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The Human Touch

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You don’t have to read Peretz’s short stories for literature. Maybe they are literature, maybe they’re not, but in any case it is possible to enjoy these stories for their incidental, but none the less heavy, cargo of folk lore and folkways. And if, while getting folkways and folk lore, you get literature into the bargain, you can’t complain.

No matter how assimilated we flatter ourselves we have become, our grandfathers (or our great-grandfathers, if you want to be funny) did wear earlocks and believed certain things and followed certain customs which expressed, at worst, force of habit, and, at best, a faith. We cannot snap the thread that binds us to them, no matter how tenuous we may make it. We may no longer attend synagogue services, or know any language other than English (or French or German, as the case may be), and we may take our fingernails to the manicurist, instead of paring them in such and such an order and burning the parings to prevent mishap, but we do not want to know by what rules, or misrules, of conduct, our fathers lived.

The charm of Irving Fineman’s "Hear, Ye Sons" lies in the fact that it depicts the old motivations in full force and how powerfully those discarded motivations may claim a modern of the moderns may be seen in the recent life and work of one Ludwig Lewisohn, now as militant a Jew as once he threatened to be a Methodist. The old ways have a way of fascinating the young simply because they are the old ways and perhaps that is why there are people who feel that Fineman read into those old ways a sentimental validity they did not possess for the old who practiced them and if, in reading "Hear, Ye Sons" you feel yourself going soft, like butter or ice cream, then read "How Odd of God" for antidote.


The work of Salomon S. Rappaport—better known by the pen name of An-sky — clearly illustrates the inter-relation between literature and folk lore. For Ansky obtained the material for his play, "The Dybbuk," as an ethnologist, travelling through the villages of Galicia and Russia, taking down old songs and legends and photographing gravestones for their testimony of folkways. "The Dybbuk" might not have been literature if it were not folk lore and folkways and even if it isn’t literature it is folkways. It is full of the substance of people’s beliefs and when human beings are shown on any stage acting according to a faith unreal to the audience but true to the characters represented that play has a force beyond that which could be achieved by a dramatist relying on his imagination alone.

Consider the Peretz story entitled "During the Epidemic," in the collection bearing the title of "Bontshe the Silent." It is first-rate story and first-rate ethnology. You may read it for entertainment or you may read it for science. It is, justifiably, the longest story in the book.

The setting is the town of Rakhev. The cholera is raging in the neighboring towns and surrounding countryside and the town is united in a dread of the thing which it dare not name. Trade slackens and "big Jossel" sells his cart and horse to save himself the cost of feeding the animal. Butchers begin giving honest weight; a bath-house attendant confesses to the sin of peeping to the Rabbi; a secretly intellectual Talmudic student burns the novel, "Love of Zion," and takes to the Psalms, while another young man starts a long fast preliminary to becoming an anchorite, and tailors begin returning the snippets of cloth they had kept. More women attend the synagogues.


The epidemic has not yet arrived. What precautions before what remedies after? A penny in the box of Rabbi Meir the miracle-worker. Placing the Sabbath candles on the window sill Friday immediately after sundown. Marrying an orphan boy and an orphan girl. Besieging with prayer the Holy Ark and the graves in the cemetery. Tears, prayers and repentance, but not disinfection, isolation, autopsies and certainly not the dreaded hospitals where strange things are done to the human body and, certainly, this idea that bedding should be burned was fantastic.

But in this town of Rakhev, there are two who are hoping for the epidemic. One of them is a Gentile, the other a Jew. The first is the young doctor Savitzky, whom no one summons because the barber surgeon serves all the town’s medical purposes. The other is Jossel, the Talmud student, the wretchedly poor and wretchedly ill-favored. The epidemic will give the first all the patients he can handle and justify him, moreover, in his medical and sanitary warnings; to the second it will be the means of providing a bride, something which he has long desired the community to give him; for the marriage of orphans is one of the ways by which a community may ward off the anger of the Almighty, and he is the only male orphan.

The tribulations of Savitzky, which turned him from a philoto an anti-Semite, give us a clue to the rather archaic notions of our ancestors in the matter of medicine. The villagers were astounded to hear this young doctor tell the aged barber-surgeon that scarified cupping was dangerous, especially for a woman in childbed, and that the best place for leeches was the window-sill. He also seemed to lack the proper respect for dry-cupping, castor oil and ointments. He amused the village vastly when he was heard to say that temperature itself was not a disease and no less when on the one solitary occasion he was called to the bedside of a woman giving birth, he was observed washing his hands and paring his nails in preparation.


He looks forward to this epidemic as to a harvest, a harvest compensating for the long drought. The government would pay him so many roubles per day; the patients would pay. Those eager not to be declared sick would pay. Some would pay for disinfection and others for non-disinfection; some for isolation, others for nonisolation, and all would pay not to have their beloved dead submitted to post-mortem examinations. And in dread of the power he may be exercising against them any day the villagers flee the sight of the poor medico.

Savitzky can bide his time, but Jossel is frantic with impatience for the epidemic. No epidemic, no marriage, and ugly and twisted as he is, he is the battleground for lustful dreams. He hopes that the community #### wed him to a beautiful orphan girl, but he will be content with the ugliest; a marriage to anyone would be preferable to his hateful solitude, the lack of a partner to share a yoke.

And because these two unlike specimens of humanity, the doctor superior to his environment and the Talmud student inferior to it, share the same wish, a curious friendship develops, with each giving heart to the other, and to himself, by making much of little evidences that the epidemic is approaching. When Jossel notes the absence from the synagogue service of an old worshipper, he seeks the reason, hoping for the worst.

And the worst does come to the town of Rakhev, not the worst you would be led to expect and not really the worst, for the town escapes, even if the physician fails to revenge himself on the town and Jossel fails of his desire. Perhaps the pennies in the box of Rabbi Meir did the trick, after all.

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