Like Menashe Unger (1900-1969), I’ve spent my entire career in journalism writing about Jews. Unlike Menashe Unger, I was not personally rejected from grad school by Gershom Scholem. But I don’t think either of us, Unger or myself, was really cut out for academia.
Decades later, Unger made his name writing about Hasidim and their cultural milieu in books, and especially in a long-running column for the Yiddish daily newspaper Tog-morgn zhurnal. His column, Fun Eybikn Kval (Drawn From a Timeless Source), recounted Hasidic lore and legends, many of which he had absorbed as a young man in a Hasidic family. His book Pshishke un Kotsk (1946) was built on vivid retellings of historic events of early 19th century Hasidic life in Poland.
Meanwhile, Gershom Scholem had pioneered the academic study of Jewish mysticism and Hasidism, using a rigorous historical approach, privileging the “elite” homiletic literature of its scholars. And, no longer the eager grad school applicant, Unger apparently dared to put forth his own criticism of Scholem’s work. In 1960, a vexed Scholem responded to Unger, writing that certainly, “Every simple Jew has the right to think what he wants …” However, as quoted by Glenn Dynner in his introduction to Jonathan Boyarin’s 2015 translation of Pshishke un Kotsk (A Fire Burns in Kotsk), Unger had wandered far out of his lane in his critique of Scholem and his students “without having read through all of their works, some of which were available ‘even in places that a simpleton could access them.’” (I can testify that even if a simpleton could keep up with the mountains of secondary literature in any field, in 2020 we also have to contend with JSTOR access and outrageous journal paywalls.)
The testy exchange between Scholem and Unger points to a couple important tensions at play. First, there is Scholem’s well-known antipathy to the genre of Hasidic stories, most famously on display in his critique of Martin Buber. Then there is the touchiness that can develop when journalists encroach on academic turf. As a journalist who has occasionally strayed across this line, I’ve had my own awkward exchanges with academic authority, though none as potentially devastating as the one between Unger and Scholem.
But Boyarin points out that Unger’s work is interesting and important today not on account of the (potential) historical accuracy of the stories he draws on. And Dynner writes in his introduction, “The tales were for Unger living repositories of folk wisdom, imagination, and ethos spawned and circulated among everyday people … a reflection of their feelings and aspirations.”
A Fire Burns in Kotsk sits in between genres. Is it meant as a novel or as ethnography? It’s unclear. Unger portrays the gritty, whiskey-soaked quotidian existence of Hasidic masters (like the Kotsker rebbe) as well as less-well-known episodes, like the eagerness of Hasidic leaders to support the Polish rebellion of 1830. Other, more famous Yiddish novelists drew on similar material but, Dynner argues, only Unger captures the “pungent mélange” and distills “a single, potent ethos of spiritual authenticity.”
But, as we say in Yiddish, vos toyg mir a “pungent mélange?” What do I care about gritty details and vivid, “you are there” writing if it’s not actually right?
I dare say, as the holiday of Shvues/Shavuot/Pentecost approaches, the relevance of “you are there” writing gains the utmost urgency. Among its many foundational myths, that of personal revelation at Sinai is among the most important to modern Judaism. We know that God gave us the Torah at Sinai because we were there. We smelled the smoke, we saw wonders, we trembled together. And we transmitted that firsthand experience from generation to generation to generation. Whether we take it figuratively or literally, when we read the Ten Commandments in synagogue during Shvues, we understand it as an act of communal imagination. Being able to imagine what it was like (whatever the it may be) isn’t merely an afterthought, but, as Unger understood, indeed may be the very heart of the matter.
Unger is also the author of one my favorite Yiddish children’s books, Gut Yontev Kinder (Happy Holidays, Children), a 1950 collection of stories and plays about the holidays. Like A Fire Burns in Kotsk, part of its appeal lies in its idiosyncratic presentation. Unger was the son of a rabbi and product of a traditional Hasidic home. He left that world to become a socialist and activist for Poyle Tsiyen, Labor Zionism. The story “Dovidl un di heyl” (Little David and the Cave) is a perfect example of how he synthesized those perspectives, creating a style I find just as interesting as his “adult” work.
“Dovidl un di heyl” is a Shvues story. It is erev Shvues and Little David has spent the day by the river, gathering greenery for the holiday. In one of the many ironies of Yiddish, the Christian holiday of Pentecost is known as di grin-khoge, the Green Terror. Green vestments were used in churches and both Jews and Christians decorated with fresh leaves and branches. It’s a khoge, a terror, though, because Christian Pentecost was often the occasion for pogroms and other anti-Jewish violence.
Little David rushes excitedly to his father’s blacksmith shop to show him all that he has gathered. But he finds his father deep in discussion with the other craftsmen of the village. Shmuel Shuster, Shmuel the shoemaker, has been tossed in prison by the local lord or porits. The lord is demanding a ransom of 500 gilder or else he will come to the village with his haidemaks (essentially Cossacks) and make it lebedik (lively). But where to find that much gold?
Unger’s description of the blacksmith’s shop is typically vivid, with manly talk, sweat and sparks flying everywhere. David retreats to a corner where he falls asleep. In his dream he finds himself in a desert. He spots a far-off mountain from which golden sparks are flying. Aha! There must be gold there. He will save Shmuel Shuster!
But when he comes to the mountain he finds not gold treasure but men working iron, engraving large tablets. David is greeted by two gray-bearded Jews. The first we take to be Moses. He tells David that there is a treasure, but it is found within the tablets they are constantly forging. Then another man joins them. This one is presumably Isaiah, who tells David that he has written that there will come a time when swords are beaten into plowshares. But, there will also come a time when Jews must defend themselves, when plowshares must be reworked into swords, when the weakling will become strong. When Little David wakes up, he finds that his father, Simkhe the blacksmith, and the other men have decided to take action. Rather than paying the ransom with money they don’t have, they will set out by night with their own reworked weapons and will free Shmuel themselves.
The story carries many of the typical themes of a Hasidic tale. The ransoming of prisoners, for example, was emblematic of the Baal Shem Tov’s acts of charity. Also common was the appearance of dreams by which an individual could receive personal revelation from a biblical figure.
And yet, the “treasure” of the Torah is not enough to bring about salvation. Personal, and communal, action is necessary. This is 1950, two years after the establishment of the State of Israel. Little David is not just witness to the giving of the law, as all Jews are, he is made to understand that for the Jew to survive in the modern world, revelation is symbolically fused to practical messianism. Unger presents us with the auto-emancipation of the muscled blacksmith and all the laborers who will rework the traditional tools of the Jewish people in order to save them. It brings to mind a line from A Fire Burns in Kotsk, in which the Holy Jew casts a critical eye on wonder-working rabbis: “Anyone who’s spiritually accomplished can overturn heaven and earth—but being a Jew, that’s really tough.”
ALSO: In the online session (recorded on May 21) “Photographs of the Depression: A Jewish Angle,” historians Deborah Dash Moore and Beth Wenger explore the photo archive of Jacob Ben Lightman and his team of social worker-photographers. In 1932, they set out to make a photographic record of the Jewish Lower East Side, at a time when the neighborhood was considered to be in its twilight. ... It’s hard to find anything good about the current moment, but with so much of our social lives moving online, it means that events that were once limited to folks in the immediate area are now open to anyone (time zones permitting.) The Congress for Jewish Culture hosted a 104th yortsayt event on May 24 for the great Yiddish writer Sholem Aleichem and this year boasted an international lineup. Cultural leaders from Australia, South Africa, and Brazil, and the first lady of the Israeli stage, Lea Koenig, took part. Watch the event here. (This event is completely in Yiddish.) … The Idishe Shtub, Jewish Sports Center in Mexico, and Justo Sierra Historic Synagogue presented “Idishe Pena,” celebrating 100 years of Yiddish culture in Mexico, on May 24. You can watch it here. (Mainly in Yiddish with Spanish translation.) … For me, one of the best parts of the past year has been my participation in the 14th Street Y LABA fellowship. On May 28, some of my wonderful LABA colleagues will be leading the Y’s Into the Night Tikkun Leil Shavuot. See the whole program here. ... 2020 is Dybbuk author S. An-sky’s 100th yortsayt. YIVO has been hosting a series of events in his honor. June 3 at 7 p.m. is a lecture by An-sky biographer Gabriella Safran, “Dybbuks, Golems, S. An-ski, and Jewish Legends in Times of Fear.”
Rokhl Kafrissen is a New York-based cultural critic and playwright.