A Mad Desire to Dance

Elie Wiesel; Cather­ine Temer­son, trans.
  • Review
By – December 20, 2011
On Passover, we cel­e­brate the tran­si­tion from slav­ery to free­dom, but there’s more: we must strive toward redemp­tion. There are big steps — the estab­lish­ment of the State of Israel, the Civ­il Rights move­ment, the res­cue of endan­gered Jews, etc. And then there are indi­vid­u­als.

Elie Wiesel’s new book, A Mad Desire to Dance, is not about the Holo­caust. Not on the sur­face. Doriel’s moth­er, a Pol­ish resis­tance fight­er, sur­vives the War, but dies sense­less­ly, along with his father, in an auto­mo­bile acci­dent short­ly after­ward. The child, although raised by a lov­ing uncle and aunt, is left with a hole in his heart” — despair so pro­found and pal­pa­ble that he per­son­i­fies it as a dyb­buk, pos­sess­ing him and pre­vent­ing him from inter­act­ing with oth­ers. The dyb­buk, a demon from Euro­pean Jew­ish folk­lore, is the dis­em­bod­ied soul of an ungod­ly per­son whose trans­gres­sions don’t even deserve to be judged, and is there­fore, nonredeemable.

Doriel’s hunger for mean­ing leads him to exam­ine faith, reli­gion, mys­ti­cism, Sur­vivors’ tes­ti­mo­ny and oth­er records of the Holo­caust, and final­ly, to psy­cho­analy­sis. With more than a nod to Papa (Sig­mund) Freud, his sto­ry is pre­sent­ed through ther­a­py ses­sions, dreams, and inter­nal mono­logue, the analyst’s notes, and let­ters he writes to his (dead) parents. 

Elie Wiesel’s writ­ing is ele­gant, grace­ful, and pre­cise. Words are very impor­tant here, and he choos­es exact­ly, gen­tly guid­ing the read­er along Doriel’s journey. 
Sydelle Shamah has been lead­ing book club dis­cus­sions for many years, and is a pub­lished sci­ence fic­tion writer. She was pres­i­dent of the Ruth Hyman Jew­ish Com­mu­ni­ty Cen­ter of Mon­mouth Coun­ty, NJ.

Discussion Questions