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Esther in Furs

Rokhl’s Golden City: A Polish Purim story

Rokhl Kafrissen
March 13, 2019
Inset photo: Library of Congress
Purim Carnival in Tel Aviv, 1934.Inset photo: Library of Congress
Inset photo: Library of Congress
Purim Carnival in Tel Aviv, 1934.Inset photo: Library of Congress

Purim iz nisht keyn yontev, un kadokhes iz nisht keyn krenk. (Purim is not a yontev and malaria is not an illness.) That is to say, Purim isn’t a real holiday like malaria isn’t a real illness. You’d better not underestimate either one.

For a yontev that isn’t even really a yontev, I’d argue Purim is the hardest working holiday we’ve got. Purim is alternately described as the Jewish Halloween (on account of the costumes), the Jewish St. Patrick’s Day (on account of the public drunkenness), and the Jewish Christmas (OK, I’m the only one who says that). But as the folklorist Itzik Gottesman recently pointed out to me, if you read Yiddish memoirs that touch on Purim, gift-giving customs (shalekh-mones) were hugely important in Eastern Europe, much more than during Khanike.

Purim-shpiln (amateur dramas inspired by the Purim story) gave rise to the Yiddish theater. The human-centered drama of Purim (from which the name of God is famously absent) has made it among the most adaptable of Jewish stories. Its tale of narrowly averted mass slaughter is, well, never not relevant. And for Polish Jewry in particular, the story of Esther is an integral part of its origin myth.

The YIVO Encyclopedia says: “By the end of the 17th century, Polish Jewry had the highest number of Jews and the most individual communities of any Jewish population center.” We tend to think of Polish Jewish life through the lens of the Holocaust, but for hundreds of years the Jews of Poland enjoyed unprecedented economic and social stability, enabling an astounding population explosion. Go back to the beginning of this relatively happy period and you’ll find a beautiful Jewish woman who became the concubine of a king. Her name was Esterke and in the 14th century she was the mistress of Casimir the Great. Supposedly she persuaded Casimir to invite the Jews to Poland, and to grant them various privileges.

You can read the legend of Esterke as serving two very important, related rhetorical functions. One, it associates Jews with Polish nobility and integrates them into Poland’s own national mythology, establishing the rightness of an otherwise separate community in the country’s midst. At the same time, it links Poland’s Jews with the Bible and the Jews of Shushan. Just as the Jews of Shushan triumphed and prospered, so should the Jews of Poland, both by the grace of a beautiful Jewess called Esther.

By the mid-19th century, however, life was changing rapidly, especially for the Jews of Galicia (what is essentially Polish Austria). Rapid industrialization was disrupting the life of Jewish villages. Maskilim (Jewish Enlightenment, or Haskalah, thinkers) were pressing for reforms to traditional Jewish life and the Enlightenment was making integration a real possibility for Galician Jews, along with intermarriage and conversion.

In this climate of rapid social change arose a new German-language genre of nostalgic literature about the world of disappearing village life, Dorfgeschichten (village stories). A sub-genre of Dorfgeschichten was Ghettogeschichten, ghetto stories: romantic, idealized stories of the (vanishing) Jewish villages. Most of the Ghettogeschichten were written by Jews and reflected both nostalgic escapism as well as the maskilic concern with contemporary social problems and reforming the “backward,” obscurantist Polish Jews. The Haskalah was characterized by this tension: on one hand, the tendency to exoticize those ‘backward’ Jews and on the other, to push furiously for their complete rehabilitation. If you know anything about the Haskalah, even just the Wikipedia version, none of this is surprising.

What is surprising, though, is that one of the only non-Jewish writers of Ghettogeschichten was Leopold von Sacher-Masoch—the one who wrote Venus in Furs. The one who inspired sexologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing to coin the term “masochism.” What was that guy doing writing stories about shtetl life? Good question.

In his classic essay “Masochism and Philosemitism: The Strange Case of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch,” David Biale details the “strange case” of an erotic (or compulsive, depending on your perspective) pioneer whose genuine philosemitism led him on a maskilic literary path. His stories “frequently feature beautiful and domineering Jewish women … whose powerful personalities are the motive forces in the plot.” His obsession with domineering women wasn’t just a curiosity, but helped work out what Biale calls a “philosemitic ideology with a strong polemic for the emancipation of women.” Ideally, that emancipation would also include lots and lots of lounging around, draped in furs.

Biale notes that in many ways Sacher-Masoch was actually more sympathetic to the shtetl Jews than Jewish maskilic writers were. For one thing, he had no particular beef with Hasidim. He even published a sympathetic account of his visit to the Sadagora Rebbe. This was in keeping with Sacher-Masoch’s love of the multicultural character of Galicia, especially his hometown of Lemberg (now Lviv).

What’s really interesting for our purposes, is how he adapts Esther as both an erotic figure and a player in the ongoing maskilic drama of modernity. My friend Dr. Sonia Gollance is a scholar of comparative German and Yiddish literature, with a specialty in Jewish dance history. She hipped me to an 1882 Sacher-Masoch novella called Raphael of the Jews, a fascinating text she’s been working on—and she generously shared her scholarship about it.

Briefly: A local anti-Semite called Plutin is known as the Raphael of the Jews because of his habit of painting cruel caricatures of local Jews. His obsessive hatred of Jews, however, is still an obsession and he finds himself drawn to the thing he hates. Plutin attends a Purim ball disguised as a Hasid. He meets and falls in love with a beautiful Jewess called Hadasska, who is described as emerging “from the darkness of her fur wrap like an angel coming out of a dark mist.” Funny how once you see something you start seeing it everywhere.

Plutin is in an amorous mood, “inspired” by the reading of the megile. In Sacher-Masoch’s telling, Haman begs at the feet of Queen Esther, who is newly transformed into yet another of his cold, cruel heroines. Here Esther, not the king, is the one who sends Haman to his death.

In pursuit of Hadasska, Plutin and his friend Hlamton go in disguise to a Shushan Purim party. Hlamton is disguised as a beautiful widow in the costume of Queen Esther. Hlamton, as the “cruel” Esther, tricks a hapless Jewish man (Lebele Hirsch) and sexually humiliates him, the signature of Sacher-Masoch’s work. Hadasska, the “good” Esther, cures Plutin of his anti-Semitism with her kindness, logic, and measured response to anti-Semitism, a function of the liberal, maskilic genre in which Sacher-Masoch was working.

Boundaries are crossed and social norms are inverted: Men dress as women, non-Jews dress as Jews, and women humiliate men. The upside-down carnival atmosphere of Purim is surprisingly easily fused with Sacher-Masoch’s peculiar erotic interest in flipping patriarchal power norms. Even so (spoiler alert), the strength of these new literary figures is not enough to overcome the powerful taboos in place. Hadasska dies rather than marry the Jewish man she doesn’t love (and because she can’t marry the non-Jew she loves). It’s not a great resolution of the intermarriage dilemma and, as Gollance points out, it reflects Sacher-Masoch’s artistic concerns rather than any particular Jewish communal values.

Of course Sacher-Masoch took many liberties in creating his stories. According to Biale, though some authors (like Sacher-Masoch) were well acquainted with local folklore and custom, the Dorfgeschichten and Ghettogeschichten were not intended to be historically accurate. The impulse behind them generally was a desire to capture a disappearing “primitive” world, as understood by the people writing the stories. That impulse doesn’t look so different from the 19th-century beginnings of the science of anthropology. Early anthropology would later come to be critiqued as “salvage ethnography,” the project of imperial powers to document disappearing “primitive” peoples and cultures—peoples and cultures whose disappearance for which they were directly responsible.

The turn toward collecting and ethnography eventually made its way to the newly emerging Yiddishist intelligentsia of the early 20th century. In Defining the Yiddish Nation: The Jewish Folklorists of Poland, Gottesman surveys the development of the field of Yiddish folklore and how the project of ethnography was used by Yiddish-speaking Jews to define themselves as a modern nation, from the inside. The impulse to save what was “disappearing” was not absent, however. A February 1926 YIVO bulletin following up on the Purim questionnaire, for example, reiterates the importance of finding Purim-shpiln that were “disappearing before our very eyes.”

Among the categories of collecting worked out by these pioneers, Purim was extremely important and Purim-shpiln were highly sought by folklore collectors. Purim-shpiln were often the only way taboo subjects like sex and criminality would be discussed in public. The nakedness of Vashti and Potiphar’s wife’s seduction of Joseph, for example, were popular themes.

The uniqueness of Purim and its carnival mood naturally gave rise to a world of juicy folkloric customs: things like having a Purim “Rov” to mock the Rosh Yeshiva, or a Purim kiddush that mocked Friday night kiddush. Questions about Purim might include inquiries into material culture, folk art, songs, curses of Haman, methods of drowning out Haman’s name, megile illustrations and of course, Purim-shpil texts. As you can imagine, I strongly relate to the collectors of Defining the Yiddish Nation, nerds who had just as much fun collecting sayings about drunken parties as going to drunken parties. Who says Jews can’t have it all?

More: Leopold von Sacher-Masoch drew on the linguistic and cultural diversity of Galicia for his popular stories and novels. He was sympathetic to Jews and worked against anti-Semitism. Even so, his depictions of Jews were full of uncomfortable stereotypes and tropes. The silent German film Das Alte Gesetz was made in 1923, but is set in the same time and place as Sacher-Masoch’s work. Das Alte Gesetz, however, had a Jewish director and actors. It gives a much more complex look at Jewish life in Galicia and the tension between tradition and modernity. It even contains a Purim theme. The rabbi’s son enjoys the annual Purim shpil a little too much. A visiting stranger inspires him to go to Vienna, where theater is considered valuable, unlike in his small Jewish town. Das Alte Gesetz will be screened with live musical accompaniment by klezmer violin legend Alicia Svigals: April 18 at Town and Village Synagogue. (See website for full information on the evening schedule.)…Long Island isn’t exactly Galicia, but it’s never a bad time to mention Lou Reed, a nice Jewish boy taken by the imagery of good old Sacher-Masoch.

New York has never stood still, but these days it seems like things change in front of your eyes. Many of you I’m sure heard the sad news that Moishe’s Bake Shop on Second Avenue will be closing. (An outpost on Grand Street remains open for now.) For a while there were rumors that the East Village world music venue Drom was on its way out. Drom has been a prime location for Yiddish and klezmer music for years and its loss would be devastating. Good news, though. It looks like the proprietors of Drom have signed a new, long-term lease and the music will go on. Celebrate Drom’s good fortune, and yours, with a pre-Purim blowout with Golem and Zion 80, Saturday, March 16. … If your kids aren’t old enough for Drom, YIVO is having a Purim-themed interactive event for kids on Sunday March 17, 11 a.m. Music, puppets, and a magic show by my friend Shane Baker. … Not Purim-themed, but a classic of Yiddish cinema, A Brivele der Mamen screens Sunday, March 17, 4 p.m. Yiddish literature scholar Anita Norich will be talking about the movie afterward, which itself is reason to go. … I raved about the new Avrom Sutzkever biopic Black Honey a few weeks back. You have another chance to see it when it screens at the Yeshiva University Museum. March 19, 7 p.m., 15 West 16th Street. … The Folksbiene is having a Yiddish megile reading (using the text of the poet Yehoash, with English supertitles). With music by Tsibele and dance leading by Steve Weintraub, it’s going to be a great party. Wednesday, March 20, 7 p.m., Museum of Jewish Heritage. Info here. … Michael Winograd & the Honorable Mentshn are coming to Barbes. It’s being advertised as “good old fashioned klezmer music,” which could mean 1990s klezmer revival nostalgia or 1890s. You just have to show up and find out. Sunday, March 24 at 7 p.m. (376 9th Street, Brooklyn). … I’ve often sung the praises of my friends Zisl Slepovitch and Sasha Lurje, both brilliant young interpreters of Yiddish song. If you’re in the New Haven area you can see them in Where Is Our Homeland: Songs from the Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies. March 30, 8:30 p.m. (doors/refreshments 7:30 p.m.). Yale University, Sudler Hall, Yale School of Music, 98 Wall St., New Haven, Connecticut, free. … I didn’t think I liked modern art song, but my friend, composer Alex Weiser, is starting to bring me around. Alex is also the public programming director at YIVO and it’s been a pleasure to see him dive deep into the world of Yiddish. (Gabba gabba hey/one of us …) His new CD is called and all the days were purple and features his settings of poems by Rokhl Korn, Avrom Sutzkever, and more. Sounds dreamy, right? His CD release party is Tuesday, April 9 at 7 p.m. at YIVO. Tickets here. … I don’t think I’ve ever seen a reading of H. Leivick’s play The Golem and I’m a pretty big fan of all things Golem-y. The Folksbiene is doing a staged reading, April 28. (In Yiddish with supertitles). … And finally: Golden City favorite Yiddish protest troubador Daniel Kahn will be back in New York in May. Get your tickets now.

Rokhl Kafrissen is a New York-based cultural critic and playwright.