Great stories by H. N. Bialik

“Random Harvest and Other Novellas,” by Haim Nachman Bialik ((1873-1934) contains six tales which vary in length from two being about 20 pages to two being close to 90. The book has an informative introduction of 18 pages about Bialik who many consider the greatest Hebrew poet in the past six hundred years, and each of the six novellas has an additional introduction commenting upon the story that follows it.

Bialik received an extensive traditional yeshivah education, but was later influenced by the Haskalah, the Jewish enlightenment movement, and by the Hovevei Tzion, the pre-Zionist “Lovers of Zion” movement. He settled in Israel in 1924. He is best known for his poetry and for his 1910 “Book of legends: Sefer Ha-Aggadah, Legends from the Talmud and Midrash,” which he edited with Y. H. Rawnitzky.[1] There are two ways to read midrash and aggadah. One is a scholarly evaluation of the story to see what prompted the legend’s author to derive the legend from a verse: was he led to the story by some biblical word, by the absence of a word, by a strange word, a strange spelling, or other phenomenon. The second is to read the tale in total disregard of the biblical passage, to simply enjoy the story as a person might enjoy Aesop’s Fables, or a fictional novel, or read the tale to discover the moral that the author is trying to teach. Bialik takes the second approach and disregards any biblical passage that may have inspired it.

The six novellas in this volume, published by Toby Press in 2005, are brilliant gems. They can be read for the humor, tragedy, and enjoyment of the tale, as glances into human psychology and sociology, as stories of the past, and as tales that enlightens life today.

The story entitled The Legend of the Three and Four does this. The editors of the volume write: Bialik wrote “this quasi allegorical story, open to a rich variety of interpretations. It is a veritable masterpiece.” Bialik took a famed story of King Solomon hiding his daughter in a tower on a far away island so that no man would see her and fall in love with her, and she with him. But an eagle foiled his misguided attempt. It is a story that my grandmother told me some seventy years ago; a story that so impressed me that it is my best memory of this wonderful saintly woman. As impossible is it may appear, Bialik upgraded and retold the tale in a modern better form.

Bialik uses his enormous poetic verbal skills in his prose stories. The Shamed Trumpet, for example, is a tragedy of a Jewish family that had helped their non-Jewish neighbors, being driven from a Russian town by government officials because they are Jewish. They are forced from their home on a late Friday afternoon, just before the sweetness of the Sabbath, on Passover eve, the holiday recalling the exodus from Egyptian slavery to freedom. Bialik describes the feelings of the people involved in the story, Jewish and non-Jewish, perfectly. At the end of the tale, the family stops shortly on their journey to light two Shabbat candles, which soon go out. And the trumpet, which is another symbol in the tale “never dared to come out and sound its call. The trumpet was ashamed.”

My favorite of the six stories is the hilarious tragicomic tale Short Friday of a simple pious rabbi who stumbles unwittingly into violating the Sabbath. Short Friday is the term used by observant Jews to describe the shortest Friday of the year, the Friday nearest the winter solstice. Orthodox Jews refrain from many activities on the Sabbath, including traveling in vehicles.

On this Friday, the rabbi attended a circumcision far from his home. At the festivities following the ceremony, he and his non-Jewish driver overeat and overdrink. They fall asleep during the drive home and their horse goes astray. When they awake, it is dark, it is the Sabbath.

They stop at an inn late at night, owned by a Jew, and fall asleep. When the inn keeper who had not seen the rabbi when he arrived awakens in the morning, sees him sleeping, and knowing he would not have traveled to the inn on the Sabbath, assumes that contrary to what he had thought, today must not be the Sabbath. He orders his staff to remove everything in the inn that indicates that today is the Sabbath so that when the rabbi awakens, he, the inn keeper, will not be embarrassed for miscalculating the holy day.

When the rabbi awakes and sees no sign of the sabbath, he assumes that it is Sunday, that he slept through the Sabbath. He dresses quickly, enters his cart and departs for home – but he arrives traveling in a cart in violation of the Sabbath, as his congregants are emerging from the synagogue dressed in their Sabbath best.

 

[1]  Schocken, 1992, 920 pages.

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