Kafka's "The Animal in the Synagogue": His Marten as a Special Biblical Memory

By Wasserman, Martin | Studies in Short Fiction, Spring 1997 | Go to article overview

Kafka's "The Animal in the Synagogue": His Marten as a Special Biblical Memory


Wasserman, Martin, Studies in Short Fiction


Exploring the identity of Kafka's marten-like creature in his story, "The Animal in the Synagogue," Marthe Robert speculated that it should be viewed as the memory of something sacred (113-14). Elaborating on Robert's conjecture, I would argue that the marten specifically symbolized the female prophet, Huldah.(1)

Kafka probably wrote "The Animal in the Synagogue" in 1923,(2) when he had become quite competent in his understanding of Hebrew. One of his teachers, Jiri Langer--who had been a member of the Hasidic sect and thus would have been highly proficient in Hebrew--said of his student: "Yes, Kafka spoke Hebrew. We always spoke Hebrew in the last times we had together.... Unlike the other Prague Zionists, he was speaking fluently" (Oppenheimer 303). Kafka's sound comprehension of his newfound language makes it reasonable to assume that he knew that the Hebrew word, Huldah, meant "marten."(3) That Kafka would use his knowledge of Hebrew when writing "The Animal in the Synagogue" also seems reasonable if one takes into account his similar approach with The Castle, completed only a year earlier. Here, too, he used specific German words in such a way that they took on deeper biblical meanings when translated into Hebrew (Beck 198; Robertson 228).

The storyline of "The Animal in the Synagogue" appears, on first glance, quite fantastic. An animal resembling a marten, but blue-green in color, frightens the women in the synagogue by its movements on the latticework above them. The men, on the other hand, have learned to ignore the marten, although they are periodically angered by its actions. When not near the women, the marten climbs down to the curtain of the Ark of the Covenant and hangs from a shining brass rod. The synagogue itself, where the marten has roamed freely for years, is in a state of disrepair, and the marten senses that in the future something terrible might happen to its congregants. The story ends with the beadle's reminiscence of his grandfather's plans to drive the marten out. However, this desire is never translated into action, as Kafka abruptly breaks off his narrative with ellipsis points.(4)

The events in "The Animal in the Synagogue" closely approximate much of the available traditions regarding Huldah. Kafka would have had access to this information either in the his own books on Judaism or those in the library at the Hochschule fur die Wissenschaft des Judentums (Academy for the Study of Judaism) in Berlin, an institute that trained rabbis and Jewish scholars, and that Kafka had attended in 1923--the same year he apparently wrote "The Animal in the Synagogue." Kafka's marten may therefore reasonably be examined with this background in mind.(5)

Examining Kafka's story, one could explain the normally dark brown marten's blue-green appearance in terms of ancient blue-green dye, tekhalet, used by both men and women in the kingdom of Judah to dye the fringes of their garments (Encyclopedia Judaica 15:913, 16:1187). This blue-green tekhalet would be a particularly appropriate color in Huldah's case because of the seventh century BCE belief that it could bring an individual closer to the "throne of glory." Huldah, as a Mosaic prophet, was recognized as capable of intercession with Yahweh and, thus, would have had a special interest in wearing garments died with tekhalet (Wilson 220).

In "The Animal in the Synagogue," Kafka's marten usually stays near the female congregants, communicating through movements that tended to frighten them. These activities would be compatible with Huldah's role, which, in biblical times, would have been to urge women to follow the Mosaic Law they had heard during services (Jewish Encyclopedia 6: 488), a task she accomplished by scolding those deviating from Mosaic Law, strongly exhorting them to repent their transgressions. Huldah's threatening approach is reputed to have produced great fear in its hearers (Wilson 221). Huldah and the marten's respective communication with women differs only in that Huldah used words, whereas the marten uses gesture and action. …

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