4.29. Der Nister, novel ‘The Family Mashber’ (1939-1948)

Der Nister was the pseudonym of Pinkhes Kahanovitsh (1884-1950). The Yiddish word nister means “person going incognito” or “hermit, hidden holy man.” According to the exhaustive study of Sabine Boehlich, *“Zum Pseudonym ‘Der Nister.’” the pseudonym alludes to Kahanovitsh’s Ḥasidic and mystical interests and possibly to his symbolist style, while some authors also connect it with Kahanovitsh’s successful attempt to evade the inhuman military service in Russia.

Volume I of his great Yiddish novel Di mishpokhe Mashber (“The Family Mashber”) was published in the Soviet Union in 1939 and Volume II in New York in 1948; there is probably a Volume III, which is untraceable. The Family Mashber is set in the Ukrainian city of “N.,” modeled after Berdichev, Der Nister’s place of origin, in the 1870s; the novel depicts the life of all strata of the population, in particular of the well-to-do Jewish family Mashber. In modern Hebrew, mashber means “crisis,” and in biblical Hebrew, it indicates the place where a child is born, the cervix or the birthstool. It appears in the identical vv. 2 Kings 19:3 and Isa. 37:3, where King Hezekiah of Judah, threatened by Assyria, speaks: “This day is a day of distress, of chastisement, and of disgrace. The babes have reached the birthstool, but the strength to give birth is lacking.” Both the modern and the biblical meaning apply to the family Mashber, which goes through a moral and material crisis and does not give birth to a new generation which is able to reverse the decline of the family.

All three brothers in the family fall victim to a crisis. Alter, an “idiot-saint,” becomes isolated from both his family and society; Luzi, who develops initially into the religious leader of a group of followers of the Ḥasidic rebbe Naḥman of Bratslav, ends as a wandering pilgrim; and the banker Moyshe suffers the consequences of the economic crisis, machinations by colleagues and his own mismanagement and ends in bankruptcy. Moyshe is given a prison sentence and in Volume II, Chapter 4 “Fraudulent Bankruptcy,” he spends his first night in a cell, together with other prisoners, and has a nightmare.

Moshe, lying on his smooth, well-polished bunk without a hint of bedclothes, was not aware that he was weeping; nor did he notice when his tears stopped and he fell into a doze or at what moment it was that he saw his father standing before his half-opened—or perhaps even closed—eyes.

His father was wearing his white linen robe and there were several rams’ horns tucked into his waistband the way a man who is going to sound the shofar, foreseeing that one of them might prove defective, provides himself with several just in case.

“What is it, Father? Is today Rosh Hashanah?” Moshe asked, astonished.

“No, my son. An anathema.”

“Against whom?”

“Look,” replied his father.

And here, somehow, Moshe saw himself inside a synagogue, one of those in which all the popular solemn days are celebrated, whether for joy or, God forbid, for the reverse. He saw himself standing to one side, like a condemned man for whom the congregation has cleared a space so that whatever may happen to him will not touch or harm them in any way.

His father was standing on the podium together with several other respected men. The podium, as if it were the eve before Yom Kippur, was alight with candles and lamps. A large, silent and awed congregation was assembled, and was evidently waiting for some event to occur. The synagogue and the heads and faces of the congregants were illuminated by the light that shone down from the hanging candelabra and from the candles on the podium. The curtains over the Ark were drawn and its doors were open. And the Torah scrolls, too, like everyone else, seemed to be waiting for something to happen.

All at once, a shofar was heard that made everyone tremble, Moshe more than the others. He stood to one side and saw that it was his father who had blown the shofar and who now announced that it was his son who was to be separated from the community. *Der Nister, The Family Mashber 523. Reproduced by permission of New York Review Books.

Moyshe’s nightmare transforms the chronotope of the cell with the prisoners into the chronotope of a synagogue with the members of the congregation, and his insufficient clothing into a kittel, which is not only the white linen robe of days of repentance but also a shroud; the secular punishment of the imprisonment is transformed into the religious punishment of the ḥerem, the excommunication, to be announced by a shofar blast by his father. Moyshe’s bunk without bedclothes as well as the mood in the synagogue can be related to the commandments for Yom Kippur Evening from the Shulḥan ʿArukh: “Some have the custom of remaining in the synagogue . . . all the night. When one needs to sleep . . . It is preferable not to sit surrounded by coverings or spreads (which give) warmth, and in any case, not to cover his feet.” *Kiẓẓur Shulḥan ʿArukh, Yom Kippur Evening 132:5. In a real bed, the faithful might fall asleep instead of staying awake the whole night. Both Moyshe’s encounter with his dead father and his father’s clothes should be seen in connection with the Shulḥan ʿArukh, the standard code of Jewish law and practice: “We remember our dead (parents) on Yom Kippur, because remembering our dead causes our heart to be broken and humble” *Ibid. Yom Kippur 133:21 and “It is customary to wear the Kittel, which is the garment of the dead, and by this the heart of a man is humbled and broken.” *Ibid. Erev Yom Kippur 131:15. Cf. also the white robes in the exorcism ritual in Anski’s Between Two Worlds (The Dybbuk) in Chapter 4.10.

However, the congregation is not preparing for Yom Kippur, but for a ḥerem. The Ark with the Torah scrolls is opened, as usual on such an occasion. Then Moyshe’s father blows the shofar and imposes the ban on him, his own son: “Cursed be he, the supreme curse from the chapters of malediction; and the curse of Joshua, the son of Nun, and the curse of all the others on the head of him who stands before us, sundered from the congregation; on him who trod the ways of the apostate, and the paths of shame and falsehood.” *The Family Mashber 523-4. The words are repeated by the congregation, among whom are many of Moyshe’s poor creditors, who previously besieged his office, and from whom he fled through the back door. Moyshe bows his head as under a hailstorm, knowing he deserves this, and praying for death. Suddenly, the synagogue and the congregation disappear and Moyshe stays behind with his father, still wearing the white kittel; and at the decisive moment, his father shows that the kittel is wide enough to fit both of them, so that he can accompany his father to the other world. Just as Moyshe is ready to do so, he awakes and sees in the weak lamplight that he is in the cell. *Associations with both death and childbirth were found in ḥerem rituals with shofar blowing in the circle of the Hungarian Ḥasidic master Mosheh Teitelbaum (1759-1841): “If a woman dies in labor, those around her blow a shofar and adjure her under the threat of excommunication to deliver the child.” (Nathaniel Deutsch, The Jewish Dark Continent: Life and Death in the Russian Pale of Settlement 122, Note). Apart from the prominent Ḥasidism, there are certain similarities with Der Nister’s novel: Moyshe Mashber (cf. mashber, “the place where a child is born”) is being excommunicated in a shofar ritual and threatened with death for his failure to secure the continued existence of the family.

After he has lain awake with his eyes open, a half doze leads him to his town, first to the market square, where groups of people are discussing him, for him or against him, and then to his house. He wanders through the dark courtyard and then he takes courage and enters into his own house, sneaking from bedroom to bedroom.

[A]nd finally he entered his own room where he saw that his bed was made, that no one was sleeping in it, and that Gitl, his wife, lay in the next bed. But see—how strange. She was neither awake nor asleep. She frightened him by the way she stared with glazed eyes at some point straight before her. A horrified cry started in his throat as if he actually were seeing Gitl in trouble of some sort. She seemed so close, so real, that though he had no inkling of what had really happened in his home when he did not return after the trial, yet he felt now that something like what he was seeing had taken place; and so a cry rose in his throat as when one cries for help at the time of a disaster. *The Family Mashber 525.

Again, Moyshe awakes, aware of the fact that he is in prison, where a cry of distress is futile. Shortly before daybreak, he puts on the tallith and the tefillin and goes to the barred window to pray the Amidah. *The Koren Siddur 108-35.

He stood silently, not moving a muscle through all of his prayers, as if he was reciting a long Shimon Essre. And when one of the convicts, coming awake just then, looked up to see what time it was, the sight of Moshe Mashber in his Jewish morning garb frightened him. He could not tell what it was he was seeing: whether it was someone human and alive, or a ghost which had somehow survived into wakefulness from his dreams. *The Family Mashber 525.

The three cries for distress that stuck in his throat allude to the shofar blasts of the ḥerem. *Ibid. 525. Blowing a ram’s horn is difficult and can easily go wrong. The first is the suppressed cry when he sees his wife Gitl with her frightening look: “A horrified cry started in his throat as if he actually saw Gitl in trouble of some sort.” The second is even stronger: “a cry rose in his throat as when one cries for help at the time of a disaster.” The third is the cry for help in the Amidah, which he is not able to utter: “He stood silently, not moving a muscle through all of his prayers, as if he was reciting a long Shimon Essre.” The 10th blessing of this prayer is a cry for the saving shofar blast: “O God and God of our ancestors, / sound the great shofar for our freedom.” *The Koren Siddur 120, The Koren Rosh HaShana Maḥzor 542. Against the authoritative discourse of the shofar blasts of the ḥerem, Moshe cannot raise objections; as a bankrupt banker and a penniless prisoner he has lost all authority and therefore, the cries for distress stuck in his throat.

His father’s authoritative discourse “Look” compels Moyshe to remain silent and to look around. For the reader, the same “Look” is an indication that the following episode is set up like a film, according to the principle “show, don’t tell.” After the episode in which everything—including Moyshe’s introspection—is about light, space, and seeing, the sudden introduction of the shofar blast is highly effective, because of the shift into another sensory modality, and moreover, because of the announcement of the ḥerem, “that made everyone tremble.”

The many chronotopic shifts in Moyshe’s dreams are also cinematic effects: in the first dream, between the place where he encounters his father; the synagogue; his house, where in a flashback, he is besieged by his creditors; and again, a place where he is alone with his father. In the second dream, between the market square with the people discussing him; and again, his house, this time the bedrooms with his family members. This second dream is followed by a change of perspective: the reader no longer sees through Moyshe’s eyes, but through the eyes of a fellow prisoner, who happens to be awake. The chronotopes in both dreams normally speaking, are locations for fixed religious or secular rituals; in the real chronotope of the prison cell at the beginning, in the middle and at the end of the episode, there is a rigid schedule with fixed hours for every activity. The fleeting, film-like character of the episode, however, creates confusion between reality and dream, waking and sleeping, life and death, and shows the presence of the one in the other. First, Moyshe’s dead father appears as a living man and makes a deep impression on his son, even after his son’s awakening from the dream; second, the living Gitl seems to be dead and makes just as deep an impression on her husband; third, Moyshe’s fellow prisoner does not know whether he sees a man or a ghost before his eyes; fourth, the shofar blast, blown by the dead father, makes a dignified life for the son impossible.

 

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