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The Jewish Bambi

Lost Books

Stephanie Butnick
March 23, 2012
(Joanna Neborsky)
(Joanna Neborsky)

“Lost Books” is a weekly series highlighting forgotten books through the prism of Tablet Magazine’s and’s archives. So blow the dust off the cover, and begin!

Austrian writer Felix Salten was inspired to write Bambi—yes, that Bambi—during a visit to the Swiss Alps in 1923. Yet, as David Rakoff pointed out in 2006, the novel penned by Salten, born Siegmund Salzmann in 1869 and raised in the slums of Vienna, is a far cry from the Disney version that has since overshadowed it. “Bambi‘s forest is peopled (creatured?) with characters by turns arrogant, venal, gossipy, and engaging—as flawed and varied as the cosmopolitan fauna Salten must have encountered daily in his life in Vienna,” Rakoff explains.

Salten, who had little formal education and almost no Jewish education, inserted Yiddishisms into his dialogue between the animals, and Rakoff argues that the young protagonist is imbued with a deep Jewish uncertainty. The book’s ending is eerily prescient. Rakoff writes:

But as harrowing as the celluloid rendition of Bambi’s maternal loss may be, it is nothing compared to Salten’s original chapter, where things are bad to begin with and only become more horrible. It is winter and the once cordial animals have begun to turn on one another in the madness of hunger. The near-famine conditions have “spread bitterness and brutality.” The crows kill the hare’s sick young son for sport. The ferret wounds the squirrel mortally, the fox has torn the admired and stately pheasant to pieces. “It’s hard to believe that it will ever be better,” says Bambi’s dispirited mother.

Read King of the Forest, by David Rakoff

Stephanie Butnick is chief strategy officer of Tablet Magazine, co-founder of Tablet Studios, and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.