Israeli society debates the value of Haredi jobs, but Patrick Leigh Fermor saw the ultra-Orthodox hard at work
Leigh Fermor’s first encounter with the latter two languages occurred in the Slovakian city of Bratislava, then widely still referred to as Pressburg. “The German strain in the [Yiddish] language always made me think that I was going to catch the ghost of a meaning,” he later wrote in A Time of Gifts (1977)—“but it eluded me every time; for the dialect—or language, rather—though rooted in medieval Franconian German is complicated by queer syntax and a host of changes and diminutives,” adding that its idiosyncrasy also came from “strange gutturals, Slav accretions, and many words and formations remembered from the Hebrew.” Perhaps reflecting his later encounters with Yiddish-speaking Jews on his long journey he also described Yiddish as “a vernacular in which the history of the Jews in northern Europe and the centuries of their ebb and flow between the Rhine and Russia are all embedded.”
During his stay in Bratislava the young Englishman also resumed his “old obsession with alphabets” and later discovered in the back pages of a surviving notebook from that period “Old Testament names laboriously transliterated into Hebrew characters,” as well as “everyday words” copied down in those characters from “shop fronts” and the Jewish newspapers he saw in cafés. He would soon encounter those ancient characters again in Prague’s old Jewish cemetery, which he described as “one of the most remarkable places in the city,” and where he learned to decipher some of the visual images on the tombstones—“a pitcher for [the tribe of] Levi … a stag for Hirsch, a carp for Karpeles, a cock for Hahn, a lion for Löw, and so on.”
Maundy Thursday of 1934 found Leigh Fermor in a Hungarian village north of Budapest “looking for a barn for the night and a cobbler’s shop.” While looking for the latter—in order to have a boot-nail knocked in—a voice from one of the doorways asked, “Was wollen Sie.” The German-speaking voice belonged to a “red haired Jewish baker” of, it turned out, Hasidic background, who made him “a bed of straw and blankets on the stone floor of the dark bakery” and also hammered in his boot-nail. Both the baker’s religious background and his multiple manual skills link him with some of his older contemporaries whose photographs appear in the two exhibition catalogs discussed above. He was, as his guest learned, “from a Carpathian village where quite a number of Jews, including his family, belonged to the Hasidim.” He was also fond, like his English guest, of reading the Bible—“especially the first part”—a comment whose import it took the latter “a further couple of seconds to get.” In my own ethnographic encounters with young Hasidim—sometimes in the saunas of Jerusalem gyms—I have learned of similar reading interests.
Leigh Fermor’s more extensive account of his encounter, later in his journey, with Carpathian Hasidim occurred in the sequel volume Between the Woods and the Water (1986), which he published early in his eighth decade. In the borderlands between Hungary and Rumania, near the Maros river, Leigh Fermor had met “a burly man in a red-checked flannel shirt”—the Jewish foreman of a local timber concession—with whom he again spoke in German. He followed the foreman to his log cabin, and there he found, “most incongruously seated at a table, a bearded man in a black suit and a black beaver hat,” who was “poring over a large and well-thumbed book, his spectacles close to the print.” On either side of the bearded man, studying with him, were “two sons about my age , also dressed in black” and also “marked for religion”—as the Englishman believed he could tell from their side-curls and from the “unshorn down which fogged their waxy cheeks.”
Leigh Fermor was struck by “how different … the man in the check shirt” was from his older brother and nephews. All of them came from “Satu Mare—Szatmár—a town in the Magyar belt to the north-west of Transylvania,” from where the rabbi and his sons were visiting for a fortnight—probably during a yeshiva vacation. “Was sind Sie von Beruf?” the visitor was asked by his host, who at first suspected that his “profession” was that of a pedlar. When the Englishman tried to explain that he was traveling mostly “for fun” (“aus Vergnügen”) his host “shrugged his shoulders and smiled and said something in Yiddish to the others.” Since Leigh Fermor’s public-school education had presumably not included Joyce’s Ulysses, first published in 1922, it is not surprising that he did not recognize the words “goyim naches” which, his Jewish interlocutors explained, “is something that the goyim like but which leaves Jews unmoved.”
The bearded and black-suited Hasid would clearly not have described his brother’s profession in the same manner, nor would later generations of Satmar Hasidim—such as those who now pursue a host of manual occupations in the less hip sections of Williamsburg. But four-score years after that prewar conversation between Leigh Fermor and his Hasidic hosts it appears that many ultra-Orthodox Jews in the Holy Land, formally prevented from working in order to protect their military exemptions as full-time Torah students, have come to regard holding down real jobs to support their growing families as a form of “hiloni naches”—something that secular Jews like to do but that leaves more pious Jews unmoved. Although both German and Hebrew translations of Dobroszycki and Kirshenblatt-Gimblett’s Image Before My Eyes have appeared (the latter in 2005), Yair Lapid and his party colleague Shai Piron might consider diverting funds from the finance and education ministries they respectively run toward producing a Yiddish translation. As Leigh Fermor would have recognized, doing so on the basis of the German and the Hebrew would be relatively easy.
Like this article? Sign up for our Daily Digest to get Tablet Magazine’s new content in your inbox each morning.
The secretary of state prattles about imaginary treaties while the Arab world is engulfed by a Sunni-Shia civil war