Page 54 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 48

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Every creature from rabbi to horse to fish sprouted wings to
escape from the shtetl’s confines, transcend earthly boundaries,
and unite with a broader universe without ever losing sight of
origins. Those prominent eyes look upon earth and air, past
and future. In the air of fable, fiddler’s music, and folklore,
hierarchies tend to be leveled: the anarchic breeze of Chagall’s
secular Hasidism pervades his canvasses. His circus animals and
carnivalesque hybrids challenge any purebred or thoroughbred
rigidity, his aerial acrobats invert and displace standard con­
ceptions of reality. In
(1947), for instance, a horse flies
at one edge of the canvas while a bird on the ground looks
on from the opposite side. These reversed, double-winged
flights both incorporate tradition and transcend it in their quest
for modernist experimentation. Spanning the twentieth century
and Vitebsk, Paris, New York, and Jerusalem, Chagall mediates
between the earlier fiction of Mendele and Sholom Aleichem,
and the later fantasies of Malamud and Isaac Bashevis Singer.
In contrast to Chagall’s bird’s-eye views and floating
Isaac Babel offers a somewhat different picture of
the Russian aviary in “The Story of My Dovecot.” While
Chagall’s quadrupeds and bipeds frequently appear skybound,
Babel’s earthbound red cavalry is oppressive, demonic, bent on
crushing those delicate doves who never obtain freedom be­
cause of recurrent pogroms. As a child, Babel had wanted a
dovecot with three pairs of pigeons more than anything else,
and since he excelled in school, his wish was finally fulfilled.
Clutching his pigeons on the way home from the market, the
boy stops to inquire about Emperor Nicholas’s constitution and
the pogrom which has just destroyed his great uncle Shoyl. A
legless peasant and his wife strike down the child with his birds:
“I lay on the ground, and the guts of the crushed bird trickled
down from my temple. They flowed down my cheek, winding
this way and that, splashing, blinding me. The tender pigeon-
guts slid down over my forehead, and I closed my solitary
unstopped-up eye so as not to see the world that spread out
before me. This world was tiny, and it was awful.” In this mi­
crocosm, Babel’s bird symbolizes the plight of innocent Jews
murdered during the pogrom: great uncle Shoyl, who had con­