continuing to practice the ritual, but cannot replace it.

One hundred years after the Great Maggid, as Aggadic creativity began to dry up in the Hasidic movement, the movement experienced a "revival of Rabbinic thought,"(43) which served to reinvigorate the old meanings of the terms, thereby providing fresh value to the stories. Heine asserts that Agaddah renews Halakhah, but Halakhah also renews Agaddah. The stories give meaning to the ritual, but the ritual gives the stories context. Furthermore, Halakhah generates norms and beliefs that are shared by a community and that bind it together. The choice by Orthodox Jews to refrain from driving on Shabbat, requiring them to live within walking distance of a synagogue, functions as a community-building ritual. Seventy-five or more years after Sholem Aleichem's death, his stories are incomprehensible to many Jews, because they no longer celebrate some holiday or other in some way or other that allows them to understand the context of Sholem Aleichem's narrators. The norms and lifestyle that bound his readers together have largely disappeared, because ritual practice no longer binds American Jews as Jews.

Wiesel's stories reflect this need to re-invigorate the Halakhic side of the tradition. He can reach people through stories, but his stories seek to convince people to return to traditional sources, if not to traditional lives. Reading a collection of Wiesel stories, that re-tell beautiful Talmudic, Biblical, or Hasidic parables, seduces the reader in re-evaluating the importance of traditional Judaism. Wiesel constructs an attractive vision of the world, that promises real meaning from within the traditional sacred texts. Once the reader begins to accept Wiesel's world view, he may find interest in these traditional sources. The principal distinction between both writers comes from their historical position. Sholem Aleichem seeks to hold people together through stories of the past and through the idea of storytelling, while Wiesel uses the already validated idea of storytelling as meaningful, and draws people at least part way back into the tradition. He may over-emphasize Agaddah, but few choices are open to him if he wants to reach the assimilated reader. Trying to fit the experience of modern Judaism into new terms, through creating new myth, is the task that Sholem Aleichem and Elie Wiesel set for themselves. Thereby, they hope to create a Jewish community capable of holding together in the modern world.

Through his stories, Sholem Aleichem sought to imbue Jewish content into new paths and new possibilities. Yet, he offered no practice and no standards of behavior, and his world became a foreign one to most Jews. Wiesel, as a result, must teach the tradition. Yet, if he fails to re-invigorate study of the tradition outside of reading his stories, those stories will also become incomprehensible. In Souls On Fire, he opens the possibility of beginning from nothing but the aleph-bet, when he retells a story in which the Besht manages to recover all of his powers simply through his scribe's knowing the aleph-bet. If even that is lost, however, nothing will be left with which to construct the tradition. After all, Wiesel does write in English and French. Wiesel can be read without ever learning Hebrew, but Judaism cannot be. Judaism can create new myths, but in the past the new myth always included a strong dimension of ritual practice that bound the community together by a shared lifestyle. Modern authors must provide a starting point that draws people into the tradition and pushes them to explore it further if they are to succeed in constructing a connection to a Jewish historical past that is capable of holding a community together. Halakhic literature is unlikely to provide that starting point for most Jews today, and Sholem Aleichem and Wiesel may be correct in using Western literary styles to reach modern Jews. Only time will tell if they have sufficiently Judaized Western literature so that this medium can function as the basis of a modern Jewish identity.


(1.) Heinrich Heine, Jewish Stories and Hebrew Melodies (Markus Wiener Publishing, 1987), p. 106. (2.) Sholem Aleichem, "Kasrilevke Nisrofim," in Inside Kasrilevke, trans. Isidore Goldstick (G.P Putnam's Sons, 1948), p. 89. (3.) Jeremiah, 42:15-16. (4.) Lamentations, 1:5. (5.) Isaiah, 32:18. (6.) "The Clock That Struck Thirteen," in Favorite Tales of Sholem Aleichem, Julius and Frances Butwin, trans. (Avenal Books, 1983), p. 67. (7.) Ibid., p. 69. (8.) Ibid. (9.) Ibid., p. 67. (10.) Ibid., p. 70. (11.) Favorite Tales of Sholem Aleichem, p. 73. (12.) Ibid., p. 74. (13.) "Tevye Strikes It Rich," Ibid., p. 13. (14.) "Today's Children," Ibid., p. 35. (15.) "Lekh-Lekha," Ibid., p. 131. (16.) Ibid., p. 32. (17.) Ibid,. p. 37. (18.) David G. Roskies, Literatures of Destruction (The Jewish Publication Society, 1989), p. 9. (19.) Legends of Our Time, p. 37. (20.) Ibid., p. 38. (21.) Elie Wiesel, Messengers of God (Summit Books, 1976), p. 233. (22.) Beatrice Silverman Weinrich and Leonard Wolf, eds., Yiddish Folktales (Pantheon Books in cooperation with the Yivo Institute, 1988), p. 261. (23.) "Kabbalah," Encyclopedia Judaica, Vol. 10, pp. 490-655. (24.) Victoria Aarons, Author as Character in the Works of Sholem Aleichem (The Edwin Mellon Press, 1985), p. 102. (25.) Ibid., p. 103. (26.) "Station Baranovich," in Tevye the Dairyman and the Railroad Stories, Hillel Halkin, tr. (N.Y.: Schocken Books, 1987), p. 157. (27.) Ibid., p. 159. (28.) Aarons, p. 119. (29.) Ibid., p. 126. (30.) "Station Baranovich," in Tevye the Dairyman, p. 163. (31.) Ibid., p. 283. (32.) David G. Roskies, "Sholem Aleichem: Mythologist of the Mundane," in AJS Review, Vol. 13, Nos. 1 & 2 (Spring and Fall, 1988):46. (33.) Ibid., p. 33. (34.) Legends of Our Time, p. vii. (35.) Ibid., p. viii. (36.) Ibid. (37.) Souls on Fire, p. 59. (38.) Ibid., p. 87. (39.) Arnold J. Band, trans. and ed., Nahman of Bratslav (Paulist Press, 1979), p. 30. (40.) Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (Schocken Books, 1954), p. 338. (41.) Souls on Fire, p. 57. (42.) "Sholem Aleichem: Mythologist of the Mundane," p. 32. (43.) Scholem, p. 345.
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Author:Booth, David
Publication:Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought
Date:Jun 22, 1993
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