Page 53 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 48

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GREENSTEIN/JEWISH PEGASUS
45
the same extent as Mendele, Tevye’s horse nevertheless becomes
part of the downtrodden Jewish existence, put off by the whip
if not by the talmudic quotation. “Excuse me if I said the wrong
thing. A horse, which has four feet, stumbles once in a while
too, so why shouldn’t a man who has but one tongue?” The
quadruped within the tongue-lashing monologue possesses lim­
ited freedom, for it is always at someone else’s mercy: you can
lead a Wandering Jew to words, but you cannot force him to
imbibe wisdom.
BIALIK’S BIRD
While the Russian-Jewish mare, harnessed and earthbound,
suffered at the end of the nineteenth century in the prose of
Mendele and Sholom Aleichem, the bird offered a glimmer of
hope in Bialik’s poetry. In his first poem, “El Hatsipor” (“To the
Bird,” 1891), Bialik addresses the bird at his window who has
just returned from the south to the awakening of spring. Like
the English Romantic odes to nightingales or skylarks at the be­
ginning of the nineteenth century, Bialik’s bird symbolizes long­
ing, but unlike Shelley’s “blithe Spirit” or Keats’s “faery lands for­
lorn,” Bialik’s nameless bird is framed, not by charmed magic
casements, but by a window overlooking the harsh realities of
Russia’s clime. Bialik’s bird answers to a pressing call for Zion
from the grim pogroms of Russia. So by the end of the nineteenth
century the Jewish Pegasus mentality remains incomplete since
the feathers have not yet been attached to the hide. On the one
hand, the burdened nag collapses on the not-so
terra finna
of
ghetto and shtetl; on the other hand, the fantasy of birds offers
the hope of escape from exile. Perched on window sills or at
stable doors, a re-awakened Pegasus prepared to take off from
the threshold of a new century and to activate the dream of a
renewed Zion. Whether or not their animals talked, these writers
talked to their animals, creating a humanitarian dialogue rather
than an idealized ode in praise of equine or avian grace. Exiled
from nature but not from words, the Jewish writer domesticated
his horse or bird on his own familiar terms and unfamiliar turf,
for the knight on horseback was as alien to the Jewish imagination
as the foreign territory it inhabited.
In the twentieth century Chagall took Mendele’s and Sholom
Aleichem’s horses and put them into fabulous patterns of flight.