The History of the Wandering Jew
Albert Londres, a non-Jewish muckraking French journalist, set off for London, Prague, Subcarpathia and Poland early in 1929, in order to examine the harsh and dangerous conditions of the Jews living in those places. He then went to Palestine to witness and evaluate the Zionist solution to the Jewish problem, and met with Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky and the Arab mayor of Jerusalem, Raghib al-Nashashibi. Londres also reported the massacres of Jews in Hebron and Safed in August 1929. His travels resulted in a series of 27 clever, well-informed, often witty, and just as often terrifying, articles, published as a book in French in 1930.
The essays describe the lives of Jews of all sorts: religious and secular, ugly and beautiful, Zionist and socialist, washed and unwashed, enlightened (maskilim) and Hasidim, halutzim (Zionist pioneers) and yordim (Jews who left Palestine). The latter included yordim with pictures of Herzl on their living room wall. Londres knew a good deal about Jews but did not hesitate to ask questions, such as: What is tashlich? Are those men at weekday morning prayers unicorns? What is inside a mezuzah? Why, among the 600 children he saw flocking to the Talmud Torah in Whitechapel (London) were there no girls? The answer is what author Cynthia Ozick later would call the “Jewish half-genius”: “the daughters of the Chosen People have no right to knowledge.”
Notably absent from Londres’ consideration of the perilous Jewish condition in Europe is his own country, France. He repeatedly states, “If the world consisted solely of France or America … Zionism would not exist.” Could he have overlooked the philosophes and Voltaire’s prediction that “I would not be in the least surprised if these people [Jews] would not some day become deadly to the human race. You [Jews] have surpassed all nations in impertinent fables, in bad conduct, and in barbarism. You deserve to be punished, for this is your destiny”? Although Theodor Herzl figures prominently in the articles, Londres does not mention that it was the most famous of all French “affairs,” the Dreyfus Affair, beginning in 1894, that gave birth to Herzl’s Zionist movement. Indeed, in 1951, Hannah Arendt stated that Zionism was “the only political answer Jews have ever found to antisemitism and the only ideology in which they have ever taken seriously a hostility that would place them in the center of world events.”
Nevertheless, The Wandering Jew Has Arrived is a remarkable book. For those suffering from historical amnesia, now a fast-spreading disease, Londres’ travel journal, with its distinctly Zionist title — the wandering is over — is a powerful reminder of why a movement that in the 1880s had attracted only a small minority of Eastern European Jews, eventually won out over such competitors as Jewish socialism, haskalah, and Hasidism. Like Arendt, Londres assumes that Zionism was far more a response to antisemitism than to assimilation or to the example of the medieval Hebrew poet of Spain, Yehuda Halevi, who had argued that it was incumbent on Jews not only to dream of the restoration of Jewish independence but to settle in the Land of Israel.
At first, Londres displays contempt toward Hasidism for its superstitions and wunderrabbis (sorcerers and miracle makers). He reports how, to Hungarian Jews tempted by assimilation, the Hasidim say: “If you send your children to modern schools, your hair will fall out, your sons will become blind and your daughters will commit sins.” Much of his mockery is directed at the rabbi of Sighet, “that little town in Transylvania where,” Elie Wiesel would write decades later in the opening paragraph of his memoir Night, “I spent my childhood.”
Would Londres have been shocked to learn that this culture of superstitious rabbis helped to produce Wiesel? Not at all. After he concludes his mockery of the rabbi who is also doctor, veterinarian, lawyer, midwife, and matchmaker, he launches into the following reverie: “the Jews were just so beautiful! And they had become more extraordinary than ever….Where am I? In what unearthly country?”
Later, on a visit to the Mesivta (rabbinical seminary), which Londres calls a “factory,” in Nalewka, Poland, he reacts as follows: “The smell is terrible. Did you ever experience such smells? Pretend you have a cold, put your handkerchief over your nose and push forward … The smell is particularly Jewish — Orthodox Jewish … a mixture of essence of onion, essence of salt herring and essence of caftan fumes, admitting that a caftan can give off fumes like the coat of a sweat- drenched horse.” But he soon dismisses such thoughts as trivial. For nothing from “outside” can penetrate a mesivta,“absolutely nothing. They are not here to eat, sleep, touch, hear, see, taste or feel, but to learn.”
A rabbinical seminary, he concludes, “is extraordinary, one of those sights that engrave themselves in your memory forever.” To put it another way, as a medieval monk might have done: “a man who has seen God may be unfit to be seen or smelled by anyone else.” This seems a more astute estimate of Hasidism than that of the great historian Simon Dubnow, who suggested that its popularity in the Ukraine was due to the low cultural and intellectual level of that region. Londres’ admiration for “these young acrobats of the mind” from the ghettos of Galicia, Ukraine, and the Carpathians and for the beauty and majesty of Talmudic study is boundless and unstinting.
The only element of Hasidic culture that enraptures Londres more than the acrobatics of Talmudic studies is the work of a sofer, a Torah scribe, in the headquarters of a tzaddik in Gora-Kalwaria, Poland: “We have suddenly wandered into a Rembrandt painting [and] we stop in our tracks so as not to rip the canvas. There, in a corner, an extraordinary prophet, head covered by a tallit, a prayer box on his forehead and leather bracelet around his left arm, is sitting on a worm-ridden throne chair, a bucket of water at his side, slowly tracing Hebrew letters on a parchment.
Several quills and various inks lie in front of him. He is one of those celebrated sofrim, a Torah scribe. Let us stop and admire him. Each time he has to write the name of the Eternal, he raises his eyes, blesses Jehovah, washes his hand in the bucket of water and changes his quill. Then the copyist of God dries himself, dons again his clothes, tallis and box and resumes work.” How many Gentiles have been afforded this glimpse of Jewish spirituality? Indeed, how many Jews have?
Londres’ travels through Eastern Europe led him, inevitably, to one conclusion: In Russia, in Poland, in Rumania, “a Jew is always a Jew. He may be a man, but he is neither a Romanian nor a Pole. And if he is a man, he is a man who must be prevented from growing. From the entire history of the Jews, Eastern Europe retained only the history of Job: let the day perish on which I was born.” In other words, according to Londres, the Russians and Ukrainians and Romanians and Poles believe that Abraham’s descendants deserve the fate of Job. “The Jewish problem is complicated but I think it can be summed up in a single question about air: to breathe or not to breathe.”
In 1929, Eastern Europe seemed to Londres the realm of Satan, its chief ritual not the mass but the pogrom, its ruling passion Jew-hatred. Whereas Eastern Europe’s Jews are diverse, its gentiles strike Londres as distinguished from one another only by their division of labor in pogroms. The Jews were an irresistible target for pogromists: small in number, but enormous in image — Christ-killer, Judas, usurer, thief, corrupter of the young – and often conveniently imbued with the notion that there is virtue in powerlessness. The word “pogrom” itself is Russian, for the very good reason that, by 1929, there had been between 1,500 and 1,600 pogroms in Russia alone. Londres describes the assaults in merciless detail, as if to tell his Western European readers: “It is from this that you have been averting your eyes.” Here is one sample, from among many:
Blood is a bad alcohol for savages. Not all savages live in Africa or in the Pacific. In order to be a savage you do not have to be naked. The European savages, the Ukrainian soldiers, wore boots, uniforms and medals… The Proskurov affair assumes a sacred character. The killing is not going to be a prelude to pillaging. They are going to kill not for profit but out of duty. The ataman [Cossack leader] Semossenko makes his companions swear, on their flag: hands soaked in blood but clean! So the company, a musical band at its head and ambulance in tow, sets out….In groups of fifteen or so men, they enter the houses … and run their bayonets through every Jew they come across.
The Cossacks only fire when a Jew manages to escape. Everything is ransacked, even the cradles. To those who offer money to ward off death, they answer: ‘We only want your life.’ A priest, crucifix in hand, emerges from a church and entreats them…to stop the massacre. They kill the priest. Children are bound to the still-warm bodies of their fathers. When it comes to raping, they jumble mothers and daughters together with the same fury. Fifteen hundred killed between three and six o’ clock in the afternoon….in Felshtin, Shargorod and Peschanka, the Cossacks are even more Cossack. They cut off tongues and gouge eyes. They force mothers to hold out their children to them and decapitate the little victims….‘yid chicks must be killed in the egg.’
And so forth, ad nauseam. To say, as Lionel Trilling once did, that “a Cossack in a sukkah” was the East European Jewish way of saying “a bull in a China shop” hardly conveys the magnitude of Cossack brutality. “This,” Londres concludes, “is what it means to be Jewish in the countries we have visited…. I immediately understood better why Theodor Herzl wanted to send them to Palestine.”
Londres left Warsaw in what he calls “the year 5690” and entered Jaffa, Palestine in “Year 10.” When he arrives in Tel Aviv, he believes he has found “the only city in the world with a population entirely of Jews” and thinks that a revolution has taken place before his eyes: “Where are my caftans, my beards, my sidelocks?” Nevertheless, it is these secular Zionists who have become the Jews’ people of faith: “Faith carried them not toward the divine but toward the terrestrial. They came to win the right to be who they were. It was a moving sight. Doctors, teachers, lawyers, painters, poets, all set out to tame the wild land with pickaxes and shovels … [they] rescued Hebrew from the abyss of time and installed it in their textbooks and on their storefronts.”
So great is Londres’ euphoria over this particular achievement that he seems to forget that the Talmudic disputes he had heard in the Ukraine and praised for their beauty and majesty were almost certainly conducted in Yiddish. Hebrew could be “revived” by the Zionists in Palestine because it had been preserved through the ages in warm storage by Yiddish. Londres might also have benefited from having a Hillel Halkin travel guide at his side to tell him: “No, my friend, you are wrong: you cannot even buy cigarettes in Hebrew without stirring up the Bible; you cannot walk the streets of Tel Aviv without treading on promised land.”
For all his effervescence over the new Zionist polity, Londres does not fall into the trap of thinking that Zionist settlement in Palestine will save all the Jews from that constant burden of peril they bore in Europe. There were (and are) “Cossacks” in the Holy Land too. Londres’ terrifying account of the Hebron massacre of August 24, 1929, in which scores of religious (and mostly non-Zionist) Jews were the victims of what Christopher Sykes called “deeds which would have been revolting among animals” that were committed by Arabs in one of their periodic eruptions over the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
This did not lessen Londres’ confidence that the Jewish future lay in Palestine or his moral insight that “the young Jews of Palestine [had] brought honor to humanity” and not only to themselves by their achievement. His blessing is shadowed by a tragic recognition: “Live then, Jews! From massacre to massacre.” And the Holocaust was yet to come.
Albert Londres, The Wandering Jew has Arrived, trans., Helga Abraham, (Jerusalem and New York: Geffen, 2017), 120pp.