The Role of the Storyteller - Sholem Aleichem and Elie Wiesel

By Booth, David | Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought, Summer 1993 | Go to article overview

The Role of the Storyteller - Sholem Aleichem and Elie Wiesel


Booth, David, Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought


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. …

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