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Hobbits, Jews, and Romantics in the Woods

Just a few notes on the film Defiance. My housemate and I caught a free screening courtesy of gofobo.com and the Ritz East. The film is based on the 1993 book by Nechama Tec, Defiance: The Bielski Partisans, and it is an excellent story told well. Had it been a fantasy written by Tolkien it might have been told as part of larger multi-part epic. What we were shown was the compressed story of one year of survival that spanned three more.

I mention Tolkien since one of his intentions in inventing the fairy tale geographies and histories of Middle Earth was to provide a national myth for his beloved England. The Hobbits of the Shire represented the rural peoples and provincial attitudes familiar from Tolkien’s youth. The threat and conquest of the Shire by the evil minion of Sauron were reflected in the terrible trauma suffered by the English people in the first and second World Wars.

It is not an exaggeration to say that for both religious and secular Judaism the past cannot be reached without first crossing the gaping abyss of despair and traumatic survival that describes our storytelling and documenting of the Holocaust. In Defiance, the story of the exodus from Egypt and the travails of the wilderness are retold through the true story of the Bielski brother’s trek through the forests of Belarus. This is the story of Frodo and Sam Gamgee writ large and real. And if the Jews feet aren’t as hairy as Tolkien’s hobbits, they do at least live in earth sheltered dwellings.

True Holocaust stories have assumed the role of epic sagas for the Jewish people. These aren’t the stories imagined for us by 19th century Jewish romanticists. But unlike Tolkien’s fiction, the lived experience of the Holocaust helped drive a national liberation movement to realize a sovereign state in the ancient homeland of its people, revived religious and ethnic roots among disaffected and assimilated Jews, and continues to provide a focal point for secular ethnic identity in both Israel and the Diaspora. It’s not that stories of previous persecutions don’t exist and aren’t revisited often in the Jewish calendar of fast days and period of mourning. What differentiates Defiance is that it revives the tales of defiance to oppression, from Moses to the Macabees to Bar Kohba’s rebellion against the Romans. It’s been almost two millennia since Bar Kohba’s failed uprising. Adaptation to the Diaspora and repeated disappointments from the Spanish Expulsion to Shabbtai Tzvi, put a note of skepticism at the end of every prayer for the appearance of a Messiah. What is surprising is that the film doesn’t overtly link the success of the Bielski brother’s self-reliance with the parallel struggle of Zionism and the creation of the Jewish state. On the one hand, perhaps it doesn’t need to. On the other, the film does such an excellent job of weaving the expectations of Jewish Messianism with the reality of harrowing circumstance that it almost makes sense for the Bielski borthers to live happily ever after growing their trucking company in New York City. Defiance isn’t a messianic fantasy, nor is it ideological. Hunger strips the non-essentials. This forest tale is reality tempered.

If romanticism maps historic and mythic landscapes and practices onto the present, then identifying Defiance as romantic might seem a bit of a stretch. But if it’s hard to see, then one would also be blind to the major romantic themes in Judaism: pining for the restoration of the Temple, for the revelation of the hidden messiah, and the return to the Land of Israel. These are the same themes that enabled a secular Zionism to be so easily adopted and communicated, for Yiddish to be replaced by a rehabilitated Hebrew, for urbanized Jews to embrace the field of the kibbutz. After a century of German mystic antisemites advancing the notion that Materialism was synonymous with Judaism, and convincing many that unlike the German people (rooted as they were in the deep and mysterious old European forests) Jews were a spiritually shallow people without a motherland to nourish them, the ancient desire to be rooted in the land of Israel was freshly revived. Just as Europeans were seeking out and publishing their ancient folk traditions as a historic validation of their new national identities, so Hayyim Bialik and Yehoshua Ravnitzky did the same with the Sefer Ha-Aggadad published in Odess in 1911. But the use of storytelling to derive a single identity within the diverse Jewish communities is an ancient one.

The imaginative exercise to “tell the story of the exodus as if one had themselves fled from Egypt” is what is at play in Defiance. This annual Passover tradition (actually a religious obligation) at the root of Jewish religious and ethnic identity is nothing if not romantic. What makes Defiance compelling, beyond it being an amazing true story, is that it helps the viewer place themselves in the wilderness with these Jewish survivors, as they themselves re-enacted the story of exodus without the benefit of magical interventions or prophecy.

There are other romantic aspects as well. The film presents rural Jews as capable and hardy outdoorsmen, even as it allows for the more familiar trope of urbanized ghetto Jews completely unfamiliar with the rigour of wilderness living. But in this way the viewer (who is also likely to be an unaccomplished survivalist) may experience the Byelorussian winter vicariously through the story of the Jews. The desire to rehabilitate Jews as capable fighters rooted in nature affected all of the Zionist youth movements. The idea drew heavily from the German romantic tradition. That Defiance shows ghetto Jews in the role of resistance fighters and backwoods survivalists makes this a Jewish romantic tour de force.

Simon Schama had already described Jewish familiarity with the rural European landscape in his prologue to Landscape & Memory (1995), but for those who hadn’t read it, Defiance provides some witness to the truth of this. Here is what Schama wrote in Landscape and Memory (p.27-29). It should be read by every Jewish romantic.

I had always thought of the Jews of the Alte Land as essentially urban types, even when they lived in villages: tradesmen and artisans; tailors and carpenters and butchers and bakers; with the rebbe as the lord of the shtetl; microcosms of the great swarming communities of Wilno and Bialystok and Minsk. And so it often was, but the villages we walked through, these picture-perfect rustic cottages with their slanting timber eaves and crook-fenced gardens, had once been Jewish houses. “Seventy percent, eighty percent of the people here and here and here,” said Tadeusz, “-all Jews.” So even if they had not worked the earth with their hands or cut hay in the fields, these Jews had been country people, no less than the villagers of the Cotswolds or the peasants of the Auvergne. And one group among them, people known to everyone in the border country of Poland and Lithuania, had even been people of the forest, the wilderness puszcza.

Among them, somewhere, was my family. My mother’s father, Mark, who did become a butcher, left this region along with three brothers, at the turn of the century, driven by the horseback terror of the Cossack pogroms. But his father, Eli, like many other Jews, made his living cutting timber from the great primeval forests, hauling it to the tributaries that fed the Niemen and floating the logs north to the sawmills of Grodno or, even farther downstream, all the way to the old provincial city of Kowno. The waters were full of these Jewish river rats, sometimes spending weeks at a time on the rafts , sleeping in crude cabins constructed from logs propped on end in the company of chickens and each other. During the brutal Lithuanian winters when the rivers were frozen, he would transport the timber on long sleds driven by big Polish farm horses or teams of oxen. From Kowno or Wilno on the river Viliya the lumber would be sold to the Russian railway companies for ties, or freight wagons, or shipped further downstream in rafts of a thousand or more logs, to the Baltic for export, usually handled by other and grander Jewish timber companies.

Somewhere, beside a Lithuanian river, with a primeval forest all about it, stood my great-grandfather Eli’s house; itself made of roughly fashioned timber with a cladding of plaster, surrounded by a stone wall to announce its social pretensions. My mother, who was born and grew up in the yeasty clamor of London’s Jewish East End, retains just the scraps and shreds of her father’s and uncle’s memories of this landscape: tales of brothers fending off wolves from the sleds (a standard brag of the woodland taverns ); of the dreamy youngest brother, Hyman, falling asleep at the loading depot and rudely woken by being tied to a log and heaved into the river. Was this family as improbable as the Yiddishe woodsmen of Ruthenia I had seen in an old Roman Vishniak photo, poling logs in their sidelocks and homburgs; lumberjacks mit tzitzis?

Jewish lumbermen, Ruthenia (Roman Vishniac)

Jewish lumbermen, Ruthenia (Roman Vishniac)

And just where, exactly, was this place, this house, this world of stubby yellow cigarettes, fortifying pulls from grimy vodka bottles, Hassidic songs bellowed through the piny Poylishe velder? “Where was it?” I pressed my mother while we sat eating salad in a West End hotel. For the first time in my life I badly needed to know. “Kowno gubernia, outside Kowno, that’s all we ever knew.” She shrugged her shoulders and went back to the lettuce.

The history of the country only deepens the uncertainty. For “Lithuania” is not coterminous with the present borders of the shrunken Baltic republic; still less with its language and religion. For centuries it covered an immense expanse of territory stretching all the way from the Black Sea in the south to the Bug river in the west to the Baltic in the north. In 1386 its hunter-king JagieÅ‚Å‚o married the Polish queen Jadwiga, creating by their muon the Great Polish realm. Over time the cultural identity of the south and west of the country was colonized by Poland. Its landowning gentry can1e to speak and write Polish and call themselves by the Polish name of szlachta. In the late eighteenth century Poland was brutally and cynically partitioned and the pieces devoured by its neighbors-the Prussians, the Russians, and the Austrians. The Lithuanian heartland became Russian, and its Polish-speaking poets came to think of it as the captive homeland.

With no formal frontiers to cross, itinerant Jewish traders migrated within the Russian Empire as family connections or economic incentives beckoned, north from the Ukraine or Byelorussia, south from Latvia, magnetized by the great center of piety and cultural passion in Wilno. My great-grandfather and his four boys, like so many other wood-shleppers, were outriders of this Judeo-Lithuanian world, by Yiddish standards, real backwoodsmen, as at home with horses and dogs and two-handled saws as with prayer books and shabbos candles. We drove further north from Giby, past synagogues with drunkenly undulating gables and whitewashed walls (the wooden structures having all been burned by the SS and their local collaborators), cutting through darker woodland dominated by spruce and fir. I remembered someone in a Cambridge common room pestering the self-designated “non-Jewish Jew” and Marxist historian Isaac Deutscher, himself a native of this country, about his roots. “Trees have roots,” he shot back, scornfully, “Jews have legs.” And I thought, as yet another metaphor collapsed into ironic literalism, Well, some Jews have both and branches and stems too.

So when Mickiewicz hails “ye trees of Lithuania” as if they belonged only to the gentry and their serfs, foresters, and gamekeepers I could in our family’s memory lay some claim to those thick groves of larch, hornbeam, and oak. I dare say that even the lime tree, worshipped by pagan Germans and Lithuanians as the abode of living spirits, lay on Eli Sztajnberg’s leds and carts waiting to be turned into the clogs and sandals worn everywhere in the Lithuanian villages…

About Aharon N. Varady


Aharon’s Omphalos is the hobbit hole of Aharon Varady, founding director of the Open Siddur Project. He is a community planner and environmental educator working to improve stewardship of the Public Domain, be it the physical and natural commons of urban park systems or the creative and cultural commons of libraries and museums. His advocacy for open-source strategies in the Jewish community has been written about in the Atlantic Magazine, Tablet, and Haaretz. He is particularly interested in pedagogies for advancing ecological wisdom, developing creative and emotional intelligence, and realizing effective theurgical praxes . He welcomes your comments, personal messages, and kind words.

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