Navigate to Community section

Yiddish ‘Hygge’

Stories of mourning by Isaac Bashevis Singer make perfect reading in this darkly anxious season

by
Rokhl Kafrissen
November 29, 2023

Tablet Magazine

Tablet Magazine

It’s getting dark way too soon. The sun shouldn’t be down before I’ve had lunch—I don’t live at the North Pole. It hasn’t even been very cold here in New York City (thanks, global warming), so there’s the additional cognitive dissonance of living with gray winter light and early spring weather.

Making things much darker, in a spiritual-mental sense, is the ongoing war in Israel and Gaza. No matter where they fall politically, every Jew I know has spent the last two months in some degree of anguish: part mourning, part anger, and part helplessness.

My usual strategies for getting through this time of year include roasting vegetables (Brussels sprouts, preferably) and lighting scented candles, both of which are facilitated by a trip to Trader Joe’s. The good people at TJ’s HQ have no idea how much of my mental health hangs on their annual selection of sensibly priced fall candle aromas.

A few years ago, everyone was talking about hygge (pronounced hoo-gah), the Danish term for convivial coziness. Hygge means slowing down and spending time with close family and friends, enjoying simple pleasures. You can be or do hygge all year round, but it’s of particular importance during the long, dark, and wet Danish winter. “Hygge encourages its practitioners to shelter, cluster, and enclose.” The New Yorker tells us that the word hygge “derives from a sixteenth-century Norwegian term, hugga, meaning ‘to comfort’ or ‘to console,’ which is related to the English word ‘hug.’” The roots of hygge add a somber depth to the term, making it feel all the more appropriate for this darkly anxious fall.

At the same time, hygge seems like one of those things that comes easy if you already live in a country with socialized medicine, no student loan debt, and sensible public transit. I live in a country with a social safety net woven out of scented candles and licorice ropes. I am broke. I am filled with grief. My stomach hurts. I need Yiddish hygge.

*

After reading and reviewing a collection of his essays for my last column, I went down something of a rabbit hole with the stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer. While I wouldn’t say that they were exactly comforting, what I found was an absolute obsession with mourning, loss, grief, and yes, surprising glimpses of hygge. Consider, for example, the married couple of Shmul-Leibele and Shoshe in “Short Friday.” Though they are still young, Shmul-Leibele and Shoshe have no children. As with many of Singer’s stories, this couple is mismatched: She was something of a beauty in her youth; he is shorter than she is and an object of mockery in their town. Nonetheless, the two are equally pious and snugly wrapped in a blanket of mutual admiration.

Though they are poor, and Shmul-Leibele isn’t much of a provider, on shabes, they live like royalty, especially during the winter. Rather than try to get everything ready during the short winter day, they would stay up all night on Thursday, making their shabes preparations. Shoshe kneads the dough, tends the oven, and even prepares the shabes chicken (or goose) by candlelight, while making little nibbles to feed Shmul-Leibele, who likes to climb up on top of the oven and watch Shoshe at her tasks. Sometimes she makes a small challah and inscribes her name in the dough, prompting her husband to tease her, saying, “Shoshe, I am eating you up. Shoshe, I have already swallowed you.”

And then, “[a]t dawn they would both lie down in utter exhaustion,” ready to rise later in the day and welcome the Sabbath at complete ease. The story takes place on the shortest Friday of the year, when “the snow had been falling all night and had blanketed the house up to the windows and barricaded the door.” Shoshe and Shmul-Leibele have fresh clean clothes, newly mended shoes, and “the spirit of the Sabbath emanated from every corner of the room.” The story itself is permeated with something very closely approximating Yiddish hygge, cozy, warm, sheltered, and held in love.

Shmul-Leibele and Shoshe finally collapse into their comfy featherbeds with clean sheets, sated in every way and grateful for each other. Tempting fate, Shoshe asks Shmul-Leibele, “And what if I were to die?” Without hesitation, her husband responds, “God forbid! I would simply perish from sorrow. They would bury us both on the same day.”

Sure enough, just speaking such thoughts aloud invites tragedy into the couple’s hygge bubble. The two wake up with headaches and then, instead of opening the chimney flue, as Shoshe suggests, they fall back asleep, forever. “In the stillness they heard the flapping of wings, a quiet singing. An angel of God had come to guide Shmul-Leibele the tailor and his wife, Shoshe, into Paradise.”

Not only does “Short Friday” offer maximum hygge for the reader, it seems to have offered Singer the only pleasant solution to one of the central problems of his stories: grief. The couple in “Short Friday” has no one to mourn them, and neither is left alone to mourn. Their exit from the world of illusion is as neat as the method that took them. The same cannot be said for all the other characters Singer invents to torment with grief.

In “Taibele and Her Demon,” Chaim Nosson and Taibele lose all three of their children in infancy. While Taibele is able to bear such pain, Chaim Nosson cannot: “Grief drove Chaim Nosson to withdraw from the world.” He finally abandons Taibele, leaving her an agune, unable to remarry according to Jewish law. Taibele’s dilemma is solved when the town ne’er do well, a widower named Alchonen, begins to visit her by night, claiming to be a demon called Hurmizah. In this way, Taibele finds love and companionship, if only at night, and if only with a too-human-looking demon.

There can be no happy ever after, though, for Taibele, who seemingly must pay for the sins of the men around her. Alchonen, her nocturnal demon lover, falls ill and dies, without ever revealing his true identity. And yet, as his body is being conveyed to the cemetery, Taibele catches sight of it. She has no way of knowing the connection between the corpse and her demon lover, but she is compelled to stay with it. “A strange idea came to Taibele—to escort Alchonen, the feckless man who had lived alone and died alone, on his last journey … At least, she would be doing a good deed. She followed the dead on the long road to the cemetery.” The English here loses some of the depth of the Yiddish text. Escorting the dead is a mitsve known as levayes hames, and it’s categorized with other mitsves such as visiting the sick and gladdening a bride and groom. In the story, the Yiddish verb used to describe Taibele’s action is bagleytn, to accompany, which is a direct translation from the Hebrew word for funeral, levaye, which means accompaniment. Despite her good-heartedness, and her instinctive desire to perform this most solemn mitsve, Taibele is left doubly alone and bereft. Her only sin was to accept the love offered by a devil rather than the lifetime of isolation bequeathed by her vanished husband, Chaim Nosson. For a woman like Taibele, Singer offers only grief, and more grief.

In “The Dead Fiddler,” Reb Sheftel and Zise Feige are concerned with marrying off their beautiful and clever daughter Liebe-Yentl. At 17, she is engaged to Ozer, a prodigy and scholar from a good family. Everything looks good, until Ozer catches cold and dies suddenly. And though she has only seen him once, Liebe-Yentl is devastated. She falls ill from grief and begins taking walks to the cemetery, spending months in mourning.

Rather than being framed as romantic suffering, Liebe-Yentl’s mourning for Ozer is clearly a violation of Jewish law. Parents, children, siblings, and spouses are obligated to observe mourning rituals. Fiancés are not. Moreover, mourning rituals and obligations are governed by a specific timeline, and are meant to discourage excessive grief. Liebe-Yentl’s sin is becoming immersed in her own misfortune, which violates Jewish law, and leaves her vulnerable to subsequent possession by not one, but two, dybbuks.

Reb Sheftel and Zise Feige become desperate to exorcise the dybbuks from their daughter, seeking amulets and wonder-working rebbes. But the turning point of the story only comes when Reb Sheftel sinks to the floor in defeat, “like a mourner” rocking himself “as over a corpse.” When he finally picks himself up off the floor, he begins to bargain with the dybbuks. He promises that he will help them find forgiveness. He successfully negotiates a kind of perverse wedding dowry, pledging to say a year’s worth of Kaddish for the two dybbuks (who left no heirs to say it in their names), as well as learning Mishne and saying Psalms for them, acts traditionally undertaken to aid souls in attaining Paradise.

It’s significant that the turning point comes when Reb Sheftel embodies his grief and takes the posture of a mourner. It’s easy to get caught up in the mind-centered interpretation of Jewish law, whether it’s for a wedding or a funeral. But our embodiment of the law is just as important. During the first seven days of mourning, shive, we sit on the floor or a low stool. The physicality of that period is so important that in Yiddish, and English, we refer to the end of those seven days as “getting up” from shive. We have survived that first initial blow of grief and are obligated to begin a slow reentry into normal life.

The idea of embodied grief isn’t found only in Jewish law. In fact, it’s become quite trendy to think about grief, and other emotions, as located within the body, and to work with the body as a form of emotional therapy. I just got an email for a “Somatic Dance for Jewish Unity” in Flatbush, Brooklyn. The invitation reads, in part, “Our bodies react to the world around us. A piece of the Jewish nation was brutally lost … Most of us have never seen anything like this in our lifetime and many of us are in shock. We are grieving a world that has changed in our hearts forever. … you are invited to COME SHAKE IT OUT! This is a safe space to release anything you are holding that does not serve you!”

Not everyone will want to “shake it out,” but as a person who tends to get caught up in their mind, I’ve come to see the urgent importance of really feeling one’s emotions. Without feeling those emotions, and being willing to acknowledge how they travel through and impact the body, it can become impossible to let them go. It may be a cliché, but there is a compelling logic to the Jewish laws of mourning, which can guide us through a bewildering time of life, and ensure we do not get trapped within its depths.

In “The Captive,” a painter called Tobias Anfang has survived the war, though everything he once had has been lost. In New York, the narrator, a writer, becomes acquainted with Anfang, where they discover their shared acquaintance with another painter, also now perished, called Zorach Kreiter. Kreiter was a liar, a glutton, and a womanizer, but he was also possessed of a considerable artistic talent and personal magnetism. And though Anfang claims to believe that “the secret of the universe is apathy,” he remains obsessed with Kreiter, to the point of believing that he can sense the presence of Kreiter’s spirit.

Years after their first meeting in New York, the narrator travels to the new State of Israel, where Tobias Anfang has been in “hiding” for the last five years. The wife who betrayed him is dead, as are his children. So what is he hiding from? Anfang tells the narrator, “I have actually become a reincarnation of Zorach Kreiter.”

In Israel, Anfang has taken up with Kreiter’s widow, Sonia. Tobias Anfang is no more, and his widow, Anfang claims, is also possessed by the dybbuk of Kreiter. “Sometimes I’m not even certain with whom I spend the night—her or him.” He is, he claims, the widow’s captive, now living in Jaffa, where “she was given the large house of an Arab who fled.” Sonia has hatched a plan by which Anfang produces paintings in the style of Kreiter and they pass the counterfeits off as authentic.

The narrator eventually visits Sonia at her luxurious residence. The shutters are closed against the desert heat, and it is dim inside: “I imagined that the smells of the Arabs who once lived there still pervaded the place.” There are paintings on every wall, and Sonia serves a tempting meal of salads and pita. But the narrator cannot eat. The meal is oddly timed, too late for lunch, too early for dinner. Ghostly presences fill the house, not to mention the counterfeit, “channeled” art hanging on the walls. Where Singer once painted the convivial, sheltered hygge of the happy couple in “Short Friday,” “The Captive” turns what was cozy and good inside out.

When asked why she herself hasn’t remarried, Sonia says, “Zorach is not dead—I continue to live with him.” Indeed, Sonia goes on to say that she has regular communication with Kreiter’s spirit, and that she needs our narrator because he knew Kreiter, and as a writer, he is the perfect vehicle through which Kreiter can now dictate his memoirs. The narrator tries to flee, but doesn’t make it very far. The next day, she begins dictating Kreiter’s memoir to him, her new captive.

The narrator, Anfang, Sonia Kreiter, and Kreiter’s spirit, they are all trapped between worlds. The Talmud tells us that both the body and soul persist in this world for 12 months after death. During that time, the soul goes back and forth between this world and the next. But after those 12 months, after the prescribed period of mourning according to the law, the body is gone and the soul departs forever. Whether or not they truly believe Kreiter’s spirit to be there with them, their grief is incomplete, and they are doomed to be trapped within it.

In Eastern Europe, there was a mourning tradition that paralleled that of the eulogy, called the klogenish or graveside lament. The klogenish provided a format for expressing grief to the dead, with different parts. For example, a mourner’s klogenish might: cry out the name of the dead and their relationship to the mourner; ask why they have abandoned them; ask the dead for forgiveness; and/or describe the loss they now faced. While the work of the eulogy was traditionally reserved for men, the klogenish was available to anyone. There were even women who specialized in this kind of mourning, paid mourners called klogmuters or bavaynerin. It’s easy to imagine a klogmuter reinvented today as a mourning coach or doula, someone to lead and encourage mourners in releasing their grief, before it can be trapped in the body. In Singer’s hands though, we can see the figure of the klogmuter turned inside out and reincarnated as an urban psychic, scamming lonely widowers with promises of messages from the dead.

“The Séance” is another of Singer’s anti-hygge stories set in the postwar period. Dr. Kalisher is a failed scholar and Mrs. Kopitzky is a trance medium with designs on marrying Kalisher. She feeds him food he cannot digest and brings him invented messages from his dead mistress, Nella. Despite knowing the whole thing is a sham, Kalisher keeps returning to Kopitzky’s dimly lit, heavily curtained apartment. A fake message from Nella is better than none at all. In the end, Kalisher is reduced to a childlike state, soiled and exhausted, while Kopitzky takes the opportunity to dress him in her dead husband’s clothes and finally trap him in her apartment.

There is something incredibly compelling about Singer’s stories, even as too many of them can leave us with a lingering sourness, like literary indigestion. Perhaps it is his own overwhelming, yet incomplete, grief, served to the reader as a warning against a life half-lived. True mourning releases the dead and the living.

MORE ON GRIEF: The U.K.-based Kohenet (Jewish Priestess) collective Yelala will offer a four-session class, “Death, Dying and Remembrance.” Sundays in December. More information and register here.

ALSO: Join Daphna Mor and The Shul Band for bagels and jelly donuts at the Klezmer Brunch Revival: Chanukah Edition. Dec. 3 at pinkFROG cafe, 221 North Ninth St. More information here … An upcoming book talk and performance will celebrate “Yiddish Voices: Three Yiddish Plays by Women,” from YIVO’s new translation series. “Each play grapples with enduring women’s issues, including motherhood, pregnancy and abortion, financial independence, and self-realization, and each from a woman’s perspective.” Dec. 4, live at YIVO and online. More information here … Coming in December, a minitour from one of my favorite bands today, Michael Winograd and the Honorable Mentshn, with special guest vocalist Sasha Lurje! The band will hit multiple cities on the East Coast, Dec. 7-14. See the website for specific dates and locations … Toronto-based drummer Lorie Wolf is one of a small number of women leading their own klezmer ensembles. Queen Kong, her band, is on a tour of western Canada, through early December. Check their website for tour stops and dates … Two worthy grassroots culture initiatives need your financial help. The Midwest-based Folk Will Save Us is an artist-run collective “bringing communities together around the experience of learning and leaning into roots and cultural traditions.” FWSU sponsors local projects like a klezmer jam and Klezmer on Ice, as well as a folk music and culture podcast. Help them launch new projects in 2024 by donating here. In La Jolla, Yiddishland California is a neighborhood cultural center that also serves a global community, with classes, events, wellness programs, and more. It is a rarity these days, a Yiddish organization with its own physical space where folks can meet face to face. Unfortunately, they are struggling with a financial shortfall and may have to close by the end of the year. If you want to help them keep their doors open, please donate here.

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

Become a Member of Tablet

Get access to exclusive conversations, our custom app, and special perks from our favorite Jewish artists, creators, and businesses. You’ll not only join our community of editors, writers, and friends—you’ll be helping us rebuild this broken world.