Page 90 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 24

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82
J
e w i s h
B
o o k
A
n n u a l
One whom Mendele had criticized in
The Meat Tax
decided
to get even with him and began to investigate his background.
He discovered that no person called Abramovitch had ever been
registered in the birth records of Kapulia (which was correct
since the family name was really Broido). This meant that Men­
dele had false papers in order to avoid military service. With
this information the fellow blackmailed Mendele and forced
him to turn over part of his modest salary. As a result, in this
period of the late 1870’s Mendele was in no mood to write.
The Allegorical Nag
Prior to this, however, in 1873, the work that created the
greatest furor appeared. This was
The Nag.
He had arrived at
the concept of the book in his Berdichev days. It is an allegory
in which the Jewish masses are portrayed as a weak, sick mare,
doubly exploited by the Russian Government and Jewish com­
munal officials. Even the people’s defender, the intellectual, climbs
on her back when the devil deludes him. It is a sort of continua­
tion of
The Meat Tax.
This, however, was not the essential
point o f the book. The primary motif was the profound criticism
of the Haskalah and the anticipation of social thought by a
whole decade. The
maskilim
proclaimed to the people: through
education you will acquire civil rights. Mendele’s words emerged
from the mare’s mouth: You have to learn how to walk before
you can run. The mare wants hay and they show her a hay
in the
Siddur.
Why, he asks, can all the other horses feed freely
while the mare is driven out of the pasture with sticks and stones?
The censor who was deceived by the allegory was reproached by
his superior for passing the book. Years later when the magazine
Vozkhod
printed a few chapters of the book in Russian, it was
constrained to suspend publication for six months. The Yiddish
reader understood all the details and implications of the book,
which was not only read but actually studied. One critic com­
plained: why did Mendele write such a book in Yiddish? How
does Yiddish come to be used in such a complicated novel? Can
the rank and file understand it?
Five years later Mendele’s most satirical work appeared:
The
Travels of Benjamin the Third.
It is the story of a small town
dreamer who, accompanied by a forlorn Jew, Senderl the woman,
goes forth to seek the little red Jews who dwell behind the
legendary river Sambatyon. The author does not try to hide
the fact that the prototypes of his characters are Don Quixote
and Sancho Panza. In Polish translation the book is called
The
Jewish Don Quixote.
Mendele’s hero, however, lacks the idealism