In the Demon's Bedroom: Yiddish Literature and the Early Modern

Yale University Press  2010

 
When one sees “Yiddish Literature” and “Demon” in a book title, one might be prompted to think of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s writings. This is not the case here. Rather, Jeremy Dauber examines and interprets in great depth the Yiddish literature of the early modern period, specifically that of the 16th and 17th centuries. The focus of this scholarly work is the eight decades between 1540 and 1620 and the literature of that time, with its “revitalized” demons, devils, ghosts, and dybbuks that definitely influenced later authors such as S. Ansky and I. B. Singer. Jeremy Dauber is the Atran Associate Professor of Yiddish Language, Literature, and Culture at Columbia University and the director of Columbia’s Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies.

When you read this book you enter a maze, with Dauber’s many references to supernatural works with which the author is clearly familiar and loves. He reads these works not as ancient or historical documents but as literature that “captivated contemporary readers’ imaginations” because they have “literary and aesthetic quality.” Dauber is a passionate and expert ‘tour guide’ and sets up the exploration of these significant and fantastic literary works with great anticipation to take the reader on a wild exciting ride. It seems that Dauber is as attracted to the investigation of the supernatural in popular Jewish literature as were Jews throughout the ages. (Note that Dauber’s first book was titled Antonio’s Devils: Writers of the Jewish Enlightenment and the Birth of Modern Hebrew and Yiddish Literature.) In this book, he also examines the dynamics of skepticism and belief with regard to the Jewish literary texts by presenting a comparative case study of two other literary texts of that period, specifically Macbeth and Doctor Faustus. His goal is to show how non- Jewish supernatural literature had influenced the Jewish works under discussion.

Warning: This book is not easy reading. The Yiddish word “gedikht” (deep) comes to mind regarding the vocabulary (in English) and sentence structures Dauber uses, as well as his interpretations. As an academic scholar, Dauber writes with complexity and sophistication. On one hand, it sometimes takes several concentrated readings to fully comprehend his meaning. On the other hand, it is also a pleasure to read such high level writing. It is, after all, a work of literary analysis of several texts, including fables, a folktale (“marriage of a she-demon” motif), a Chivalric Yiddish Romance, and Dybbuk tales.

Throughout, Dauber offers summaries of the various texts and references specific lines (sometimes in both Yiddish transliteration and translation). Nevertheless, it would be powerful to have the actual discussed literary texts in the book—or as a companion volume. I found that my having a certain prior familiarity with most of those texts certainly heightened the experience of Dauber’s masterful interpretations. Bibliography, index, and extensive notes.


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