Page 94 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 47

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JEWISH BOOK ANNUAL
seriously as a cultural alternative,”7 and those who, like Roth,
write satirically about American Jewish reality.
Despite its setting in “Woodenton,” an American suburb
where Jews have finally been able to locate their efforts to as­
similate into the majority culture and who are therefore con­
cerned that an old-world yeshiva has come to settle in their
midst, “Eli, the Fanatic” is finally not about sociology at all. It
is not even about cultural identity but more precisely about the
struggle
for identity. More to the point, “Eli, the Fanatic” is a
fictional rewriting, in the midrashic mode, of “The Yeshiva
Comes to Westchester,” a reportorial piece that appeared in
Commentary
Magazine in 1949, at approximately the same time
that Roth chose to set “Eli, the Fanatic.”
The
Commentary
article tells the story of one Rabbi Michael
Weissmandl, a survivor of the Holocaust, and of his efforts to
rebuild in the wealthy American suburbs of Westchester Coun­
ty, New York, in the vicinity of bastions of gentility called
Chappaqua and Mount Kisco, the destroyed Czechoslovakian
Yeshiva of Nitra. Weissmandl’s school of advanced Jewish study
would be patterned somewhat on the model of the Israeli kib­
butz in that it was designed to inculcate in its young men the
skills and practices of farming and trade. The Yeshiva still exists
and, even today, although land developing hasidic teachers have
replaced kibbutznik yeshiva boys, the school is designated on
local maps as “The Farm School.”
The real Weissmandl encountered the same opposition to his
Yeshiva that Roth’s Leo Tzuref was to find in the fiction. In
making his rationalist case for acceptance, Weissmandl sought
to raise the level of his neighbors’ discourse. He presented to
them his “hope that the friendly people of Westchester County
will overlook the superficial forms of outer appearance and look
deeper into our hearts and minds.”8
One need only note the fiction-writer’s utilization of the white
pillars found on the grounds of the Yeshiva — a fact not men­
tioned in the
Commentary
article but exploited in “Eli, the Fa­
natic” — to deduce that Roth, after reading the article, made
a pilgrimage to the Yeshiva and was inspired by both the article
7. Ruth R. Wisse. “American Jewish Writing, Act II.”
Commentary
61 (June
1976):45.
8. Herrymon Maurer. “The Yeshiva Comes to Westchester.”
Commentary
(April
1949): 319-327.