Kafka's Jewish Languages: The Hidden Openness of Tradition

Kafka's Jewish Languages: The Hidden Openness of Tradition

Kafka's Jewish Languages: The Hidden Openness of Tradition

Kafka's Jewish Languages: The Hidden Openness of Tradition


After Franz Kafka died in 1924, his novels and short stories were published in ways that downplayed both their author's roots in Prague and his engagement with Jewish tradition and language, so as to secure their place in the German literary canon. Now, nearly a century after Kafka began to create his fictions, Germany, Israel, and the Czech Republic lay claim to his legacy. Kafka's Jewish Languages brings Kafka's stature as a specifically Jewish writer into focus.

David Suchoff explores the Yiddish and modern Hebrew that inspired Kafka's vision of tradition. Citing the Jewish sources crucial to the development of Kafka's style, the book demonstrates the intimate relationship between the author's Jewish modes of expression and the larger literary significance of his works. Suchoff shows how "The Judgment" evokes Yiddish as a language of comic curse and examines how Yiddish, African American, and culturally Zionist voices appear in the unfinished novel, Amerika. In his reading of The Trial, Suchoff highlights the black humor Kafka learned from the Yiddish theater, and he interprets The Castle in light of Kafka's involvement with the renewal of the Hebrew language. Finally, he uncovers the Yiddish and Hebrew meanings behind Kafka's "Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse-Folk" and considers the recent legal case in Tel Aviv over the possession of Kafka's missing manuscripts as a parable of the transnational meanings of his writing.


You never know what you’ll find in your own house.

—Kafka, “A Country Doctor” (Ein Landarzt)

“Everything came to his aid during the construction,” the narrator of “The Building of the Temple” declares. “Foreign workers” (fremde Arbeiter), the authoritative figure soon tells us, not only were essential to a structure that suggests both Jewish and German culture but also evoke an openness to the outside within: “no building ever came into being as easily as this temple—or rather, this temple came into being the way a temple should.” At first the “clumsy scribblings of senseless children’s hands” (unbeholfene Gekritzel sinnloser Kinderhände) written on “every stone” (auf jedem Stein) of the edifice remind the narrator of “the entries of barbaric mountain dwellers” (Eintragungen barbarischer Gebirgsbewohner) engaged in an act of “spite” or “desecration,” though at this primitive level their writing also recalls an originating force. These forgotten builders create the enduring perspective in Kafka’s parable: their writing will remain for “an eternity outlasting the temple,” as a memory of the transactions between disparate nations that allowed the edifice to build and be built. the unknown source of the stones—“from what quarry [Bruche] had they come?”—thus points to a comic “break” (Bruch) with the notion of a singular tradition and to the blessing of those distant sources that give it continued strength. Kafka inscribes the Jewish voice in his parable in this same groundbreaking and future-oriented sense: as a reminder of the human differences that create the temple’s hidden beauty and suggest the power of its most redemptive text.

I argue in this book that Kafka’s perspective on this hidden openness of tradition can be understood through the positive view of human difference that . . .

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