Saturday, July 27, 2013

Y. L. Peretz's "Bontsha the Silent," and Other Jewish Tragedies

  I love my Shabbat post-Shachareet (Morning Service) classes—discussion groups, really. My senior congregants are unlike any other people I’ve ever known before—so much life experience, from so many countries (from Eastern Europe to Boston and the Bronx). I am honored to be able to interact with, teach, and mostly learn, from them.
            Today, we read and discussed Peretz’s masterwork, “Bontsha Schweig,” about a Jewish peasant so shat on by life (there is no other descriptor), by his parents, his stepmother, his wife, his son—that any summary I could offer would belittle the greatness of the artist’s achievement (Peretz’s, not Bontsha’s, poor fellow). Yet, he does get his reward in heaven (Bontsha, and, we hope, Peretz), and responds to it in a remarkable way. The story is a classic, which I would require every Jew from college age on up, to read. Read it yourself, if you don’t already know it.
            From there, I segued into a story from Sigmund Freud’s past. His father, Westernized, educated, eager to be accepted into Viennese fin-de-siecle society, had just bought a new silk hat. He was proud to wear it for a promenade along one of Vienna’s—cosmopolitan, urbane, cultured Vienna!—boulevards. The challenge, the problem really, was that, charging towards him at top speed on that same sidewalk was a Prussian nobleman, an army officer, in a great hurry.
            Seeing Herr Freud, the officer scowled, and grimaced, and shouted, “Jew! Get off the sidewalk!” Wielding his walking-stick like a truncheon, the giant knocked Freud pere’s hat off his head, into the street.
            “And what did you do, Papa?” gasped the young Siggie, upon hearing the story.
            “Do?” said the father, “Do? I went into the street, got my hat, brushed it off, put it on, and continued on my way.”
            My point in mentioning this sad little story is that Jews, prior to the establishment of the State of Israel, were, with perhaps some few, notable exceptions—America? England?—in the same position as that of Sigmund’s father—a barely tolerated minority—and the veneer of civilization was, is, very thin. In reading the Peretz story, it is useful to recall a time when all Jews, everywhere, were, more or less, in the same position as poor Bontsha, silent or noisy, but all to be treated the same.
            “And what did you do in Bontsha’s position, back there in Poland, Reb Chaim?” I asked another participant, a Holocaust survivor, a self-made man in both Canada and America, whom I respect very much, a strapping, healthy man, nearly 90.
            “Rabbi,” he said to me, “in the Old Country we were told, ‘God will provide,’ ‘God will take care of [the anti-semites]. We should have learned to protect ourselves.”
            “And there were many who did, in the War,” I said.
            “Yes,” he answered, sadly, “but not enough, not nearly enough.”

            We do well to read about Bontsha, and learn.