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Child’s Play

Seventy years ago, a contentious novel scrutinized Judaism through the eyes of a young boy

Sasha Weiss
January 07, 2009

In 1937, the Hungarian novelist Karoly Pap was called to defend his new book, Azarel, at a Budapest salon convened by the Hungarian Zionist Association. His detractors were nettled by the cutting tone of the book’s eponymous narrator, the eight-year-old Gyuri Azarel, whose indictments of his rabbi father are delivered with smirking fury. Pap—a popular contributor of stories and essays to Budapest’s avant-garde literary journals—was the son of a prominent reform rabbi, and some readers assumed that the novel was a cruel skewering of his own father. Others defended the book’s subtle portrayal of a child’s inner life and the difficulty of self-definition. In one passage, Gyuri dreams of exposing his father’s tyranny, telling himself:

Just go straight ahead to the synagogue, and you’ll wait outside listening until your father speaks, and right when he clasps his hands and looks up at the sky . . . then all of a sudden you’ll go inside, stand up in front of everyone, and shout: ‘All lies, every word of his! And the Good Lord is just like him, too, yes, he hits his kid because of God!’

His fantasies about winning his father’s acceptance are just as desperate. Gyuri’s dilemma—to reject the strictures of his father’s house or to submit to its stern routines, to insist on his independence or to capitulate to the comforting parochialisms and hypocrisies of communal life—is similar to one faced by Hungarian Jews at the time Pap was writing.

Reading Pap’s defense of the novel in an epilogue to the English language edition of Azarel (published by Steerforth in 2001, it’s the only one of his books available in English), it seems he had indeed intended to provoke a conflicted response in his readers. “What I’ve been criticized for and will yet be criticized for is completely true,” he said in a speech at the time. “The book is ruthless. Yet it was precisely only through this ruthlessness that I could achieve what I wanted, which was for my book to make itself felt all the way down to that depth of the Jewish soul . . . who could be pained more than I by the fact that the best of my people’s soul is accessible only through ruthless words and writing? I, who am this people’s writer?”

“The Jewish soul”—not generally placid—was in extreme tumult during the years Pap wrote, and Azarel was aimed straight at the heart of debates surrounding Jewish identity in Hungary during the 1920s and ’30s. The Jews of Hungary, who for half a century had been tolerated and even accepted into the mainstream of Hungarian society, were again feeling the encroachment of a dividing wall. Venomous attitudes toward Jews were perpetuated through newspaper columns, a growing body of literature that posited a Magyar identity purged of foreign influence, and laws restricting the number of Jews who could attend university. Among Jews themselves, there was great division about whether to embrace Hungarian nationalism, or take shelter in their own communities.

Pap’s response to the questions simmering in the Jewish zeitgeist were contrarian and unexpected. The son of Miksa Pollak, the chief rabbi of Sopron in Western Hungary, Pap grew up immersed in Jewish ritual and Biblical literature, influences evident in his repetitive, allusive language. But he was also exposed to secular culture. His father was a literary scholar as well as a rabbi, who practiced a forward-thinking, reformist Judaism that sought to reconcile the strictures of Jewish law with full participation in modern life. Reform Jews in Hungary had firmly broken with the Orthodox, and the two groups—which each comprised about half of the total Jewish population—actively disdained one another.

Set against a backdrop of declining Jewish power in the country and large and tense conflicts within the Jewish community, it’s easy to see why Azarel unsettled its readership: the book is a love/hate note from Pap to his Jewish childhood, written at a moment when the Jews of Hungary were terrified. Pap’s demand for self-scrutiny was a lot to ask.

After their legal emancipation in 1867, Hungarian Jews embraced freedom with particular zeal, adapting the Magyar language, and helping to finance the infrastructure of a newly-formed Hungarian state. By the early 20th century half of Hungarian Jews were secular, and identified more strongly as Hungarian citizens than as members of a parochial sect. The climate of revived anti-Semitism in the 1920s and ’30s only deepened the rift between the secular and the Orthodox. Many Jews converted to Christianity, and openly reviled their religious brethren; others, without completely disavowing Judaism, tried to scrub away the taint of the shtetl by joining secular social movements.

Pap left home at 17 to join the Austro-Hungarian army and fight in World War I, wanting to get away from his father’s confining world, to prove his loyalty to his country, and to contest the pervasive stereotype of spindly Jewish cowardice. But he came to oppose the idea that Jews should—or even that they could—assimilate. In the army, he was exposed to the callous prejudices of his fellow soldiers, and began to suspect that Jews would never be genuinely embraced by the mainstream. He dramatized his war experience in his first novel, Gyorgy Leviat, in which he depicted Jewish characters coping variously with exclusion—a theme that he would develop further in Azarel.

After the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian empire, Pap briefly joined the communist revolution of Bela Kuhn, who ruled for three months before his government collapsed. Jews were widely seen as sympathetic to the communist cause, and hundreds were killed in the months after Kuhn was deposed in a panicked wave of anti-Jewish violence. Pap was jailed for a short time on a trumped-up charge; when he was released, he spent some months in Vienna. Unmoored from his family, whose adaptive Judaism he had come to view as inert and empty, Pap eventually returned to Budapest, where for a few years he lived a migratory life. He briefly joined a theater troupe, and began to write poems and stories. After an editor at Nygat (“West”), the pre-eminent experimental literary journal in Budapest, took an interest in Pap’s work, his writing life commenced in earnest.

Pap lived at a remove from the swirling, bohemian literary scene in Budapest. Each day his wife, who worked as a clerk to support them both, would give him enough money for two cups of coffee and he would board a tram to a café where he wrote all day long. At a time when many of his Jewish contemporaries were trying to prove their mettle as edgy modernists, Pap was one of the few who explicitly depicted Jewish characters in Jewish settings.

Azarel begins with a Biblical bargain—the dedication of an infant to the service of a zealous God. Gyuri Azarel, who narrates his own story in rueful hindsight, is handed over as an infant to his fanatical grandfather Papa Jeremiah. The father of seven sons who toiled his whole life in other people’s fields, Papa Jeremiah hoped that his own sons would become great scholars of Torah. But while Gyuri’s father went to rabbinical school, he studied an innovative, modernized Judaism that his father detests. Papa Jeremiah insists that he and Gyuri sleep on beds of straw and eat nothing but homemade bread; he burns the gifts that Gyuri’s parents bring in a big bonfire; he fasts; and he dunks the tiny Gyuri in a cold ritual bath. But even as Gyuri is afraid of and repulsed by his grandfather, he is strangely drawn to his rigorous routine of prayer, fasting, and penance. For all its severity, Papa Jeremiah’s world buzzes with mystery, something Gyuri will find lacking in his father’s less observant Jewish household, to which he is restored around the age of five, when Papa Jeremiah dies.

Although ostensibly freer than when he was living with his grandfather, Gyuri finds his parents’ house impossibly restrictive. He observes with disgust the way his mother plies his father for money by making him elaborate meals. At home his father is remote and mercurial, while at the pulpit he presents himself as a gracious family man. Gyuri is a truculent child, and his narration condemns the reform Jewish world around him as stuffy, hypocritical, materialistic, and unimaginative. Wandering his father’s house, he finds no objects with “any secret proclivity to play, any latent mystery or music they would have revealed only to me . . . everything was utterly manifest, motionless, closed.” And yet he trembles with yearning to be part of this world. Here he is in synagogue, watching his father: “In the heart of the pulpit, as I stare and listen, Father grows larger! Especially when he stretches out his arms now and again, taking with them the arms of his gown, like giant wings and lets his surging voice resound, I am so proud to belong to him that I shudder with exhilaration . . .”

Pap, with great sympathy for this contrarian little boy, attunes the reader to the pendulous swings in Gyuri’s emotions, skillfully capturing the narcissism of childhood. Gyuri is like a small rubber ball tethered to a paddle by an elastic string, knocking roughly against the wood but never fully breaking away. The echoes of the story of Abraham and Isaac are clear: first, Isaac is literally bound to an altar, but when he is released from immediate physical danger, he is bound by something even firmer and more devastating—that is, to the father and the religion that have hurt him, and that will continue to exert a force on him throughout his life. But Gyuri’s rebellion is ultimately circumscribed: he gets used to his family and adapts to their ways. No matter how much he resists the dull norms of their lives—and no matter how much the narration, ordered capriciously by Gyuri’s confused, childish mind, resists the structures of a conventional story—he eventually capitulates.

Pap believed that all Jews—like ferocious little Gyuri—were destined for the peculiar loneliness of being surrounded by an uncomprehending crowd (like most of Hungary’s Jews, he was killed in Bergen Belsen, five years after the publication of Azarel). In Gyuri, Pap created a child through whom he could mediate the conflicting strains of Judaism that lived within him. Gyuri observes the limitations and hypocracies of Judaism with a purity of vision common to precocious children; and yet his vision is inconsistent, inflected variously by moods of defiance, bewilderment, need, longing, love, and possible madness. If Pap was, as he claimed, the writer of the Jewish soul, then Gyuri is its repository: wise beyond his years, yet perennially stunted by his earliest experiences.