The Romanian writer Abraham Leib Zissu (1888-1956), little read today, was one of the most daring figures of prewar Jewish literature. His short stories, written in an original and effusive style, celebrate—and criticize—the Hasidic culture in which he was raised. His 1927 short story collection, Confession of a Candelabra (Spovedania unui candelabru), which is told in part by a menorah, is particularly daring. In addition to the menorah, his human protagonists rebel against the faith of their families with outrageous antinomian fantasies and acts, ranging from the destruction of a synagogue to apparent apostasy.
In both his fiction and his politics, Zissu was committed to preserving Jewish life from what he saw as the dangers of unthinking conformity to tradition and assimilation into the non-Jewish world. After World War II, Zissu became one of the leaders of Romanian Jewish emigration to Israel, an achievement that has earned him a larger place in history than his literary and philosophical work. By examining his biography and intellectual life, we can not only understand him more completely, but also join him in asking about how fidelity to one’s community and rebellion can be strangely entangled—or at least impossible to distinguish.
Abraham Zissu was born in 1888 and received a rabbinic education, but devoted himself from an early age on the one hand to business (particularly sugar refining) and on the other to literature, journalism, and activism on behalf of Romania’s Jews. He attacked Jewish leaders and organizations that he saw as promoting assimilationism, engaging in especially bitter polemics with Wilhelm Filderman, head of the Union of Romanian Jews. Zissu was certainly no conservative, however. His literary style and philosophy were modern and provocative, and he promoted the career of Benjamin Fondane, a Romanian Jewish philosopher and poet a decade younger than him.
After the outbreak of World War II, Zissu turned away from writing, instead devoting his energies to Zionist politics. During the war, Romania, under the leadership of dictator Ion Antonescu, was allied with Nazi Germany. Its antisemitic government deported and massacred Jews in the border regions of Bukovina and Bessarabia. But it also resisted Hitler’s demands in 1943 and 1944 to send Romanian Jews to the death camps, for reasons which are still debated but which obviously do not include Antonescu’s sense of humanity. Some 400,000 Jewish survivors were left in Romania at the end of the war. About half of them fled, mostly to Israel, as the borders were still relatively open during the few years before the Communists, under the direction of the occupying Soviet forces, seized power.
Zissu was one of the most important figures in organizing the passage of Jews from Romania to Israel, although his role was not always appreciated by his collaborators. In her book From Catastrophe to Power: Holocaust Survivors and the Emergence of Israel, historian Idith Zertal notes that the polemics in which Zissu had immersed himself before the war often complicated his attempts to work with other Jewish leaders in and out of Romania. He alienated both right- and left-wing organizations, and even the Red Cross. A Mossad agent sent by Israel to orchestrate aliyah considered Zissu “a divisive figure who turned people away from Zionism.”
While some accused him of letting his ego get in the way of the greater good, Zissu paid a heavy personal price for his efforts. He had already been arrested under the Antonescu regime, released only as the Allies began to advance toward Romania. His time out of prison was brief. Within a few years, the Communists seized power in Romania. In 1949-50, they launched an “anti-Zionist” campaign, halting emigration to Israel and arresting many Jewish leaders. Zissu was one of its first victims, and spent the next six years in a prison in Pitesti, under dire conditions, before his eventual release. He soon left for Israel, but died only a few weeks after his arrival.
In his political life, Zissu was a thorn in the side of fascists, communists, and fellow Zionists—irritating, idiosyncratic, and, to the chagrin of Jewish leaders in Romania and Israel, indispensable. His intellectual life was equally singular. It was perhaps best appreciated by Benjamin Fondane, to whom Zissu had given some of his first opportunities for publication. In 1928, Fondane returned the favor, translating Confession of a Candelabra into French. Fondane accompanied the stories with a “translator’s note” in which he developed what he saw as the connections between Zissu’s account of Hasidism and his own fusion of existentialist philosophy and Jewish spirituality, derived from his mentor, the Russian Jewish thinker Lev Shestov.
Fondane, who by 1928 had started abandoning the Romanian language to write exclusively in French, began by claiming that for Zissu, too, Romanian and Romania meant nothing: “This book was written in Romanian by chance, and is part of Romanian literature the way that the zebra in the Paris zoo is part of local fauna.” Indeed, Fondane insisted, Europe meant nothing either, since for all his “European” culture, Zissu was “the purest type of Jew.” In his view, this purity of Jewish essence did not lie within Zissu’s particular relationship to “Jewish life,” but rather in his having a spiritual “vocation, a mission,” in light of which every “homeland” or “institution” is only a “secondary reality,” compared to the “messianic” project that this type of Jew conceives for himself, and which he regards as the “destiny of humanity.” Thus conceived, Jewishness is both utterly individual, a calling that separates individuals from the world around them, and intensely universal, since it concerns the fate of all human beings. Jews being true to their Jewishness is, in this sense, a matter of their personal salvation and of the salvation of the world.
The world needed salvation, Fondane argued, not the morality of the Decalogue. “The Greeks,” he said, “knew morality and practiced it as well as the Jews did.” The Ten Commandments, anyway, were “a Law of mediocre effort,” compared to the highest expressions of Jewish spirituality: “the example of the Essenians, of Jesus, Rabbi Simon Bar Yochai, the ascetism of the Kabbalists, the pure joy of the Hasidim.” Zissu’s protagonists, Fondane argued, were such men, passionately searching for the divine beyond the limits of the law and the boundaries of their communities. Zissu himself was “as pure as the purest” among them. He too had a message of salvation for the world.
Fondane ended his note by saying that Confessions d’un Candelabre “would require many commentaries, notes, and asterisks.” It has not received them. It was little read in Romania and France, and has never been translated into English. What follows is a partial translation of the story “Mathias,” in which a tzaddik’s rebellious son pursues his own path to holiness through searing questions about the meaning of Jewishness.
As far back as he could remember, no one had ever thought of anything, no one had ever had any intention, other than to surround him with falsehoods like innumerable walls … In time the longing for freedom, for vast horizons opening his prison, became, more than need of his body, the condition for his salvation. In Mathias’ dark-rimmed eyes, his own deliverance would be a spur and trumpet for all of humanity, as it suffered with resignation under its burden.
This vision, which at every moment throughout the years had ensouled his prayer, seemed to him now, this midnight, to be an irresistible command, one of God’s promises that must be carried out in full and to perfection, a miracle that at the moment of his birth had begun to unroll itself, like a scroll, towards this night …
All anger’s weight has left him. He watches with pity those who stay behind, faithful to their sense of caste. They would have kept him closer, close to the others, kept order … Out of many unhappy memories only one, infuriatingly, remains: the moment, in his house of unfreedom, when he first believed he could be saved …
One day his tutor had forgotten to close the window that overlooked the garden. At the first opportunity, Mathias took advantage of it. As soon as his hated tutor was gone, he mounted the window casing and tried to climb down into the garden. But it was too high for the little deserter. He landed on his chin, amid thorns, arms and legs akimbo. This was his first attempt, his first battle for the conquest of freedom.
But what were these sufferings and sacrifices compared with the ardent waves of light flowing from his soul? He called on all the inner powers that until a moment of desperate summons lie hidden, and moved by drives, miraculous, from his depths, set fixedly towards the horizon an illuminated gaze. Straining his muscles, he climbed to the top of the garden wall … out of widening pupils he looked on a new and endless world.
Through the street’s whirlwind of dust, he searched the faces and followed the steps of passersby uneasily, unable to remember having seen even one of them in the courtyard of his father. A whole world, outside its walls, was living in a wholly other way, of which those inside hadn’t the faintest image. Mathias was perplexed. He couldn’t understand why there were walls between people. He began to ask himself why the curse of living enclosed in this little space, surrounded by thorns, should have befallen him and his people, when God had given to others infinity?
And while revolt was murmuring in his chest and mysteries moving through his sight, he stared dazedly at a group of children noisily playing blind-man’s-bluff. His whole being burned. He no longer had any desire except to leap over the wall, to join the children, to throw his arms around them, and to discover the miracle by which they lived together, bothered by no one, in this immensity, under the equally infinite splendor of the sky …
One day, when the heat was suffocating, his tutor had gone with him into the garden ... “What happens outside our wall?” Mathias had asked.
“There are men there just like those who come to see the zaddik, your holy father, to ask for his blessing.”
He now looked out onto this world. He didn’t recognize anyone. He had had never seen these children before. He knew it. He had been lied to …
“Free your soul from your body and move towards the higher lights. Fill your being with holy and pure thoughts, given entirely to God. This is the coronation and the completion; this is the goal … Although He is everywhere and in everything, although He contains creation and matter and holds Heaven and Earth, you must submit only to the invisible, the immaterial, the unbodied, and never bow to the images, the passing forms. God is truly one with nature (Elohim Hateva, that is, nature) but in spite of this, no one may worship the appearances and disguises, but only the supreme spiritual force, cause, and goal of time and space.”
“Then why should there be a special relationship between Israel and God, if the Almighty is everywhere; why isn’t all humanity part of Him in the same way?
Like a diamond, a voice cut the crystal of silence.
As he asked the question, Mathias looked at no one, not even the zaddik. But the Holy One, enigmatically observing his son, lowered his brows and began to rhapsodize:
“There is no relationship between Israel and Jehovah, no problem. He and Israel are one. One cannot imagine Israel apart from God. The one is the expression of the other. Whoever judges and condemns Israel, condemns the Almighty. Israel is the center of existence, and the heart of Israel is the zaddik.”
The Hasidim, entranced, listened to these maxims with the certitude of God-inspired men. They lifted praises through pale lips and murmured tremulous amens. They bowed in blind humiliation while before them the “superman” grew and grew. And from the dizzying heights where the mystics saw nothing but pillars of cloud and fire, resounded vague and distant echoes of heavenly truths.
“For the zaddik is the center of the lights. The ones above and the ones below. He gives soul to matter and time. He even sets the will of the Almighty. His glance pierces space, and before him all mysteries dissolve. He alone can reach the transcendental truths of the Torah, which the learned lower to the narrow letter of dogma and precept. The zaddik shines above the learned man … He goes down among the lowly, speaking their language, using their means, even those that are loathsome, for even in the midst of sin, God is present.”
But what is left of free will? “Everything is in the hands of God” except for the fear of God. Wasn’t the greatness of the founders of Hasidism to have given up the commandments and teachings based on fear, so that inspiration and spontaneity could replace hypocritical reasoning and calculation, because simple and honest sin appears more righteous and higher than counterfeit morality—so that, escaping from obedience to an authoritarian God, the calm and unselfishness that human beings have never known could be at last given to us, so we could find true freedom, freedom inside us, liberation?
Mathias’ pupils grew wider and wider, as if becoming vessels into which all the freedom he called for might be poured, as if, in order to welcome it, he had lit candles in his eye sockets … The apostate passed from his father to the humble flock surrounding him a smile of suffering and pity that soon disappeared with him …
In the garden, the trees, rejoicing in the repose of the Sabbath, were speaking with the two celestial chariots. The Great Chariot tried to convince the garden that the august princess Sabbath would only deign to descend on its vigorous axles, while the Little Chariot, malicious and subtle, insisted that only its small wheels were suited to bear the princess’s delicate, light body.
Blake Smith, a contributing writer at Tablet, is a Fulbright Scholar in North Macedonia.