The Jewish people’s interaction with the modern era emerged with a complex transition that is still shaping Jewish identity and culture today. Authors explored this transition through diverse expressions of criticisms, anxieties, and hopes. Through various levels and framing of narration, I.L. Peretz’s The Dead Town and Dvora Baron’s In the Beginning mediate the borderless condition of “living in between” to comment on Jewish traditional life and its evolution in modernity. While Peretz illustrates the ambiguity of educated Jewish ideas, Baron idealizes and critiques traditional life simultaneously. The exploration of these authors’ relatable yet conflicting narrations about the blurred Jewish feeling will allow for a nuanced insight into the struggles of modernity.
The Dead Town is narrated in first person, but the readers never learn much about the identity of this “I.” Still, the narrator acts as a seemingly reliable representative for the audience, whose reactions and trust in the story are mediated through his impressions, responses and comments. The story itself comes from the biased perspective of the Jew, and both the narrator and audience question his honesty throughout the piece. The narrator asks about him, “Was he putting one over on me?” (163) Since the narrator is the audience’s only source for judgment, readers also doubt the Jew’s reliability. Later, though, as the distinction between reality and fantasy begins to fade—which will be explored below—the narrator becomes convinced, perhaps despite himself, of the story’s authenticity. He deems the Jew as “utterly reliable,” in hopes to persuade the readers, too, of this truth. (165) Even when the story climaxes in its most fantastic realm with descriptions of the walking dead, the Jew addresses the narrator’s doubts and ultimately responds to those of the reader. (167) In this way, the narrator embodies the readers’ judge concerning the story’s honesty.
The narration of Baron’s In the Beginning is a fluctuation of voices with doubling implications. As individualistic and communal, objective and biased, or anonymous and personal, the narrator of In the Beginning transcends definition and instead blends seemingly opposite perspectives into one voice. Peretz’s narrator mediates the reception of the plot between the storyteller and the audience, but Baron’s narrator instead embodies the piece’s overarching condition, illustrating how to exist in two places at once. The start of In the Beginning focuses on the emotional account of an individual, the rebbetzin, and her experience in a single room, but it is then interrupted by the narrator’s interjection to start again. (4) This interjection explicates Baron’s commentary on the traditional world, which will be investigated later. The second approach to the beginning of the story emphasizes a more expansive setting and describes the experience of the collective. (4) Within the first page of the piece, the narrator has already exposed a double-sided perspective.
The narrator continues to speak in a seemingly objective voice, with subtle hints of her orientation from the rebbetzin’s viewpoint, such as in the words “from here, atop the straw seat inside the carriage,” which signal a certain location rather than from an objective overseer. (6) Yet on the other hand, this narrator simultaneously personifies a report from the storytelling housewife, Sarah Riva. (6) As was the case with the storytelling Jew of The Dead Town, a biased account of the narrative implicates the validity of the story. Baron’s narrator entwines these rumors from Sarah Riva with the more removed, third person voice, blurring the distinction between two qualities, objective and biased, and existing in both at once. To add to this narrator’s undefined borders, readers discover that the unnamed third person speaker does, in fact, reference itself as “we” in the last sentence of the piece. (15) After traveling through this multitude of personalities, the audience leaves the story, questioning—anonymous or personal? Objective or biased? Individual or communal? In the Beginning’s narration manifests in the story’s general feeling of existing between definitions.
The theme of existing within a transition is also prevalent in The Dead Town. Just like the start of Baron’s story, The Dead Town takes place mostly in a carriage—en route and in between origin and destination, both of which are unknown to Peretz’s readers. The geography of the story continues to transcend borders when the Jew comments that he doesn’t “live in geography at all.” (162) The narrator, representing the reaction of the reader, questions the possibility of a life that resides within transition. The Jew responds with an abundance of evidence. He illustrates his town as an agunah, saying that it was “left in the lurch like a man who leaves a wife.” (166) An agunah is placeless, stuck between definitions. The town was apparently “built on fiction,” implicating that the realm of reality is based in falsehood, which seemingly should undermine reality but somehow does not. (165) This civilization overrides any rules of impossibility and defies gravity, “hanging in the air, [with] nothing supporting it at all.” (164
Within Jewish tradition, a distinction exists between the material world of reality (the World of Illusion) and the dream realm of the after life (the World of Truth.) The Jew’s description of his town points to its existence in between these worlds, without full participation in either. He says that one who lives “as though in a dream” during his real life does not move onto the after life, remaining in transition for eternity. (167) The narrator receives this information, commenting on the “magic in the air.” (165) This moment encompasses the irreversible collision of the real and the imaginary, the fantasy and reality. Prior to this point, the narrator tried to filter his doubts about the actuality of the story with his basis in reality. This distinction was, in turn, his responsibility to establish. But in the magic of the forest and the night, the narrator, and ultimately the reader, can no longer grasp the division. The last line of the dialogue, similar to the final sentence of In the Beginning, endows the reader with confusion, questioning the boundaries of the story. The Jew claims that he is “only half-dead,” solidifying the “in between” condition of the story’s existence. (171)
Such a condition is found in Baron’s piece too, in addition to her doubling narrator’s implications. The story is often pulled between two aspects—here in the shtettle or away in the big city; outside the window or inside the home; from an adjacent room or in the Rabbi’s study. The scenery is described similarly to the state of the Jew’s dead town in Peretz’s piece, as the buildings are “propped up,” “suspended,” and “sagging.” (6) Here, too, the world exists in a fragile state, defying gravity and residing in a realm without strong definitions. At the start of her time in the shtettle, the rebbetzin struggles in “fitting” her old city life into her new home, symbolized by her nice curtains that were too long for the windows. (7) But later, readers observe her gradual progression into living within this transition. She perceives her world “with fragments of dreams still caught between her eyelids,” (9) paralleling the dreamy undefined state of the “half-dead” in The Dead Town. (171)
After exploring the effects of these works’ narrations in illustrating an existence “in between,” it is necessary to expand the story’s framework and investigate the intentions of the author. I.L. Peretz uses the indivisibility of reality and illusion to articulate the weaknesses of traditional life. When describing the Jewish community, the storytelling Jew complains of the disunity in the various prayer groups and claims that the important community leaders are all “dead men!” (170) In writing this, Peretz implies that, since the most important men of the Jewish community have no essence, Jewish traditional life is empty as well. He applies the dreamy, indefinable condition of the dead town to the traditional community in general. In reference to the problem of missing silverware, readers learn that “some of [the town’s] more pious folk thought [the spoons] were being spirited away by black magic.” (170) Peretz makes the significant distinction that religious people are more likely to rationalize with reality with illusionary fantasy.
Peretz’s The Dead Town considers an educated Jewish idea and exposes its deficiency. The theme of reward and punishment is a widely known traditional theology concerning a person’s control over his deserved fate. The townspeople of The Dead Town, though, slip between the cracks of this rule. Since they reside in a realm between reality and fantasy, without full participation in the World of Illusion or the World of Truth, then reward and punishment does, in effect, not work. The author exhibits this critique about traditional Judaism, as the Jew asks, “But what would you say about the case of a man who has slept away his life, so that he was never really a man, his life was not a life, and nothing he did was ever done, either for good or for bad…?” (168) Peretz conveys that a traditional lifestyle is equivalent to this “sleeping” between worlds, which ultimately exposes the flaws in the educated Jewish idea of reward and punishment.
Dvora Baron also critiques the traditional world, but she simultaneously pairs her criticisms with a strong idealization of shtettle life. Just as the narration of In the Beginning and the story of The Dead Town transcend borders, Baron’s message acts in a doubling perspective. To refer again to the narrator’s interruption to restart her story in a “more appropriate” way, Baron chooses to emphasize both her subversive and compliant response to Jewish tradition. (4) The first start of the piece focuses on the female rebbetzin, uses Yiddish rhythms, and describes the male Rabbi as “at a loss.” (4) The second approach features a male authority as the main character and reads in a normative Hebrew style, and the powerful Rabbi obtains the last word over the weak female. With this restart, Baron underlines the established Jewish standard of male dominance, illustrated even by her use of language, since Yiddish was referred to as the weaker woman’s language compared to Hebrew. Baron stresses the importance of this tradition while in fact exhibiting its backwardness. She obeys the rules but still protests them, and she makes an effort to point this out clearly to her readers.
We may expand the frame of the author and examine the effects of the way that people perceive Baron. Due to the specific role allotted to women in her time, Baron needed to prove her strength in the male-dominant field of writing. “Doubling” happens even in the title of her piece: “In the Beginning” or, in Hebrew, “B’Reshit.” As these words are also the famous name of the Biblical chapter, Baron displays the value of traditional text while also asserting that her work could even replace it. The Torah stories that are expounded upon and connected to the story’s reality also highlight this protest for woman’s strength. To increase her credibility, Baron used holy texts, which generally support male authority, and from them draws parallels to real life. For these reasons, the rebbetzin hears only the stories of strong women, like Miriam, Rachel, and Deborah. While criticizing traditional life’s narrow-mindedness, Dvora Baron also shows her ability as a woman to excel even within these boundaries.
Entwined within her criticisms is Baron’s idealization of traditional life. The story delights its readers with a happy ending, as the rebbetzin falls in love with the shtettle. Baron frames the piece in way that causes the audience to identify and sympathize with the traditional community, such as the moment of humility shown by the shtettle woman when an outsider from the city photographs her. (8) With heart-warming descriptions of love, joy and salvation, Baron paints shtettle life in shining colors, despite her critiques of the traditional world.
By creating a reality of “in between” with their narration, Peretz and Baron comment on the Jewish strife of the transition to modernity. While Peretz hopes to expose the illusions and deficits in educated Jewish ideas, Baron proves her womanly ability while both objecting to and romanticizing traditional life. The Dead Town and In the Beginning represent two of many Jewish voices that strain to portray the blurred and indefinable condition of the Jewish people in modernity.
By Lucille Marshall
Written for Introduction to Modern Jewish Literature with instructor Saul Zaritt at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.