Creating Jewish Identity through Storytelling: The Tragedy of Jacob Bendixen

Article excerpt

Because storytelling is practiced mainly in the family and synagogue, it too has become a perpetuator of ethnic and family identity.

--Tamar Alexander

THe SYMBIOTIC relationship between folklore and literature continues to be of interest for both folklorists and literary critics. Axel Olrik's epic laws, Vladimir Propp's plot elements, and Antti Arne and Stith Thompson's talc types and motifs are not only found in legends, magic tales, and the fabliaux, but similar elements are also parts of novels, short stories, and even film. One particular culture that for centuries has woven the lore of the storyteller between the pages of the written text is that of the Jews. As Raphael Patai remarks in his engaging study, On Jewish Folklore:

   The Jews were throughout their long history a literate people, who
   developed at an early date the habit of committing to writing whatever they
   regarded as important in their oral traditions. As a result, the history of
   Jewish folklore is characterized, in each epoch, by a continuous process of
   lifting out considerable bodies of folklore from the stream of oral
   tradition and freezing them in writing. (38)

It thus seems plausible to assert that upon close examination of Jewish texts, both the folklorist and the literary scholar would need to recognize the importance that both the oral and written traditions have had on the creation and preservation of Jewish culture and identity. Patai notes that each epoch exhibits the inclusion of oral tradition into written works. The nineteenth century, in particular, was marked by an increase of literature written by European Jews.

The Age of Enlightenment had mildly improved conditions for Jews in most areas of western Europe. Napoleon, seen by many as the liberator of the Jews, opened the doors to education, employment, and military service among other filings to European Jews, who had been oppressed for centuries. It should be noted, however, that a number of Jewish intellectuals later found Napoleon's policies problematic. The exiled German-Jewish poet and journalist, Heinrich Heine, who had earlier seen Napoleon in a positive light, denounced him on numerous occasions. Meir Goldschmidt, perhaps Denmark's most widely read Jewish author, also discredited Napoleon's actions in his first novel, En Jode (1845/1852). (1) As if to enlighten his readership on Napoleon's later betrayal of the Jews, Goldschmidt juxtaposes the French commander with the Jew Eleazar.

The Bendixen family sits together during the Sabbath exchanging stories. Philip, Jacob's father, has just finished recounting the engrossing tale of the legend of the Lemberger Rabbi and his creation of the Golem. (2) Jacob is intrigued and frightened by this fantastic tale, but his father assures his son that "den troende Jode behover Inter at frygte" (29) [the devout Jew need not be afraid of anything] (26). The discussion then turns to historical events. Philip criticizes Napoleon for encouraging rabbis to reform the Jewish religion and attributes the decimation of the entire French army in Russia by the harsh winter to this betrayal. He continues,

   Saalonge han var Tyrk iblandt Tyrkere, Jode blandt Joderne og Kristen
   blandt de Kristne saalonge gik det ham godt, og Herren var med ham i
   Slagene ... lad os se, hvor lenge han holder ud endnu, nu da Zions Gud har
   vendt sig fra ham. (29)

   (As long as he was Turk among Turks, Jew among Jews, and Christian among
   Christians, he prospered and the Lord was with him in battles ... [but]
   let's see how long he still holds out now that the God of Zion has turned
   away from him. [26])

Jacob insists that Napoleon was a great hero, "storre end baade Jacob og Abisai" (greater than both Joab (3) and Abisai (4)), but the father instills Jewish pride in the young boy asserting, "Nej, store var Joden Eleazar! Han var ogsaa Kriger; men han opofrede sig selv og stak Elefanten ihjel for at draebe den onde Konge, der vanhelligede Templet, skjont han selv maatte do, naar Dyret faldt" (30) [the Jew Eleazar was greater! …