Page 20 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 48

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JEWISH BOOK ANNUAL
stripes.” He is visited by Mikhal, the head of the Warsaw Jewish
community, and his fourteen-year-old son David. The prisoner
attempts to enlist their aid in delivering a message to one of his
socialist colleagues. Against his own will, however, the prisoner
experiences a series of mystical illuminations in which everything
seems in perfect order. Even the anti-Semitic violence seems . . .
“good. No, holy.” Unable to resist being God’s choice, the prisoner
cries out “Make Him stop. Hasn’t He done enough?”
“The Prisoner” merges pre- and post-Holocaust Judaism in
several ways. The prison is, for example, located on Mila Street
which was the headquarters of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising.
The ambiguity of God’s role in history is also stressed. David,
for example, does not understand the meaning of Hosea 13:7-8,
which his father had marked.
. .
I
will be like a lion to them. Like a leopard will I lurk by
the way.
I
will meet them like a bear who has lost her cubs,
and tear open their breasts. There will I devour them like a
lion. Like a wild beast will I rend t hem. . . .
Unable to comprehend Buber’s understanding that God is the
sole source of good and evil, the boy muses: “What did it mean?
This was the Lord of the Universe who was speaking, the God
of Mercy who was comparing Himself to a wild animal stalking
his prey.” Nissenson wisely refrains from giving a definitive re­
sponse to the question, what does it mean.
The prisoner, for his part, is imprisoned in a double sense.
Physically, he is in prison. But Nissenson suggests in several
subtle ways that the man, meant to stand for all Jews, both
religious and secular, is imprisoned by God’s choice. For ex­
ample, his “peculiar vest” with its “black and grey horizontal
stripes” is a symbolic tallit. He is, moreover, chained both by
a leather strap, which may be viewed either as symbolizing phy­
lacteries, or the yoke of the law itself.11 In addition, the choice
of Kotsk is important. Menahem Mendel of Kotsk, the
nineteenth-century hasidic leader, whom Wiesel terms “The
Master-against-his will, the angry saint,” rebelled against the
trivialization of Jewish faith. Nissenson’s prisoner is also a rebel,
but one who while seeking divine justice discovers divine om­
nipotence.
11. Lawrence I. Berkove suggests the phylactery symbolism in his “American
Midrashim: Hugh Nissenson’s Stories,” in
Critique
20: 1 (1978), p. 77.