Page 156 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 47

Basic HTML Version

1 4 8
This internalized narrative technique allows for a detailed po r­
trait of an abnormal or imbalanced mind.
“The Mad Talmudist” opens with a third-person description:
“He ran back and forth by day, alone in the
suddenly stood still.”4 The Talmudist begins by questioning his
identity. Since he is alone, he addresses himself to God: “Master
o f the Universe, who am I?” (MT 18). Based on what others
say about him, he refers to himself as a Talmudist, a madman,
an orphan , possibly a thinker, and a thirty-year-old Yeshiva boy
who eats only five days a week (MT 18-19). Psychologists today
might perceive him as having a personality disorder, an identity
conflict, or a split self. From his standpoint, however, as a reader
of the Bible and Talmud, he concludes that a dybbuk—an evil
spirit—must have entered him. He notices the internal division
when he is tempted to steal a cake; part o f him says “yes” and
the other part warns “no” (MT 21). In the language o f the Tal­
mud, he concludes that he is like a room in which the good
and the evil spirit
) dwell. These spirits
are also inclinations or drives, and modern psychology might
associate this doubling with the conflict between rational con­
sciousness and unconscious forces.
Although the first pa rt o f the story merely shows the
Talmudist’s internal confusion, the subsequent two parts sug­
gest its cause. The “dybbuk” that has entered him is in fact
Teibele, the wife o f a local merchant. In other words, his “evil
impulse” is repressed sexual desire. “I often dream o f he r,”
the Talmudist thinks, and “she sometimes begs me, at night
while sleeping, to help he r” (MT 24). He fantasizes that she
will ask him to defend her against her brutal husband, and
that he will kill the offender (MT 25). Yet he is incapable of
carrying out this fantasy, and can only continue to suffer from
his internal conflict.
The Talmudist figures his condition metaphorically: a stran­
4. I. L. Peretz, “The Mad Talmudist,” in
Ale verk fu n I. L. Peretz,
vol. 2 (New
York: CYCO, 1947), p. 18. All translations are my own; “The Mad Tal­
mudist” is henceforth cited as “MT” by page alone. A complete English
translation is contained in
A Treasury o f Yiddish Stories,
ed. Irving Howe
and Eliezer Greenberg (New York: Schocken Books, 1973), pp. 234-42.