Page 48 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 54

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40
JEWI SH CONTEXT
What is Jewish about the novel, therefore, is its context, and this
includes not only allusions to biblical narratives and rabbinic com­
mentaries on them but also allusions to the corpus of texts which
define the Jewish legal tradition. The character of the Jewish peo­
ple is determined by their culture and their culture includes talking
about the Law. Piotr, the non-Jewish partisan, asks to be initiated
into the culture. He wants to know what is this “Talmud” that ev­
eryone is always talking about? What is the role of Jewish law in
Jewish lives? Pavel the “
tumm ler
”■—a role common to both
comme-
dia delVarte
and the Yiddish theater—offers an explanation that,
while irreverent, does not stray much from reality. “Our laws are a
bit complicated, . . . we observe them only when they don’t inter­
fere with the
partisanka.
But we enjoy talking about them. We’re
good at making distinctions, between the pure and the impure,
man and woman, Jew and goy, and we also distinguish between the
laws of peace and the laws of war” (p. 186). The Jews are not only
good at making distinctions; they are characterized by the distinc­
tions they make. Thus they transcend the seeming “stockness” of
the roles they play.
In order to explain the Talmud, Pavel clowningly resorts to a
well-worn Jewish joke about “two men who fall down a chimney,
one is dirty and one is clean.”Whether or not the joke is essentially
Jewish, whether or not it really defines the Talmud, is not material.
Indeed, the joke may be nothing more than a parody of Talmudic
pilpul
(casuistry). What is important is the dramatization of the
joke, turning it into a Jewish study hall scene. The episode is given
full meaning when, at its conclusion, it is sanctified by a prayer re­
cited by the pious White Rokhele. A believer in God, she con­
cludes the evening’s activities by affirming her faith. The prayer
“Into Thy hand I entrust my spirit” is not chosen at random. It has
particular meaningfulness for partisans, who have chosen to trust
only themselves. Her piousness echoes the Zionism of the group
and their quest for dignity. She prays for redemption by asking,
“Let the Merciful break the yoke that oppresses us, and lead us,
heads high, into our land” (p. 191). Thus at the hands of Levi, fic-