Page 51 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 48

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GREENSTEIN/JEW ISH PEGASUS
43
omon’s invocation of their beauty indicates that these objects
of desire have long fascinated downtrodden Jews persecuted
by riders from the Crusades to the pogroms of the Cossacks.*
Pursued by the harsh reality and heaviness of these four-legged
creatures, the Jew sprouted wings for flights of fancy or tran­
scendence of ghetto boundaries.
Mendele Mokher Sefarim used the verse from
The Song of
Songs
as an epigraph for his novel
Di Klatshe (The Nag,
1873),
an allegory depicting Jewish hardship in Czarist Russia. If King
Solomon compared the Israelites’ beauty to Pharaoh’s horses,
Mendele appropriates his enemy’s animal and transforms it into
a pitiable beast, the downtrodden mare of the Jewish people.
A beast of burden rather than a sleek racehorse, Mendele’s nag
speaks “Horsish” or Yiddish to complain about its lot. The plight
of the lowly nag compared to the strength of other horses points
to the fallen condition of the Jews in the Pale; and Mendele
condemns both the Russian anti-Semites and the liberal, enlight­
ened Jews who naively believe that imitating the Russians will
solve their problems. The narrator equates Jewish book peddler
and nag who have “crisscrossed almost all the pales of Israel,”
their situation being at once unique and universal in the Di­
aspora.
ISRULIK’S RESPONSE
Though the nag first appears in a pit and is always
earthbound, Mendele presents an opposing aerial polarity. To
prepare for the protagonist Isrulik’s discovery of the nag, he
must first undergo a kind of rebirth or metamorphosis: “Some­
how it was as if I had leaped out of my skin to become isolated
from my body, and was not at all the Isrulik I had been, but
something ethereal. . .. Suddenly I was borne aloft.” A
maskil
or representative of liberalism and the Enlightenment, Isrulik
nevertheless succumbs to flights of fancy; shedding his skin,
he splits himself from the main body of Jewry. Just before he
encounters the unfortunate nag, Isrulik spots other horses and
boasts about his modern knowledge of pedigrees. As soon as
he confronts the nag his complacency is shattered and he utters
* One Midrash compares the Children o f Israel to a mare introduced into the
company o f Pharaoh’s stallions: the resultant disruption or chaos hints at
the subversive power o f literary imagination.