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Vilnius Yiddish Institute
Vilnius Seminar Series on the Eastern European Jewish Heritage
Sponsored by the Dutch Jewish Humanitarian Fund (www.jhf.nl)
Date: November 6, 2008
Speaker: Prof. Joseph Sherman [University of Oxford]
Lecture: The Legend of the Jewish Pope in Yiddish Literature
Dr. Joseph Sherman is currently Corob Fellow in Yiddish Studies, Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, University of Oxford. Before taking up this appointment, he was Associate Professor in the Deaprtment of English, University of the Witwaterstrand, Johannesburg where he worked for 21 years. His family roots are from Lithuania, Kaunas region. His major field of research is Yiddish literature. The author of over 40 academic articles and the author or editor of 9 books, he has lectured widely in the United States, the United Kingdom, Sweden and South Africa. Among his more recent books is his monograph entitled The Jewish Pope: Myth, Diaspora and Yiddish Literature (Oxford: Legenda Press, 2003). His latest translations include a volume of Soviet Yiddish poetry and prose entitled From Pogrom to Purge: Soviet Yiddish Writing, 1917-1947, which will be published in london in March 2009, and his translation of David Bergelson‘s novel Nokh Alemen (When All is Said and Done, 1913) which will be published in the autumn of 2009 by Yale University Press.
For four centuries, between 1602 and 1958, Yiddish literature produced no fewer than four separate reworking of a myth that one day a Jewish apostate might come to rule the world as pope. The roots of this fantasy lie deep in the biblical story of Joseph, from which it branches out into numerous quasi-messianic longings informing Jewish experience through two thousand years of exile. The biblical story of Joseph, its midrashim or narrative extensions adduced by the earliest rabbinical commentators, and the similarities and differences in each of the four versions of the myth derived from it, all offer absorbing insights into the nature of Jewish identity evolving among a people exiled from their homeland and scattered among the nations of the earth, to whose values and beliefs their own stood opposed.
The legend tells the story of the genius son of a learned rabbi who, as a small boy, is stolen away from his father and given to monks in a monastery who bring him up as a Christian. His great intellectual gifts enable him to be elected Pope, and in this position of supreme power he visits per4secutions on Jewish communities which force one of them to send his father, as their leader, to plead for mercy with him. During the meeting of rabbi and pope – the son he no longer recognises – the son beats the father both in Talmudic disputation and in playing chess, all skills the father taught his son before he was kidnapped. This raises the terrifying possibility that an assimilated Jewish son may use all his acquired Jewish gifts to destroy the Jewish people. The catastrophe is averted, however, and the son abandons the papacy and returns to the Jewish people as a penitent.
The earliest version of this legend, in the Mayse-bukh (Basle 1602), follows the traditional theological response of orthodox Judaism, to believe that the catastrophe has come about “on account of our many sins” and the stock response of the Jewish community is to fast in penitence and to blame themselves for it. The narrative evades all the ambiguous and troubling questions that the plot presents. The next version, “Rabbi Shimen Barbun oder der drayfakhiker troym” was produced by Vilna’s own best-selling writer Ayzik-Meir Dik (1814-1893) and was published by the house of Romm in Vilna in 1874. As a maskil, Dik attempted to use the materials of this tale to show the Jews of Lithuania and elsewhere the advantage of the Western education as preached by adherents of the Haskalah, but his narrative ends up even more ambiguous than that of the Mayse-bukh, because despite himself, he presents the attractions of power and wealth available to Christians as so much more attractive than the deprived and persecuted life of Jews in the Diaspora.
In 1958, in the aftermath of the Holocaust, Y.Y. Trunk (1887-1961), who had escaped the Holocaust and was living and writing in New York, used the materials of the tale to reflect upon the stubborn pride of Jews in their national identity that has enabled them to survive centuries of persecution. His version of the myth, entitled “Der yiddisher poypst: historisher dersteylung”, is notable for using the image of the crucified Jesus, which the medieval Jews of his version see each week in the churches in which they are forced to hear conversionist sermons, as an emblem of the suffering of the Jews themselves. The crucified Jesus is presented as an image of a crucified Jew wearing a “shtraymele fun derner”.
Isaac Bashevis Singer (1904-1991), however, in his 1943 version of the myth published in 1943, when the Jews of Vilna were being destroyed, radically denies the befits of the Haskalah and wholly rejects all assimilation. In his version of the legend, entitled “Zaidlus der ershter” (Zaidlus the First), he makes his version of the genius boy the total opposite of the biblical Joseph, a man ugly, of indeterminate gender, whose obsession with learning is totally sterile because it is wholly cut off from any life-promoting engagement with real people. In the end, his would-be pope figure is left blind and destitute, welcoming death and the punishment of hell, because that alone proves that the Jewish God is real and true.This legend continues to provoke serious questions about the nature of Jewish identity in the modern world. It demands to know what Jews are once they abandon their traditional faith and the observance s of Judaism.
|2005 VILNIUS YIDDISH INSTITUTE. Solution: Neosymmetria|