4.13. H. Leyvik, poem ‘The Wolf: A Chronicle’ (1920)

Der Volf: A Khronik (“The Wolf: A Chronicle”) by H. Leyvik (pseudonym of Leyvik Halpern, 1888-1962) is a narrative poem of 731 verses in 7 episodes. The chronotope is partly vague, partly sharply defined; the poem takes place in an unmentioned year, but in a period from the month of Elul, *Cf. Chapter 3.3. Elul precedes the month of Tishrei and is a month of repentance and preparation for the High Holy Days “when their [the Jews’] hearts were still echoing / With the blasts of the autumnal ram’s horn” (III:3-4), until the end of Yom Kippur, “when the blower of the ram’s horn lifted it to his lips / And blew the blasts for Neila” (VII:17-18). In short: the story unfolds during the whole period of repentance. The scene is an East European shtetl, “the town” in the poem, and the new citizens, who came from elsewhere and rebuilt the burned-down town, are called di yidn, “the Jews,” or simply “the people.” At the beginning of the poem, the chronotope consists of the ruins of the shtetl, destroyed by a pogrom; near the end, the chronotope narrows into a sacred place: the rebuilt synagogue, and a sacred time: Neʿilah in the Yom Kippur service. The story is as follows.

I. The only survivor of a ravaged and deserted shtetl is a rabbi. Distraught with grief, he tries to pray, but every time he has forgotten the words and experiences nausea. He goes to the forest, where a strange cry escapes his mouth; he is slowly transformed into a wolf and starts howling wildly.

II. Jews expelled from other towns rebuild the shtetl, starting with the synagogue, though they have no rabbi yet. From the woods, they hear the howling of a wild animal, sounding like the lament of a dog “that opens his heart to the moon” and also resembling human sobbing. The lament of a dog to the moon almost mirrors the jackal’s call to the sun in Tshernikhovski’s poem. *Chapter 4.12.

III. One day in the month of Elul, the Jews see a stranger approaching; judging from his appearance, he is a rabbi, who looks wild and has escaped a pogrom. The stranger enters the synagogue and sits down on the seat of the rabbi; when he finally speaks, he blames the Jews for rebuilding the synagogue and urges them to kill and bury him, which they of course refuse to do. He bites a man who comes too near, ravages the synagogue and starts bellowing loudly.

IV. The Jews are troubled by the nocturnal howling of the animal, which turns out to be a wolf.

V. When they cannot chase the wolf from the shtetl, the fear of the Jews for the wolf turns into a fear for themselves, which undermines their new hope. The wolf does not threaten them in their houses and streets; apparently, he wants something else. Praying and fasting, the Jews make it through the ten days between Rosh Ha-Shanah and Yom Kippur.

VI. On Yom Kippur, they do not go home, but remain praying in the synagogue. Their weeping swells like a storm that should drown out the howling of the wolf. Peace returns again and the first night, instead of the howling of the wolf, the Jews hear the rustling of God’s protective wings and they mourn their bitter fate.

VII. At the end of the second day of Yom Kippur, Neʿilah begins. At the first shofar blast, the wolf penetrates into the synagogue and his howling blends with the blast of the ram’s horn. This episode is reminiscent of Perets’ story about shofar blowing in a synagogue during a pogrom, *Chapter 4.4 which ultimately does not prevent destruction. For a moment, the wolf remains standing on the bimah and then he attacks the prayer leader. The men overpower the wolf and hit him; he gives a cry and turns into a Jew with a rabbinical fur hat, in whom the Jews recognize the stranger who came out of the forest. “I’m fine now, very fine, do not cry,” says the rabbi to comfort them, and then breathes his last.

Two antagonists in the poem are the howling wolf and the shofar blower, who make loud noises with strong similarities at first hearing. *Cf. Chapter 4.68 for another comparison of a shofar blast and the howling of a wolf. The chronotope of the shofar blower is the synagogue with the congregation: “when their hearts were still echoing / With the blasts of the autumnal ram’s horn” (III:3-4), whereas the wolf’s chronotope consists of the woods and the savage nature: “The tireless and clumsy yelling / Rolled across the town, through rain and through wind” (IV:41-42). Both sound sources are the result of a metamorphosis: the shofar is an animal horn as an extension of the human mouth; the mouth of the wolf was a human mouth, no longer able to express sadness in words and prayers: “And when he felt that he’d forgotten all the words, / A stream surged up from the pit of his stomach; . . . It stopped in his tight, grieving heart—” (I:42-44); instead, it emits animal sounds: “And as if all his innards wanted to rip from his belly, / A third stream spurted up to his throat . . . And a wild roaring burst through the forest, / A louder and louder howling” (I:175-178). This howling is dominated by the demonic, as in the following verses: “And when he felt the yells coming, his limbs / began to dance for joy . . . And his eyes flashed with the glow of the wooden handles of the scroll / And the internal darkness beyond the Torah” (III:163-169). Deep under this bestial howling, however, lies a remnant of human conscience, which cannot remain hidden from the Jews:

[IV] And it was a mixture of baying and bellowing
And a drawn-out screeching and a stormy roaring,
[45] And in every change in the howling, a challenge was hidden,
An appeal and, more than anything, a prayer.
And more than anything, the prayer terrified all hearts,
Because it recalled a human weeping.

The authoritative discourses of the shofar blower and the wolf exclude each other and one of them must suffer the defeat. In their first confrontation (III), the wolf enters the synagogue, bites a man in his hand and ravages the interior; the second time (VII), he himself is beaten by the men. After Kol Nidrei on Yom Kippur eve, peace seems to have returned and the Jews are so relieved that they burst into tears: “Their weeping became a genuine storm, / As if they were trying to drive the howling away” (VI:16-7). The victory of the divine discourse of the shofar over the wolf’s bestial discourse is preceded by an acoustic blending of both:

[VII] And when the blower of the ram’s horn lifted it to his lips
And blew the blasts for Neila,
The door of the synagogue burst open,
[20] And a long and flimsy howling
Blended with the hearts of the blasts.

When the men beat the wolf out of self-preservation, the last eruption of the bestial forces occurs: “And suddenly, a shout emerged from under the earth” (VII:47). The roles are reversed: the wolf’s bestial cry dies down and makes way for the human, compassionate cry of the congregation:

[VII] and the crowd burst into a loud weeping,
[55] Because no wolf was lying, tortured, in a pool of blood,
it was a Jew in a Rabbinical fur hat.

For the first time, there is a dialogue; the dying Rabbi comforts the congregation and urges them not to weep. Now that the last survivor of the pogrom has died, new life can begin.

Episode VII begins with Neʿilah, the concluding service of Yom Kippur, and the shofar blowing is interrupted by the entering wolf. Leyvik does not describe the liturgy and probably, that was not necessary for the readers of his Yiddish poem. However, several elements of Neʿilah might clarify the poem. The tekiʿah gedolah of the shofar on Yom Kippur is preceded by prayers, of which the Avinu Malkeinu (“Our Father, our King”) *The Koren Yom Kippur Maḥzor 1188-92 contains a number of relevant pleas to destroy enemies, to seal the mouths of opponents, to prevent destruction and to avenge the bloodshed of God’s servants. The shofar concludes the Yom Kippur service with one single tekiʿah gedolah, but in some Ashkenazi communities with a TaShRaT, *Tekiʿah-Shevarim-teRuʿah-Tekiʿah. Cf. Chapter 3.3 and thus the plural “blasts” in VII:18 of The Wolf could be meant literally. The blasts mark the end of the Day of Atonement, when the faithful repent their sins, come to terms with God and begin a new year. The shofar also recalls Lev. 25:9-10 about the Jubilee, the fiftieth year, in which the shofar is blown to announce the emancipation of all servants. Later, the shofar blast has acquired a symbolic character and was meant to signal “that the trial [of the Days of Awe] has ended and the Judge is about to leave. *The Koren Yom Kippur Maḥzor 1198. During Neʿilah, the Ark is opened to let the congregation experience God’s presence; they need not stand up, since they are already tired by the long fast. Leyvik has chosen the moment for the confrontation of the wolf with the shofar blower with care. The shofar blast brings about the rabbi’s redemption and the return of his power of speech.

Stories about lycanthropy, or the metamorphosis of a man into a wolf are already found in the European Middle Ages and an early example of them is Der rabi vos iz gevorn a vervolf (“The Rabbi who became a werewolf”) in the Yiddish Mayse-Bukh (“Book of Stories”), printed in Basel in 1602. In this story, a Rabbi is turned into a werewolf by his wife, by means of a magical ring. He terrorizes the area, until a courageous knight gets hold of the ring and turns him back into a human. By means of the same ring, the Rabbi turns his wife into an ass. *“The Rabbi Who Was Turned into a Werewolf.” In Neugroschel, Great Tales of Jewish Fantasy and the Occult 31-43.

A story about the metamorphosis of a rabbi into a werewolf that is not only more recent but also much more similar to Leyvik’s tragic chronicle, can be found in Martin Buber’s book Die Legende des Baalschem (“The Legend of the Baal-Shem,” 1908), based on stories attributed to the Baal Shem Tov (“Master of the Good Name”), the 18th-century founder of Ḥasidism. In the short story “The Werewolf,” a Rabbi warns his son Israel about the Adversary. After the Rabbi’s death, most of the time his son is in the wilderness of the woods, where he grows up “under the speechless modes of the creatures.” *Buber, “The Werewolf” 52. When Israel develops into a pious boy, he arouses the jealousy of the Adversary.

At last, in the forest in which Israel had spent the days of his childhood, the Adversary found a charcoal burner . . . This man was at times compelled to change at night into a werewolf that swept down from afar and rushed around the homesteads, . . . It was thus that the Adversary found him sleeping one night . . . and deemed him suitable for his instrument. He thrust his hand into the man’s breast, took out his heart and hid it in the earth. Then he sank into the creature his own, a heart out of the heart of darkness. *Ibid. 53-4.

When confronted with the werewolf, Israel does not give way, for the word of his father is with him. Both stories picture a struggle between the animal and the human forces, represented in Buber’s story by the “speechless modes of the creatures” and “the word of his father” and in Leyvik’s poem by the howling of the wolf and the shofar blast of the baʿal tekiʿah. Whereas the men in Leyvik’s synagogue hit the wolf, Israel enters into the body of the werewolf: “He grasped the heart and closed his fingers tight around it. Then he felt it throb, saw drops run down and felt the infinite suffering that was within it from the beginning.” *Ibid. 55. After his deliverance from the heart of the Adversary, the werewolf is redeemed and can rest in peace:

On the way they saw the charcoal burner lying dead at the edge of the forest. Those who came across him were astonished by the great peacefulness of his countenance and no longer understood the fear of him that they had experienced, for in death he appeared like a great, clumsy child. *Ibid. 55.

In three of the literary works discussed, dangerous beings appear in the form of animals or dead humans, and the background of all three is the fear for pogroms against the Jews in the Pale of Settlement. The werewolf in Leyvik’s poem, who “usurps” body and soul of the Rabbi, and the Dybbuk in Anski’s play Between Two Worlds *Chapter 4.10 (as well as in Shulamit Ran’s opera of the same name), *Chapter 4.57 who usurps the body of his living beloved, are all the result of metamorphoses of Jews, who suffer from persecution and oppression and are finally redeemed by death. The third being is the dog in Perets’ short story The Shofar, *Chapter 4.4 which disturbs the shofar blowing in the synagogue, though as an annoyance instead of a threat; here the comparison with the dybbuk is rather ironic: “There is a Christian living across the way, who keeps a dog. And this dog takes it into his head to bark just at that moment [of shofar blowing]. You’ve got to wait until he stops. Sometimes, as though a dybbuk had got into him, he goes on barking for an hour or more!” *Perets, The Shofar 139. The jackal in Tshernikhovski’s 8th sonnet in the cycle To the Sun *Chapter 4.12. Vv. 9-10 does not fit in this series, because together with all other beings, it is devoted to sun worship: “And all existence becomes a voice of prayer, the prayer of all: / To you the mother jackals call as they litter their welps[.]”

The shofar blowing in both Tshernikhovski’s sonnet and Leyvik’s chronicle is a tradition from the Past, altered by the Present; in Tshernikhovski’s poem it is an archaic phenomenon, considered by a 20th-century persona, who designs an idiosyncratic nature religion, whereas in Leyvik’s poem it is an Jewish liturgical phenomenon, expressing the hope of the survivors of a pogrom. In both poems, the shofar blower is confronted with an elementary, uncontrollable power in nature: in Tshernikhovski’s cycle a positive power in the form of the light and life-giving sun, in Leyvik’s poem the negative power of a dangerous, but helpless animal.


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