What would it take to repair the damage done to the American Jewish psyche by hundreds of lousy Holocaust novels and school productions of Fiddler on the Roof? Every culture needs its inhumanly idealized pop versions of its past, I suppose, whether Lincoln or Gone With the Wind. But American Jews with roots in Yiddish-speaking Europe bear the burden of a past not merely gone but incinerated. The community’s response has been to sanctify these ancestors’ deaths rather than their lives, as though it were our responsibility to recall their murderers’ actions rather than theirs—and thereby to regard these ancestors as holy innocents, trapped in sentimental amber.
The psychological damage from this attitude toward the past is profound. It means we are never allowed to view the Jews of pre-Holocaust Europe as adults, as participants in a complex and diverse and contradictory world or, more important, as people who were aware enough to see it coming. It means that in novel after pseudo-redemptive novel, we are never allowed to see the truth or to recognize ourselves as its inheritors. What, then, would actual art about that truth really look like? And what might we gain by replacing that faux past with something … real?
When I call Jacob Glatstein’s Yiddish novel Homecoming at Twilight a masterpiece, the word hardly seems adequate. “Masterpiece” describes Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, a novel about a resort/sanatorium that shelters its diverse guests from the horror about to engulf Europe in the First World War. But The Magic Mountain was published in 1924, years after that war ended. Homecoming at Twilight, a novel about a resort/sanatorium that shelters its diverse guests from the horror about to engulf Europe’s Jews, was written before the Second World War even began. (It was first published in 1940, but was composed in the mid-1930s as part of a projected trilogy.) Was this American Yiddish poet also a prophet? Terrifyingly, the answer is no.
Imminent doom has been a feature of Jewish life since the Assyrian conquest of the Israelite Northern Kingdom in the year 722 BCE—and not merely a feature, but a contact point between people and God and a generator of literary riches that never substitute beauty for truth. As the opening line of this novel reads, playing on Psalms, “Even from the gutter will I sing praises to Thee, my Lord, even from the gutter.” And yet, Glatstein’s book is still eerily predictive. From the conversations in this book with and about every type of Polish Jew as they gather at this resort—secular and religious, young and old, Zionists and Communists and Polish patriots alike—we learn just how profoundly all of them sensed their imminent doom, not because they could see the future, but because they could see the past. “They want to destroy us, nothing less,” one character notes of his non-Jewish neighbors early in the book, which, I’ll note again, was written before the first mass murders.
“They want to exterminate us, purely and simply. Yes, exterminate us.”
Jacob Glatstein emigrated from Poland to New York in 1914, at the age of seventeen. A secular Jew who was Americanized enough to enroll in law school at NYU, he dropped out to devote his career to Yiddish literature, publishing volumes of poetry that vaulted Yiddish into the stratosphere of high modernism. But the advent of Nazism turned his poet’s eye toward the impending horror. When he visited Poland in 1934 to attend to his mother’s death, he turned his experience into this stunning vision of Jewish Poland’s spiral toward doom. Titled in Yiddish Ven Yash iz gekumen (“When Yash Arrived”; available in English in The Glatstein Chronicles, along with its companion volume about Yash’s voyage to Poland), the novel doesn’t settle for mere realism. Spanning styles from reportage to surrealist drama (yes, in play script) to biblical allegory to dissociative childhood memoir, Homecoming at Twilight takes one American Jew’s last visit to Poland and plunges down, through politics, economics, religion, sexual dynamics, and history, until it reaches the deepest anxieties of Jewish existence.
Yash, the American narrator (who is only named in the Yiddish title), has just buried his mother in Lublin. Before returning to New York, he checks into a Jewish resort in the country—though whether the establishment is a hotel, hospital, or hospice is rather unclear. “I want you to know that this is a place for healthy people,” the proprietor insists. Yet Yash soon discovers that not only are some guests near death, but others have come to treat their “arteriosclerosis of the brain”—or as one character puts it, “You never know when you’re talking to a mental case.” Then again, the question of whether this is a Jewish resort or a mental institution is strangely moot. All Polish Jews at this point could probably find some version of themselves in the DSM-V, thanks to the (pre-Nazi) anti-Semitic quotas and boycotts that put them in a financial and psychological stranglehold. Or as Yash concludes after one too many dispiriting conversations, “There was no hope! That was the diagnosis of a whole generation.” When word spreads that an American is on the premises, Yash is besieged by guests who stuff his suitcases with letters to their cousin/nephew/brother-in-law in New York, full of desperate pleas for money or visas. In exchange for his patience, he receives unexpected treasures: each person’s confessions of the triumphs and failures of their lives.
What emerges is a whirlwind of stories of winding life-paths, featuring a kind of greatest hits of European Jewish life and including many real historic figures, from the old false messiahs Jacob Frank and Shabetai Zvi to the new messiahs of Theodor Herzl and others. (The recent English edition footnotes them all.) Yash meets men who attended the early Zionist congresses as teenagers, child survivors of pogroms, Communists and capitalists, devout Hasidim and devout atheists, male and female sexual adventurers, religious people who became secular and secular people who became religious. Glatstein gives each character so much air time that we can’t help empathizing with them, lingering with Yash in the richness and uniqueness of each person’s perspectives, which swirl through the book in a kaleidoscope of voices:
“The trouble with us Jews is that we don’t love the Lord of the Universe enough.”
“It’s so hard to find a girl who is willing to sleep with a madman.”
“I’m simply poisoning my life, making myself unhappy; I can’t stop asking why to everything, even the most trivial thing. I can’t make out the pattern at all.”
“Our young people are becoming terribly unromantic and practical; it’s almost frightening. People are afraid to fall in love.”
“He became a convert out of revenge against Jewish girls.”
“I don’t care what kind of burden a Jew chooses to bear all his life, but he should never be without one.”
“When I was younger, painters and writers talked to me a lot, and now all they said oozes out of me. I wish I could get to the point when I have something to say of my own.”
“Inside me sits the soul of an ancestor who summons me back.”
As Yash’s stay expands past the reasonable, the atmosphere at the hotel becomes increasingly surreal until a driver appears at his door to take him to the town of Kazimierz—where he never intended to go. Another guest, deciding to come along, explains, “You see, it’s fate. A man has to visit Kazimierz sooner or later. … You are not going to Kazimierz of your own free will any more than I am.” Kazimierz, now part of Krakow, is a picturesque town with the ruined castle of a Polish king who had, according to both Polish and Jewish legend, a Jewish mistress. In the legend’s Jewish versions, the king’s lover is named Esther, after the biblical Esther placed in the non-Jewish palace to save her people. “Visiting Kazimierz,” then, takes on a deeper meaning: a fantasy of Jewish acceptance in a non-Jewish world. As he and Yash climb the hill to the ruin of “Esther’s Castle,” Yash’s companion, who has spent the ride to town detailing how anti-Semitism is destroying Polish Jews (“A war of attrition is being waged against us. … Today our people are staring death in the eyes”), calls out this fantasy for what it is: “Walk no farther than the gates and turn right back, for you can see only too clearly what lies in store. The grave. But the people created a legend in defiance of the limitations of this life.”
It must be said that Homecoming at Twilight will not entertain you on the beach. As Glatstein’s lifelong nemesis Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote in a scathing review, “Jules Verne would not have wasted 10 lines on a journey so bereft of adventure.” But Jules Verne wasn’t staring death in the eyes. And while American Jews thankfully aren’t either, this symphony of voices from those who did can cure so much of the damage done by the feel-good representations of the past.
Despite, or because of, its awareness of the coming catastrophe, the therapeutic themes that this book can offer the chronically nervous American Jewish community are legion. That communal anxiety is not a result of the Holocaust or the uprooting forces of America but predates both by thousands of years. That as anti-Semitism increases, one must remember just how long this game is. That no matter what the latest Pew Survey says, movement in and out of Jewish life is also a long game that won’t end. That what’s worth remembering isn’t how people died, but how they lived—not as innocents, but as adults with dreams and regrets and choices and agency. And that one consolation for mortality is the potential immortality of a community whose very endurance is itself a form of transcendence. As Yash puts it as he considers his mother’s death: “A dream may last a whole 20 years, and the moment of fulfillment be only a moment, barely caught hold of, barely glimpsed in the impetuous onrush of time. … The dream will dream itself on and on, and gradually your own children, your own grandchildren, one by one will appear in the dream.”
“We must become a creative encyclopedia,” one character insists as he puts forth his vision for renewing Jewish life. That creative encyclopedia already exists in the many brilliant works of modern Jewish literature, and the only problem is that so few readers today know about them. In this column going forward, I will try to open them for you.
Read more from Tablet’s Art & Ideas Week here.