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

  • Review
By – August 31, 2011
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.
Penin­nah Schram, well-known sto­ry­teller & author, is Pro­fes­sor of Speech and Dra­ma at Yeshi­va Uni­ver­si­ty’s Stern Col­lege. Her lat­est book is an illus­trat­ed anthol­o­gy, The Hun­gry Clothes and Oth­er Jew­ish Folk­tales (Ster­ling Pub­lish­ing) and a CD, The Min­strel & the Sto­ry­teller, with singer/​guitarist Ger­ard Edery (Sefarad Records). She is a recip­i­ent of a Covenant Award for Out­stand­ing Jew­ish Edu­ca­tor and the 2003 Nation­al Sto­ry­telling Net­work’s Life­time Achieve­ment Award.

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