February 2003

The Brief Travels of Benjamin the Third by S.Y. Abramovitsh (Mendele Moykher Sforim)

Only a handful of people in history can claim to be founders of an entire literary tradition, and surely such a distinction would be enough to make anyone’s mother proud. But imagine if Dante had not only written the foundational works of Italian literature, but those of Spanish as well. Or if Cervantes had written not only Don Quixote, but also The Canterbury Tales. Such a thing would be exceptional, almost unimaginable. But in the Jewish tradition, for better and for worse, the exception is usually the rule.

S.Y. Abramovitsh (1836-1917) used the persona of “Mendele the Book Peddler” to write what many readers consider the very first modern novels in Hebrew and Yiddish. Both Hebrew and Yiddish literature, once largely limited to religious tracts, rantings and parodies by maskilim (proponents of the Jewish enlightenment), or trashy romances, were transformed by Abramovitsh’s genius. A comic writer whose work later influenced Sholem Aleichem, Abramovitsh layered religious and everyday language to create a world of fools whose insanity was only trumped by the reality in which his Jewish readers lived.

Abramovitsh uses Cervantes’s Don Quixote as his model for his hilarious Yiddish novel (which he later adapted into Hebrew), The Brief Travels of Benjamin III. Benjamin, the novel’s Quixotic protagonist, is a fool in a town full of poor Jews who barely manage to keep themselves alive. Yet Benjamin is struck suddenly by wanderlust, and he sets out to find a Jewish kingdom in the East that he has read about in Jewish legends of the Ten Lost Tribes. Using a journey motif that pokes fun at medieval Jewish travelogues, Hasidic pilgrimage tales, and even Zionist propaganda, Abramovitsh creates a satire not only of his dreamy protagonist, but of an entire tradition of religious literature and communal life.

The Brief Travels of Benjamin III is, first, a satire of those who chase after texts. Benjamin is prompted to set out from Tuneyadevka (“Parasiteville,” a fictional town in which Abramovitsh sets several of his works) not by poverty or oppression or frustration, but by books that fire his imagination. He is addicted to the tales of two earlier Benjamins, both actual figures in Jewish history who described distant (and half-fictional) Jewish communities that they observed in their Marco-Polo-esque voyages around the medieval world, and to the tales of Eldad the Danite, a figure in popular Jewish legend whose travels took him to a mythical Jewish kingdom in the Orient. Benjamin convinces Sendrel, his own Sancho Panza, to join him in his travels by reading to him from The Travels of Benjamin of Tudela and The Praises of Jerusalem, both medieval Hebrew travelogues. Benjamin uses these texts as they were never intended, as literal maps to guide him in his quest for the Holy Land.

Of course, our intrepid explorers hardly make it around the block. Barely escaping from their own wives, the two travel only as far as the next town over, where they become convinced that the rather familiar local characters are in fact exotic savages – which isn’t so far from the truth. Abramovitsh brilliantly describes the brutal reality of crude shtetl life with lofty language borrowed from medieval travelogues, as in the following passage:

Teterevke, Benjamin relates, is inhabited by a large number of Jews, may they continue to be fruitful and multiply. Just who they are, whereof they are composed, and whence they hail are weighty questions to which they themselves have no answers; yet there is an age-old tradition among them that they [are]... traceable to diverse uprooted tribes that chanced to settle in one place, as is evidenced by the fact that they have to this day so little to do with each other that, if one of them falls in the street, the others, strange to say, will refuse to help him up even should his life depend on it.

One town further on their journey, our hero notes that “architecturally, there are plentiful evidences of antiquity” in the sagging Jewish street and describes its bedraggled inhabitants as a curious species, “two-legged creatures with the faces of swine.”

The “journey” of the two idiots is absurd, of course. But their use of ancient and medieval texts as “sources” for their grand plans to track down a Jewish kingdom in the East comes closer to Eastern European Jewish reality than some might want to admit. By the nineteenth century, despite the inroads of the Haskalah, most Jews in the region still saw the ideal Jew as a pious person whose life was devoted to chasing after religious texts, in the hopes of evincing their redemptive powers – praying, year after year, for a messianic return to the Holy Land. Abramovitsh asks, in effect, whether such a pursuit is any less absurd.

Yet there is also a point where the satire stops. At every stage of Benjamin’s journey, Abramovitsh injects a strange logic into his protagonist’s thinking that slowly but surely eats away at the reader’s initial conviction that the character is a crank presented just for laughs. At one point in their journey, for example, his exhausted sidekick Sendrel asks Benjamin if he might want to turn back. After all, no one asked him to make this trip. But Benjamin won’t have it: “‘What logic!’ jeered Benjamin. ‘I suppose the world asked Alexander the Great to go fight his wars in India! Do you think all the Jews roaming the world right now are being paid to do it?’” The first half of this response, with its reference to Alexander the Great, simply reminds us once more of Benjamin’s castles in the air. But in the latter half, Abramovitsh hits his readers close to home. If Benjamin’s journey is absurd, its absurdity pales when compared to the absurdity of the exile itself.

As the novel progresses, the world surrounding the travelers gradually becomes more bizarre than they are. Benjamin and Sendrel fall into the hands of Jewish kidnappers, who take advantage of their naiveté to sell them into the czarist army. Not surprisingly, they prove themselves to be utter incompetents as soldiers and attempt to flee the army’s camp. The army’s response to this treason is a delicious twist that leaves the reader wondering who exactly is insane – and where precisely the line is drawn between an absurdity and a worthwhile dream.

In a world where one is forced to defend oneself against powerful lunatics, the line between the two is not very distinct, whether in Abramovitsh’s time or in our own. Abramovitch’s social reality may have long disappeared, but the questions his humor raises are the same ones we still face as we hold out hope for our own promised lands in the face of a resistant world.