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A Polish Christian Writes the Great Jewish Novel

A 700-page Polish novel is all the rage in Israel, but can it heal the rift between Poles and Jews?

Shalom Goldman
September 23, 2021
TT News Agency/Alamy
Olga TokarczukTT News Agency/Alamy
TT News Agency/Alamy
Olga TokarczukTT News Agency/Alamy

Polish writer Olga Tokarczuk, winner of the 2018 Nobel Prize in literature, published The Books of Jacob in 2014. The novel follows the messianic religious leader Jacob Frank as he travels through 18th-century Europe, attracting a fervent following and a list of avowed enemies. Translated into Hebrew (with the financial support of the Polish Ministry of Culture) and published in Israel in 2020, this enormously complex and rich book, 700 pages in its Hebrew version, has become an Israeli cultural phenomenon. An eagerly awaited English translation by Jennifer Croft will be published in 2022.

In their presentation of the award to Tokarczuk, the Nobel Prize committee praised The Books of Jacob, whose subtitle is “The Great Journey through Seven Borders, Five Languages, and Three Religions,for its expansive reach. The Nobel award statement said that Tokarczuk displayed “a narrative imagination that with encyclopedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life.” One of those boundaries is the one between Judaism and Christianity, and the exploration of Jacob Frank’s crossing of that boundary is the novel’s central theme.

A related contemporary boundary is the one between Poles and Israelis. Commenting on the Israeli publication of The Books of Jacob, Tokarczuk told an interviewer for Israel Hayom, the popular (and populist) Israeli newspaper, that “the fact that this book has been published in Hebrew is, in my opinion, the most important event that has happened with this book.” The translation project was remarkable, with the publisher (Carmel), the translator (Miriam Borenshtein) and the consulting scholars (Yonatan Meir of Ben-Gurion University, and Avriel Bar-Levav of the Open University) lavishing care and attention on the book’s citations of rabbinic sources and revisiting the original Hebrew condemnations of Frank.

Tokarczuk continued that “The book tells the story of the shared history of the Poles and the Jews.” Deeply aware that this is a troubled “shared history,” Tokarczuk added that “Many Israelis and Poles are apathetic about their shared history … I believe that The Books of Jacob, one of many chapters in the history of the Jewish diaspora in Europe and Poland, presents the infinite complexity of human relations, which only literature can really describe.”

In a laudatory review essay in Haaretz, Benny Ziffer compared The Books of Jacob to Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Just as that master of magic realism artfully fuses the mythic and the real in his depiction of characters’ lives, Tokarczuk in Ziffer’s words, “deliberately bends and distorts the chronology of Jacob Frank’s life and the story of his messianic movement … The stories and legends, told by the oddball characters in both novels, are piled on each other to create the impression that you, the reader, are walking on dreamy clouds of fantasy.”

The Books of Jacob is set in the second half of the 18th century and focuses on the lives of messianic pretender Jacob Frank and his followers, who were later dubbed “Frankists” by their opponents. Frank’s teachings, which threatened rabbinic doctrine, attracted thousands of followers and were swiftly condemned by the rabbinical leaders of the day—like those of his predecessor Sabbatai Sevi. In time, Frank’s followers would constitute a separate religious community, distinct from both Judaism and Christianity. In the mid-19th century, the Frankists of Prague would rise to positions of wealth and power in Prague.

But before they constituted a separate religious community, the Frankists converted to Catholicism. In September of 1759, Jacob Frank was baptized in a public ceremony at the Cathedral of Lemberg/Lviv. In the wake of his apostasy, some 3,000 other Jewish believers in Frank followed him into Polish Catholicism (this approximation is a fairly conservative estimate.) As Hebrew University historian Pawel Maciejko noted in his 2011 book, The Mixed Multitude: Jacob Frank and the Frankist Movement, 1755-1816, “Against this backdrop, and even if we accept the most conservative assessments, the scale of the Frankist conversion is astounding. Never before did Poland-Lithuania experience a mass Jewish apostasy; normally, accepting Christianity was a matter of personal decision undertaken by individuals or––sometimes––nuclear families.”

But in the remarkable case of the Frankists, a whole community of Jews apostatized. The reactions to this, both among Jews and Christians, were powerful. Maciejko notes that “The Frankists’ baptism was seen as a monumental event unique both in size and in its theological ramifications. Even the most zealous Catholic priests were well aware that the vast majority of the Jewish conversions throughout the ages did not stem from Jewish recognition of the truth of Christianity but rather from the desire for social advancement or to avoid persecution.”

Jacob Frank
Jacob Frank Culture Club/Getty Images

As noted by Gershom Scholem, the great 20th-century historian of Jewish mysticism, Sabbatianism and Frankism were related messianic movements that challenged and influenced normative Jewish thought. A century before the Frankist’s apostasy to Catholicism, an even larger number of Jews converted to Islam in the wake of Sabbatai Sevi’s “taking the turban” and becoming a Muslim. In the theology developed by Sabbatai Sevi’s followers, among whom were some distinguished rabbis, the strictures of rabbinic law were loosened, if not abrogated, by the advent of the Messiah. Though most of Sabbatai’s followers left his messianic movement after his apostasy, many followed him into Islam. These converts, known in Turkish as donmeh, lived as Muslims while secretly adhering to a Sabbatian Jewish-Muslim synthesis. At the core of this synthesis was the belief that Sabbatai Sevi, despite his apostasy, was the Messiah, and that his “descent into Islam” was a necessary condition of the process of redemption. A century after Sabbatai Sevi’s apostasy, Jacob Frank emerged as a new claimant of the messianic crown. His “descent into Christianity” would usher in the final redemption.

As historian Maciejko noted, Jacob Frank, who was born in Poland, was initiated into a Sabbatian group as a young man in Nicopolis (in Ottoman Turkey). Soon after his initiation, he joined the circle of Sabbatai Sevi’s grandson Berukhyah Russo. Restless and rebellious, even in this messianic secret society, Frank left the Ottoman lands and returned to Poland. There he contacted Sabbatian believers and created his own form of mystical messianism, a set of teachings. Frank directed his growing group of followers to practice the inversion of religious rules. Among these innovations: eating forbidden foods, feasting on fast days, and transgressing upon the boundaries of accepted sexual behavior. Most sensationally, Frankism’s rabbinic opponents accused them of conducting orgies on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays, and it seems from the evidence that there was some truth to these claims. In her novel, Tokarczuk is not reticent about providing the juicy details about these sexual transgressions.

Condemned by the rabbinic authorities as heretics, the Frankists were excommunicated (put under ban, or herem), in 1756. In response, an evermore aggressive Jacob Frank counterattacked. He enlisted the help of the Catholic Church in refuting the claims of the rabbinical council that put him and his followers in herem. The result was a public disputation, overseen by the church, between the Frankists, who dubbed themselves the “contra-Talmudists,” and a delegation of eminent rabbis. Among the principles of faith articulated by the Frankist disputants was this assertion: “The rabbis of old times sought to expound the Old Testament. Their explanations are known as the Talmud and contain many lies, irrationalities, and much nonsense about and hostility to God and his teachings.” This claim had many Christian antecedents, as did a subsequent Frankist claim that Jewish rituals required the blood of Christians. To no one’s surprise, the church authorities decided in favor of the Frankists. One of the consequences was a public burning of copies of the Talmud.

Common to both Sabbatian and Frankist thought is the idea of “redemption through sin.” This paradoxical notion was articulated most clearly in Gershom Scholem’s 1935 essay of that name. Underlying Sabbatai Sevi’s apostasy and the mass conversion of his followers was, in Scholem’s view, “an unprecedented theology of Judaism.” In this theology, the Messiah had arrived and would give a “new Torah”—meaning that, as with Christianity, the laws of the old Torah were no longer relevant. The old law was also to be inverted. What was sacred was now to be profaned, and what had been profane was now rendered sacred. The resulting behaviors have provided wonderful material for novelists. Olga Tokarczuk is not the first writer who was attracted to this story. In the mid-1930s ,Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer serialized his novel about Jacob Frank. Later, because of objections to its “pornographic” passages, Singer decided not to publish it in book form. He had more success with his novel about Sabbatian messianism in Poland, Satan in Goray.

Commenting on their decision to award Tokarczuk the Nobel Prize, the Nobel committee dubbed The Books of Jacob, her magnum opus. Polish liberals were happy to see a woman, and a liberal, awarded the prize. In contrast, right-wing Polish politicians and academicians condemned Tokarczuk and her novel. Though Poland has been a member of the European Union for the past 18 years, Polish social attitudes haven’t aligned with those of the EU. In fact, many Poles have been rejecting those liberal norms. Anti-immigrant sentiment is growing in Poland and democratic ideals are threatened. A form of Holocaust revisionism has emerged on the nationalistic Polish right, with a 2018 law making it a crime to associate Poles with the Shoah. As Jonathan Tobin noted earlier this year, “anybody who speaks of antisemitism or anti-Jewish violence among Poles can be liable to be prosecuted.” And the European Gay Rights organization has described Poland as the most homophobic country in Europe. But as Poland, governed by the Law and Justice Party since 2015, turns rightward, some of its most prominent intellectuals are resisting these trends and their anti-immigrant, antisemitic, and anti-LGBTQ expressions. Olga Tokarczuk is prominent among those resisters.

The Books of Jacob will no doubt be translated into many languages, but the Hebrew translation will remain, as Tokarczuk noted, the most important event in the book’s history. A humorous claim made about some 19th- and early-20th-century translations of world classics into Yiddish is that they are “fartaytched und farbessert” (translated and improved)—a claim made often on Warsaw Yiddish theater posters for King Lear and other Shakespeare plays. I would make a similar (but more serious) claim for the Hebrew translation of Tokarczuk’s novel.

Shalom Goldman is Professor of Religion at Middlebury College. His most recent book is Starstruck in the Promised Land: How the Arts Shaped American Passions about Israel.

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