The Demon’s Bedroom: Yiddish Literature and the Early Modern

by Jeremy Dauber
Yale University Press, 2010

If the suggestive title of Jeremy Dauber’s In the Demon’s Bedroom attracts the attention of the casual passerby, it will have done more than satisfy the book’s author. Rather, it will have proven one of the book’s primary claims:a writer knows how to pique his readers’ interest. Moreover, an author knows how to anticipate his readers’ initial interpretive leap and, subsequently, how to prevent grave misunderstandings. Lest the reader think Dauber is an author of supernatural pulp fiction, he appends the subtitle:Yiddish Literature and the Early Modern. As the subtitle clarifies, Dauber’s subjects are those Yiddish authors of Central and Eastern Europe whose published works appeared between 1500 and 1700. And, just like Dauber himself, these are authors who invite readers into their demonic textual lairs in order to teach specific lessons.

For Dauber’s readers, this is initially a lesson in the readability and relevance of the early modern Yiddish literary canon. Dauber repeatedly argues that Yiddish literature of the early modern period is both aesthetically rich and genuinely entertaining. Here, as he announces in his multiple close readings, is a selection of writing that demonstrates a literary dynamism. Playful rhymes, layered allegories and subtle allusions abound, and are ripe for the interpretive picking. As the title of his work suggests, Dauber also focuses his attention on those Yiddish narratives that participate in the supernatural mode. The texts under discussion cross genre boundaries but are unified in their deployment of the fantastic, the incredible or the demonic. Investigating fables, short stories and rhymed narratives, Dauber leads his readers into a highly-stylised literary world of supernatural adventure and romance. Readers and scholars who might have otherwise relegated early modern Yiddish literature to a cabinet of historical curiosities are persuaded that to do so would be to ignore the literary pulse of this fabulous corpus.

Yet Dauber’s meticulously- researched analysis does not aspire to be a glorified ghost story, nor should it. After all, the task of In the Demon’s Bedroom is not merely to entice contemporary readers and academics to appreciate early modern Yiddish literature, but to identify the sophisticated audience of these works at the time of their publication. Dauber rejects the assumption that Yiddish literature of the sixteenth and seventeenth century, by virtue of being written in a Jewish vernacular, was necessarily simplistic, or that it catered to a correspondingly simple-minded reading audience. Yiddish male and female readers, he contends, were not the watered-down counterparts of educated male readers perusing contemporaneous Hebrew writing. Rather, these Yiddish readers demonstrated mature reading sensibilities. Not only would they have understood various biblical, liturgical and Talmudic allusions but they would also have been able to negotiate the strong strain of Hebraic vocabulary in the Yiddish literary record. Moreover, Dauber argues, these readers were distinctly aware of genre conventions and would, therefore, interpret and assign meaning to deviations from genre norms. Similarly, if a narrative line stumbled, readers were quick to recognise the slip. For example, when the readers of a fable in R. Moses b. Eliezer Wallich’s 1697 Seyfer Mesholim (Book of Fables) are first told that a certain innkeeper is a paragon of cunning intelligence, only to see him engage in utter folly, it becomes necessary for the narrator’s voice to intrude. Accordingly,some two dozen lines justifying the discrepancy follow the incident and textually respond to the readers’ implied scepticism.

Most interestingly, Dauber recuperates the discerning profile of this Yiddish readership by turning to the supernatural mode announced in his work’s title. When these readers were confronted by images of the fantastic and demonic, he argues, they would have registered a range of responses on the spectrum of scepticism and belief. This is evidenced by various explanatory or scene- setting statements that the early modern Yiddish writers introduce at moments when supernatural narratives stretch the bounds of believability. As Dauber shows, these were techniques echoed throughout European literature of the period in works no less refined or supernaturally-inclined than Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus or Shakespeare’s Macbeth. As he did in his first book: Antonio’s Devils (2004), Dauber bolsters his argument concerning early modern Jewish literature with a discursive foray into early modern English drama. It would seem that both Marlowe and Shakespeare’s work demonstrates the same awareness of an increasingly sceptical and epistemically sophisticated audience as that identified by Dauber in a Jewish context. More than a comparative digression, the analysis of the text and performance history of Marlowe and Shakespeare’s plays suggests the larger implications for Dauber’s historical reconstruction of the Yiddish audience. Although, as Dauber strongly asserts, these texts were written for Jews and by Jews at specific times and places, these are also texts in conversation with the broad concerns of early modern European literature and society. Dauber’s work further implies the potential of such a conversation by bringing together the works of leading Yiddish literary scholars, such as Jean Baumgarten, Jerold Frakes and Sara Zfatman, with
recent cultural histories of witchcraft and demonology in early modern Europe.

The texts cross boundaries but are unified in their deployment of the fantastic, the incredible or the demonic

Whereas Dauber must convince his readers of the literary sophisti- cation of the early modern Yiddish audience, he contends that theYiddish writers of the period did not need to be similarly persuaded. They were, as he demonstrates, already aware of their readers’ varying intellectual and analytical profiles. These Yiddish authors wrote for a readership that was attuned to subtle literary gestures and the manipulation of text and symbols towards political ends.This is most evident in Dauber’s reading of the she-demon tale, Mayse fun Vorms (c.1520s). In his analysis, Dauber attempts to recover the interpretive paradigm that may have guided the Yiddish reading public at the time of the text’s publication. Briefly put, the tale concerns the erroneous engagement of a wealthy Jewish son to a murderous she-demon. The she-demon subsequently kills off the son’s first two wives and is then, herself, destroyed by the third wife in a subterranean demonic bedroom (hence the title of Dauber’s work). At the end of the tale, the third wife is alive and wealthy. She is left in a position far from the impoverished state in which she had been betrothed to her husband—a position of poverty she had previously compared to death.

Contemporary interpreters have read the story as a polemic against intermarriage or a literary exploration of threatening female sexuality. Yet, as Dauber’s close reading demonstrates, what may appear today a moralising tale about sexual relations would have been read in its time as a warning against the exaltation of wealth and ownership as values unto themselves. Dauber carefully maps a network of biblical allusions and recurring wealth-related imagery in order to demonstrate how the text condemns the coercive power of money. However, as he carefully notes, the text does not act with the goal of disturbing a social hierarchy that privileges the wealthy over the poor; the hierarchy should persist while the values of wealthy Jews are reformed. Most interestingly, Dauber shows that Mayse fun Vorms does allow social mobility in certain cases; for example, if one follows the model of piety, obedience and normative gender roles exemplified by the third wife. The discerning Yiddish reader would decipher this social message by carefully attending to the system of allusions and symbols underpinning the narrative. Dauber demonstrates that paying similar attention to the literary techniques of such works as The Tale of the Spirit of Koretz (c.1660) and the Tale of Briyo and Zimro (c.1580s) allows contemporary literary historians to identify the former, a dybbuk tale, as a valorisation of communal action and the latter, a Judaised romance, as instructions for negotiating Jewish rights under a hostile Christian ruler. Dauber also posits the Tale of Briyo and Zimro as a test case for how the Yiddish author as cultural transmitter ‘perceived (and, perhaps more daringly, even constituted) the audience’s perspectives on cultural adaptation.’ After all, the tale directly draws on conventions of non-Jewish chivalric romances that were popular at the time. Yet Dauber shows that common tropes of the genre were adapted with various modifications and transvaluations.The text does not advocate for ideals of chivalric love. Rather, a close reading of the tale reveals the lesson that any ‘attempt to generate an authentic mixture of the external and internal, chivalric and Jewish worlds’ must be relegated to the world of fantasy. It is only in the world of the dead that the story’s Jewish heroes, Briyo and Zimro, can marry. What emerges from Dauber’s work is a sense not only of the Yiddish reader but also of the Yiddish writer as a cultural activist and moraliser who anticipated, responded to and shaped the future inclinations of his reading audience.

Accordingly, In the Demon’s Bedroom may rightly be labelled a work of recuperative scholarship. Dauber self-consciously reads each tale as an intricate artistic construct, and, in doing so, he mines the canon of early modern Yiddish literature to unearth the interpretive profiles of its readers and the moralising agendas of its authors. He demonstrates that to descend into the demonic Yiddish bedroom—into the world of early modern Yiddish readers and writers— is to discover a complex network of literary and semiotic exchange. Readers who were dismissed as merely functionally literate and authors who were labelled condescendingly as ‘popular’ appear as active, sophisticated players in a dynamic reading community. Dauber’s scholarship lays the groundwork for similar recuperative efforts and we may well wonder what other authorial and readerly spectres may be lurking in the Jewish literary archive.

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