Page 55 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 25

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B
randw e in
—A
gnon
: A
l ienat ion
and
R
eturn
35
the other, supposedly a more practical type, Senderel. Mendele,
too, describes the ways and wanderings of his heroes, the land-
scape of the Jewish
shtetl,
Jewish folklore, chatter and melody,
synagogues, inns, the marketplace, and the like. These critics have
not drawn the essential distinctions between these two works
which transcend external similarities. This distinctiveness may
be illustrated by two main features.
a) Mendele’s characters, their outlooks and manners of speech,
are as the author himself orders them to be. It is Mendele who
pulls the strings, and his characters, like dangling puppets, dance
to the will of the puppeteer.
b) Mendele orders his characters to act, speak, feel, and see
in a way which will mold a Jewish existence of towns inhabited
by idlers (Batlon), beggars (Kabtziel), and fools (Kislon). It
is a distorted existence, a grotesque caricature which has no
remedy but its own ruination. Yet it has been deliberately created
by Mendele to point to its very ugliness, and to evoke the coarse
laughter of the reader. It is for this reason that Benjamin the
Th ird bumps into a woman carrying a basket of eggs in the
market, speaks in Aramaic to a Polish peasant, and with neither
a wagon nor a token travels to the Holy Land, and to see the Ten
Lost Tribes. More than Benjamin speaks he gestures with his
hands, shrugs his shoulders, and sweats. This gross distortion is not
because Mendele is unaware of the virtues of Jewish existence,
but because he has intentionally turned from them to portray
the antithesis of the desired Jewish existence—that of purity,
innocence, and wholeness. The great artistic ability of Mendele
has been purposely subdued by the artist himself so that his
ideology may emerge victorious.
Agnon’s artistic intentions are just the antithesis. He removes
from before him three generations of enlightenment and Zionistic
ideology in order to make a path whereon he may approach
and reach out to Reb Yudel. While reaching for him, he lets
his character live, feel, and speak in his own way. But from time to
time the artist looks inwardly and whispers to himself, murmuring
painfully and with a smile, “An immense figure, and yet so far
away . . . but I can’t help smiling at him.” I t is for this reason
that Agnon reveals in the story of Reb Yudel a world which
is composed of a simultaneous fusion of two points of view.
It is a world which provokes jealousy and excitement by its glory
and wholeness—by its love for man and God; at the same time
it induces smiles and laughter by the grotesqueness of its features
and gestures. The total experience of the reader, like that of
the artist is, therefore, “I am happy to be wiser than Reb Yudel,
but still, what a pity I can’t be like him.” Once again we have
the unachievable world glimmering from afar—here it is the
glorious, holy world of Reb Yudel. The reader knows, as does