Monday, November 03, 2008

The "DovBear" of the 1860s?

The other day I was rooting around our local free book exchange with a buddy, when he shoved the following volume into my hot sweating hand:

The Polish Lad
By Isaac Joel Linetski
Translated from the Yiddish by Moshe Speigel
Introduction by Milton Hindus
Philadelphia, Jewish Publication Society of America, 1975
ISBN 0-8276-0065-8

The book in question purports to be the memoir of a human of the male gender raised in a Hasidic milieu in Poland during the 1840s/1850s. It is, of course, a "trenchant" satire of said milieu by a survivor. According to the biography provided in the introduction, Linetski was a son of a Hasidic Rabbi, who happened to be a "ilui," i.e., a Talmudic genius. It turns out that by the time he was 10 years old, his teacher told his father that there was nothing more they could teach him. (Of course that might say more about the quality of Hasidic educators of the time than it does about Linetski.) As you can imagine, Linetski soon got bored and started doing the 19th century equivalent of the "hasidic heretic" routine. This, as you could imagine, alarmed his father, and so he quickly married off his 14-year old son to a 12-year old (!) bride in an attemptto suppress the rebelion by giving the kid responsibilities. This didn't work too well, as the young Isaac quickly "corrupted" his spouse, so now Papa had two rebellious youths to deal with instead of one. Somehow he found a way to force a divorce (and those of us interested in a way to solve the aguna crisis need to research how this Hasidic rabbi was able to justify it under the halacha. I suspect it was not entirely voluntary on the part of two of the parties involved.) Anyway, after many trials and tribulations, our hero ended up in Odessa, where he found a love match raised a family, and became a well-regarded, if not financially successful writer.

This book was probably his best effort, and when it came out it was quite controversial. Unlike "Steimel," and the other athiest frummers on the web today, I would say that Linetski was more of a reformer, on the lines of DovBear. In fact, I think that DovBear would appreciate this short passage:

Chapter 2

At my age, my father expects me to be an Orthodox Jew

As soon as I reached the Age of four, my father took me in hand and began to drill me in the tenents of virtue and tradition. But if you suppose he taught me any of those stupid pprecepts with which the German Jews indoctrinate their children, such as giving homage to one's parents...--- well, if that is what you yhink, you are entirely wrong. Jews in Poland regard putting on such fine airs as clumsy and deserving of scorn. My Fathers teachings were diametrically opposed ... he urged me to be rude to my mother; my mother, in turn, exhorted me to show disrespect to my father, and they both encouraged me to greet honered guests with rude comments.

At the same time, he insisted on my observing certain precepts which even an elderly Orthodox Jew is not obliged to perform under Mosaic Law, but which muyst be heeded becuase of tradition. For instance, he taught me to hold on to my yarmulke at night, so as to keep it from slipping off my head while I slept. At the Festival of Purim I was supposed to do eighteen somersaults on the table in obedience to a certain ritual. During the Passover Seder he directed me in observing the ritual down to the last detail, and until the crack of dawn. On Yom kippur, I had to abstain from food until noon and to move about in my stocking feet thoughout the day. During the Feast of Tabernacles, I had to sleep in the booth even when it was freezing weather. I was adjured to comb my sidecurls once, and only once a week, on the eve of the Sabbath, when I also had to accompany my father to the ritual baths and have my head completely shaved. And other such virtues.

This is followed by a passage describing the riual baths that hints at things more ominuous:

"I could describe still other bizzare scenes for you ... but to my father, such practices were the quintessence of Judaism."

Now back when Linetski was writing, the Ashkenazic Jewish world was split into roughly 3 camps: The Hasidim, the Misnagim (what we might call today the "yeshivish") and the Reformers/Maskilim. Linetski was in the Reform/Maskil camp, but he doesn't apparently have much to say about the Misnagim. Maybe that's becuase they were less numerous in Poland than they were in other places (like Lithuania.) But today, there are really only two basic camps, because the Misnagim, for all their original violent opposition to Hasidic superstition, have by now more or less embraced many Hasidic practices and even viewpoints. I say this from the vantage of 30 years of close observation of an Orthodox Jewish community that had very little Hasidic influence when I first started observing them, but today they are virtually one and the same as Hasidim. The differences are superficial matters of ritual, and the fact that in this community, they still value their menfolk having careers and earning an honest living. (But, to be honest, some Hasidim earn an honest living, too. I'm thinking of a couple in Midtown Manhattan 20 years ago who had a camera store and actually gave me a fair price without too much of the BS that passed for marketing tacticis in that industry.)

Alas, today Linetski doesn't get the recognition he deserves. Everybody knows about Shalom and the Tevya Tales, but who knows about Linetski and The Polish Boy? Google him and see what I mean. The phrase descrining him is "obscure 19th century Yiddish writer." Well, I think that Isaac Joel Linetski's spiritula descendants should work to lift his memory from obscurity.


Blogger Friar Yid (not Shlita) said...

Reminds me of I.J. Singer's "Of a World that is no More," written of his boyhood years in the early 1900s in Poland. Singer was also a rabbi's son, and it's interesting to contrast his family sketches with those of younger brother I.B., who focused on humanizing their parents and overlooking their foibles. I.J. on the other hand shows his world without nostalgia, warts and all, detailing the frustrations of living a frum life when confronted with situations that, to him, seemed absurd and irrational.

2:49 AM  
Anonymous Woodrow said...

Also Joseph Perl's "Revealer of Secrets", the first Hebrew novel ever (written 1820 or so). Very anti-Hasidic, pro-Maskil, also somewhat pro-Mitnaged.

8:38 PM  
Anonymous Li Mitnick /mom:Lenetsky said...

Linetski was also an accomplished poet in his time. Do some research.
The book is actually titled The Polish Lad, although he was from The Ukraine, which he was really writing about (the family always claimed to be from Russia after coming to the US, but that's Cold War terminology). His works have gained some recogognition lately in academic circles & with those who study Yiddish; not just those who wish to find someone to criticize without knowing the facts.
BTW~ I'm a proud descendant.
In America it is spelled Lenetsky.

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