The Books of Jacob

Olga Tokar­czuk, Jen­nifer Croft (Trans­la­tor)

  • Review
By – May 2, 2022

The Nobel Prize for Lit­er­a­ture was award­ed to Olga Tokar­czyk in 2018 for a nar­ra­tive imag­i­na­tion that with ency­clo­pe­dic pas­sion rep­re­sents the cross­ing of bound­aries as a form of life.” That’s a per­fect descrip­tion of The Books of Jacob, a mas­ter­piece of sto­ry­telling pub­lished in Pol­ish in 2014, now final­ly avail­able in English.

This is a nov­el about the his­tor­i­cal fig­ure Jacob Frank, an eigh­teenth-cen­tu­ry Jew who declared him­self to be the mes­si­ah. He wasn’t the first to make that claim: a cen­tu­ry before, Shab­be­tai Zvi raised the hopes of Jews across Europe with his mes­sian­ic claims, until he con­vert­ed to Islam in 1666. When Yankiele Ley­bow­icz (as Jacob was orig­i­nal­ly known) declared that he was the rein­car­na­tion of Shab­be­tai, there were still Sab­batean com­mu­ni­ties ready to embrace him near­ly a cen­tu­ry later.

Jacob Frank’s per­son­al mag­net­ism was as influ­en­tial as his ideas, and not just intel­lec­tu­al­ly. Like Shab­be­tai Zvi, he reject­ed many Bib­li­cal pro­hi­bi­tions, includ­ing incest. Jacob encour­aged equal­i­ty” by insist­ing that every­one must share every­thing, includ­ing their spous­es, and he cre­at­ed rit­u­als involv­ing nudi­ty. In Tokarczyk’s telling, he him­self becomes inti­mate with devo­tees of both sex­es who wel­come his attention.

This book, how­ev­er, is much more than a retelling of real events. As in any great nov­el, the true appeal lies with the peo­ple. Tokar­czyk has bril­liant­ly pop­u­lat­ed the sto­ry with lit­er­al­ly dozens of ful­ly real­ized, com­plex char­ac­ters — all of them actu­al, his­tor­i­cal fig­ures — who inhab­it an elab­o­rate­ly detailed world. A book­ish priest, Fr. Benedykt Chmielows­ki, believes that the knowl­edge of many cul­tures should be shared, includ­ing Jew­ish texts. Katarzy­na Kos­sakows­ka runs her husband’s estate and enjoys gos­sip­ing with her elite friends. There’s also her cousin, the mul­ti­lin­gual trav­el­er Moli­w­da; the doc­tor Ash­er Rubin; the busy, unset­tled Elisha Shorr, who has mys­ti­cal lean­ings and uses amulets; Reb Mord­ke, a dis­ci­ple of the kab­bal­ist rab­bi Jonathan Eybeschütz; and Yente, Jacob Frank’s grand­moth­er, who lies sus­pend­ed between life and death and can see every­where and every­thing. There are many, many more.

Tokar­czyk under­stands her char­ac­ters so well that she can imag­ine the fur­ni­ture and dec­o­ra­tions in their homes, the cloth­ing that reveals their per­son­al­i­ties. She can smell the evening breeze, tinged with odors of fruit and the for­est. When Jacob Frank is impris­oned in a fortress, she knows each of his cap­tors, their quirks and their weak­ness­es. She knows how the Catholic prelates will talk with one anoth­er, and how they’ll speak to Jews. What’s more, though she is Chris­t­ian, she com­mands a knowl­edge of Judaism that might intim­i­date some Jew­ish read­ers. Tokar­czyk accu­rate­ly writes in pass­ing about Jacob Emden, the Shem Hamephorash, gema­tria, and the dif­fer­ence between pshat, remez, drash, and sod, to cite just a few.

As much as it grap­ples with ideas, The Books of Jacob is a true multi­gen­er­a­tional epic, full of so much dra­ma and per­son­al­i­ty and emo­tion that it would make a great series on Net­flix. It’s a con­stant plea­sure to read in its superbly idiomat­ic Eng­lish ver­sion by Jen­nifer Croft, who is so scrupu­lous a trans­la­tor that the poet­ry is even ren­dered in rhyme and meter. Its length may be intim­i­dat­ing, but it rich­ly repays the invest­ment of time. It is des­tined to be an endur­ing classic.

Discussion Questions