Monday, December 15, 2014

The Seven Good Years and other stories of I.L. Peretz translated and adapted by Esther Hautzig


This book is a collection by one of the master Yiddish writers, I.L. Peretz.  I love folklore and don't have many of the Jewish culture.  This book was adapted for children but they bring to life the culture and the plight of the 19th century European Jew.  

Most of the stories deal with a man and wife with their family dealing with dire poverty in a European village.  Often a supernatural being, an angel, the prophet Elijah, a magic Rabbi or elderly, pious lady who is now dead comes to visit and rewards the family's piety with gold, money or prosperous circumstances.  

Sometimes they are tested as in The Seven Good Years.  A man, Tovye, is very poor but meets Elijah, who gives him seven years of plenty.  Tovye laments to his wife what does it matter to be prosperous for seven years when they will only return to poverty afterwards.  His wife, Sarah, insists that they be grateful for what they have now and not worry about what comes next.  At the end of the seven years, Tovye find that his wife has been a wise and good steward with their money and saved up so they still have good fortune.

The stories show the mettle and inner strength of these families as in Peace at Home.  Chaim is only a porter with no money but he and his wife, Hannah, still adore each other and don't consider their poverty.  When Chaim asks the Rabbi what he must do to enter into paradise, the Rabbi gives him several instructions:  Learn the Torah, read the Talmud, pray ardently- all of which Chaim insists he is unable to do.  The Rabbi says he must then serve water to the scholars.  Chaim is delighted!  This he can do.  The Rabbi says that he will then be able to enter paradise.

But what about Hannah? Chaim wants to know.  The Rabbi informs him that Chaim's wife will be his footstool in heaven.  Chaim returns home, throws his arms around his wife and insists that she will never be his footstool.  God will allow them to be equals in heaven.

I find this story interesting because I ask myself, is Peretz denying the authority of the Rabbi?  Or can Rabbi's teaching be questioned, unlike the Pope's who Official Catholic doctrine asserts is Christ's spokesman on earth? I'm not familiar enough with Jewish custom to know.  It would seem that Peretz certainly feels the injustice of so unfair a proclamation.  Of course, as a Christian (and a woman) I have Galatians 3:28 to fall back on (God is not a respecter of persons, all are one in Him.)

Every story seems to contain a test for the protagonists.  In their harsh circumstances will they fall  into temptation or rise above it and do the right thing?  The supernatural visitors are not known until afterwards, thus invoking the lesson that we do not know who is watching us so don't be good for the praise of others but because it is the right thing to do.

One story I found disturbing was The Poor Boy.  A beggar boy approaches a man at a soup kitchen for a little change in order to pay for a night's shelter.  The man harshly turns the boy away.  He hasn't hardly any money for himself.  Then he is plagued by guilt.  He searches for the boy but can't find him.  The man argues within himself.  He should have helped the boy. No! He shouldn't, the boy will never learn to help himself.  He hasn't any money, he should trust God's provision and give what he has.  He even begins to regard himself as the murderer of the boy because of his neglect.  Back and forth he debates.  Finally he returns to the soup kitchen where he is again approached by this poor child.  He gives the boy a ten cent piece.

The next day the boy asks again and this time he turns the boy away.  He leaves the soup kitchen ashamed of himself.  He remembers his late grandfather's words:  "He who is not pious lives with heartache and dies without consolation."

All of the stories end with some kind of moral.  Since none of the stories sugar coat the hardship the families endure, the message must be to find that inner strength that will see one through to be good and moral no matter what.

This differs somewhat from the Christian message which states "Through Christ I can do all things Who gives me strength (Phillipians 4:13)." These stories seem to indicate that the Lord rewards those who do right, but without an intimate relationship with Him. 

The stories are illustrated with the soft charcoal drawings of Deborah Kogan Ray which give them an added poignancy.  A very nice collection of interesting stories that provide an insight into traditional European Jewish culture.




Brian Joseph said...

Fascinating commentary on what sounds like fascinating folklore.

The fact that the tales exhibit some philosophical complexity adds to the appeal.

You allude to some of these are a bit dark and disturbing; of course that is true with many folktale traditions. Interesting how people everywhere employ these tales to make sense of life's light and dark aspects.

Sharon Wilfong said...

I agree with you, Brian. I think the greatest truths of human nature are best revealed through folk tales or good fiction-more so than nonfiction. Have a good week!

Man of la Book said...

I don't know if my previous comment went through. This is a wonderful review, I love the Yiddish humor, too bad we lost much of the culture. Have you read Outwitting History by Aaron Lansky?

Sharon Wilfong said...

Hi Zohar. I have read Lansky's book because of your review of it. Here's my own review:
I also have a collectionby Sholem Aleichem. I haven't read it yet but look forward to. I agree. Many of these authors' writings need to be preserved. They're an important part of cultural history, made all the more important if it's your own cultural history.

Man of la Book said...

Oh, great. Wonderful review. I think I have a bit of a different perspective on the culture then you, but it was a very interesting read. Had issues with my RSS fee for the past year or so.

Sharon Wilfong said...

Zohar: I'd be interested in hearing your different perspective on Jewish culture. Take care!