Georg Mordechai Langer turns up from time to time as a curious sidebar to the life of Franz Kafka. One biographer of Kafka describes Langer as “a medieval Jewish mystic born into the wrong century”; another refers to him as “the Orthodox fanatic.” But Langer’s interests went beyond religion. A prolific author, he wrote books, essays, and articles on a variety of subjects in Czech, German, and Hebrew. He was a published poet and an anthologist who possessed an authentic grasp of Hasidic scriptures and Kabbalistic literature. His striking proficiency in Modern Hebrew allowed him to eke out a living giving Hebrew lessons to young Zionists in Prague.
Like Kafka, Langer came from an assimilated, German-speaking, middle-class family, and like Kafka, he showed an avid interest in all things Jewish. But while Kafka restricted his exploration to the secular—attending the performances of a Yiddish theater troupe from Poland and reading Hasidic tales, but rarely setting foot inside a synagogue—Langer made the unusual decision at age 19 to leave his comfortable bourgeois home in Prague and journey to eastern Galicia where he became a student in the court of the Belzer Rebbe. When Langer returned home several months later he’d grown a red beard and side curls and—to the utter dismay of his family—paraded about Prague in a caftan and wide-brimmed hat. Shortly after the Great War broke out, he was drafted into the Austrian army and was soon jailed for refusing orders that interfered with his religious practices. Deemed “mentally bewildered,” Langer was discharged. He returned to Belz where he spent the war years studying Torah, Talmud, and Kabbalah.
Langer comes alive in the introduction Elana Wolff has written for the translation she and her husband, Menachem Wolff, have published of Langer’s Piyyutim ve-Shirei Yedidot (Poems and Songs of Love, Guernica Editions). According to Wolff, Langer was also a serious student of Freud and his disciples, and employed “Freudian methods in analyzing subconscious sources of Jewish ritual, mysticism, and the origin of the religious idea.” This led to his book-length study, Die Erotik der Kabbala (The Eroticism of Kabbalah, 1923). Langer’s most popular book was Devět bran (Nine Gates, 1937), a compilation, in Czech, of Hasidic tales of saints and wonder-working rabbis.
Wolff tells us she came to Georg Langer through a brief entry in A Franz Kafka Encyclopedia, which claimed that his importance in Kafka’s life had been “largely overlooked.” She was also intrigued by a reference to “an elegy for Franz Kafka, written by Langer in Hebrew and published in a small collection at the Prague Jewish printing works in 1929.” Her search for a copy of the book led her to Israel’s National Library, at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem:
In the intense fluorescence of library quiet, I was handed the little original—a plain cardboard cover book, barely 5″ × 7″. I turned it over in my hands. … There was not a single return date stamped on the old fashioned sign-out form pasted to the right-hand side of the next page. I felt like I was the first person to have opened the little book to air.
Piyyutim ve-Shirei Yedidot is a sequence of 16 poems written in Hebrew. The 12th poem, “On the Death of the Poet—after Franz Kafka,” composed shortly after Kafka’s death, is the elegy Wolff was searching for. But Wolff made a more surprising discovery as she read through the poems with titles such as “Handsome Lad,” and “To My Companion.” Their homoerotic imagery pointed to the fact that Langer was gay—an item not mentioned by any of Kafka’s biographers. Langer’s older brother, František, who knew of his brother’s sexual orientation and whose Foreword to the English translation of Nine Gates remains a prime source of biographical information, is also mum on the subject. The omission would hardly matter, except that Langer’s sexuality was an essential part of his art and philosophy. Wolff calls Langer’s disclosure of his homosexuality through his poetry “a daring act of self-expression.” Given the times in which Langer lived, that is an understatement.
Wolff surmises that Langer was under considerable inner pressure to make meaning of his sexual orientation “in light of his commitment to Torah Judaism, which prohibits homosexual relations.” The historian Shaun Jacob Halper elaborates on that observation in his dissertation Mordechai Langer (1894-1943) and the Birth of the Modern Jewish Homosexual. Halper sees in Langer’s life and work the first modern attempt to reconcile homosexuality and Judaism. He explains the ways in which Langer synthesized psychoanalysis, mystical texts, and aesthetics, to defend same-sex desire as “normative to Judaism,” and he places Langer’s project in a historical context. For instance, Halper explains that by opposing the overtly masculine and nationalistic German homosexual movement of the day, Langer was able to define a more liberal Jewish homosexual movement.
Langer chose to “come out” through his poetry, and while the content of his poetry is adventurous, the style is traditional: Wolff roots his verse in biblical and medieval liturgical poetry. Halper sees affinities with “the homoerotic Hebrew poetry of the Golden Age of Spain (10th and 11th centuries),” as well as with fin-de-siècle Symbolist poetry.
The Wolffs’ translation succeeds in capturing the tone of an alienated and at times desperate man on the margins of his community. And a few of the poems (“Alone” and “On the Poems of Li-Tai-Pei”) convince. But for the most part, Langer’s poems sound archaic. His florid language, abstract metaphors, and heavy-handed symbolism will likely block readers from entering his imaginative realm. His homage to his friend Kafka is a hodgepodge of rococo imagery:
For today there’s jubilation in the bosom of the universe
On the fount from which together life and death as brothers spring,
to the sound of music the secrets of nature declare in wonder forever,
drunk with eternal memories Hashmalonim as free men dance.
Kafka would have winced reading this. As Langer himself noted, “He [Kafka] did not like verbose writers, writers excessive in their expressions and calculated in their use of rare words.” While Langer’s artistic sensibility was Romantic and lush, Kafka’s was ironic and restrained. Langer strived to be poetic; Kafka was anti-poetic.
Why had Langer written his impassioned poem for Franz Kafka? Wolff tantalizes by proposing that Kafka may have been the unnamed love interest in Langer’s poems. As evidence she cites the long walks Langer and Kafka took at various times as reported by František. However, nothing in the poems, or in the biographies, supports the notion that Langer was romantically taken with Kafka, whom he’d met through their mutual friend, Max Brod, in 1915. At that time, both Brod and Kafka were deeply interested in east European Yiddishkeit, especially in mystical Hasidism, and they hoped that Langer could open a window into that world.
In September of that year, Langer led Brod and Kafka on a field trip to a dingy inn in a suburb of Prague where the rabbi of Grodek and his followers were having a Sabbath meal. In his diary, Kafka recorded his mixed reactions. He was horrified by the rabbi’s lack of hygiene (“Scratches his beard, spits on the floor, reaches into the food with his fingers … ”) but admired his “purity” (“When he rests his hand on the table, you see … a whiteness you could have only have seen in your childhood imaginings”). Brod reports that on the walk home, Kafka was disparaging, likening the experience to “being among a wild African tribe. Blatant superstition.”
A similar reaction was elicited the following year when Kafka visited Marienbad and met up with Langer, who was taking part in the daily rituals of the vacationing Belzer Rebbe and his disciples. In a long letter to Brod, Kafka describes the rabbi as “the kind of sultan I used to admire as a child in the fairy-tale illustrations by Doré.” The disciples, he writes, have “that look of calm, happy confidence … ” But later in the letter he likens the rabbi’s discourse to “the banal chatter and questions of idle monarchs.” Kafka writes: “Langer seeks, or suspects, a deeper meaning in all of this; I think the deeper meaning is that there is none.”
In each instance, the child within Kafka acknowledges an attraction to the “wonder rabbis,” while the sceptic questions their authority. Langer committed himself to Hasidism and later to Zionism; Kafka, contemplated aspects of Jewish life from a distance. Paradoxically, Kafka’s distancing, his non-involvement, allowed for a powerful intuition of the Jewish condition in the Diaspora.
Kafka’s overwhelming passion was language and his true friendship with Langer was based on their mutual love of Hebrew. In the spring of 1917, Kakfa decided to learn Modern Hebrew; he obtained a copy of Moses Rath’s Hebrew Grammar and Reader for Schools and Self-Instruction, the recommended textbook of the day, and began to diligently work his way through the prescribed lessons. Then, in the autumn of 1918, he asked Langer to give him private lessons; Langer, who was impressed with his student’s progress, would later describe Kafka’s Hebrew as “fluent.”
If Langer provided Kafka with a glimpse of Jewish mysticism, as well as private Hebrew lessons, what did Kafka give Langer? In the autumn of 1939, Langer escaped from Prague, traveling via the Danube-to-Istanbul route toward Palestine. The conditions on his boat were deplorable, and he developed kidney disease, which led to his premature death in March of 1943. During their research, the Wolffs came upon an article Langer wrote at the behest of the editor of the Tel-Aviv journal Hegeh. It was published in February 1941, 17 years after Kafka’s death. Langer titled it, “Something About Kafka,” and the Wolffs have included this fascinating document in their Afterword.
Langer begins humbly, saying he “had the fortune to dwell in Kafka’s shadow,” then loses his way in Kafka hagiography: Kafka, we’re told, was “enigmatic;” he possessed a “great and wondrous personality;” Langer admired the “secrecy of his [Kafka’s] soul,” which was like that of “the Ba’al Shem Tov.” But eventually, Langer settles down to reveal some truly interesting details.
We learn that Kafka, who collected books of Chinese poetry, read Langer’s poems when they first appeared in the Warsaw literary journal Kolot (Voices) and told him, “they resemble, a little, Chinese poetry.” Langer took the hint and purchased a copy of Chinese poetry in French translation by Franz Toussaint. Kafka’s comment was somewhat disingenuous. Langer’s poetry is the antithesis of Chinese poetry. More likely, Kafka was hoping that the sparse poems of Tu Fu and Li Po, simple in diction and imagery, might have a positive influence on Langer’s work. Kafka also advised Langer “repeatedly” to read a poem every day: “One and not two. … Because no brain can take more than this.”
Langer becomes most animated when he writes of his student’s joy in speaking Hebrew: “Once when we were traveling together by streetcar and speaking about the airplanes that were circling the skies of Prague at that moment, some Czech people who were riding in the streetcar with us … asked us what language we were speaking. … When we told them, they were surprised that it was possible to converse in Hebrew, even about airplanes. … How Kafka’s face lit up then from happiness and pride!”
According to Langer, Kafka was not a Zionist but “deeply envied those who fulfilled the great principles of Zionism … the principle of immigrating to the Land of Israel.” We learn from Langer that Kafka was particularly taken with a newspaper account of a young man’s arduous trek across one of Israel’s deserts: “The description was not encouraging in any way,” Langer states. “One did not gain anything from it except details of fatigue, thirst, and sweat. Yet precisely this—the presentation of negative and repellent aspects, as it were, appealed to Kafka. … For the man was unusual …”
And prescient. In 1961, when František Langer looked back on his younger brother’s disruptive return from Belz 50 years earlier, he viewed it through the lens of Kafka’s fiction: “It seemed to resemble the situation in Kafka’s novel, The Metamorphosis, in which an entire family finds its way of life completely upset when the son of the house is suddenly changed into an enormous cockroach and consequently had to be hidden from the rest of the world.”
Kafka demanded much of art. But he also understood art’s limitations and knew how it can falsify reality, which is why investigators such as the Wolffs and Halper should be commended for giving Langer his due.
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Kenneth Sherman is a poet and essayist. His essay collection, What the Furies Bring, received the 2010 Canadian Jewish Book Award.
Kenneth Sherman is a poet and essayist. His most recent book is the memoir Wait Time.