Early Yiddish Epic - Jerold (Translator) Frakes

I have absolutely no knowledge of Jewish folklore and fiction, so when I saw Early Yiddish Epic in Netgalley, I was intrigued. As it turns out, there is a reason why I had never heard of Jewish epics before now: they neither created nor borrowed the epic narrative form until the Judeo-Persian and early Yiddish cultures began to simultaneously develop them. Even these are of a rather peculiar form. There are two main types of Yiddish epic: the secular, which are without exception adapted from other German or Italian epics of the time, and the midrashic, which centre around the lives of biblical figures and fill in the details that are seen to be lacking in the biblical texts. While midrashic books were usually written by rabbis and both expected and required an audience highly versed in biblical knowledge, the secular books were seen as "morally corrupting." In fact, many midrashic books went so far as to warn against the corrupting influences of these secular narratives.


The longest of the midrashic epics included in the collection is the Seyfer Shmuel, or "Book of Samuel," dated to approximately 1525. According to Frakes, this is the first time that the story has been translated into English. It provides a more detailed version of Samuel 1 and 2, depicting the adventures of Sameul, Saul, and David. I found the story to be rather troubling. It portrays a captious God who punishes anyone who cannot follow his incomprehensible rules, and a people who are rather terrifyingly bloodthirsty, murdering "friend and foe alike." All the same, there are a few amusingly unchaste phrases such as:

"He who dies from threats is buried to the sound of farts.”

The unexpected gem of the collection, to my mind at least, was Vidvilt, an anonymous 15th-16th century epic and the only known Yiddish Arthurian romance. Vidvilt was adapted from the German Wigalois, but surpasses it both in form and substance. It "de-Christianizes" the story, substituting miracles and divine intervention with cleverness and wits. Interestingly, it also utterly removes the vicious anti-Muslim bigotry that pervades WigaloisVidivilt starts out in a manner rather reminiscent of The Green Knight: when a mysterious man arrives and tricks Arthur into potentially humiliating his court, Galahad ends up as a prisoner of the stranger. The story then takes a rather unexpected turn to depict the adventures of Vidvilt, a handsome and successful knight despite his rather unfortunate name. (When his mother asked his father about a name for their son, he replied, "Call him whatever you want," so she promptly named him "Vi-du-vilt," which translates to "whatever you want.") The story ends up involving magical belts, scheming kings, angry dragons, magical giantesses, and quite a few contests of wits. I found it as entertaining as the stories of Chretien de Troyes or Galahad and the Green Knight


My major complaint against the book is the author's rather disparaging attitude towards other scholars. He defines the epic very narrowly and is contemptuous towards those who include prose in their study of the epic. He rather harshly dismisses the theories he disagrees with; for example: 

“In order to flesh out speculative theories concerning such a cycle, bears witness to the late intellectual offspring of typical nineteenth-century philological imaginative excesses that still occasionally surface in the twentieth- and twenty-first-century scholarship among those individuals who find invention and description of nonexisting medieval texts more interesting than the study of extant texts.”

I found his attitude a little partisan and divisive; for example, when he argues against the theory of a direct German influence for Duke Horant, he ends with:

“In any case, Duke Horant is a unique epic, that is, it exists in a single manuscript and only in Old Yiddish, and no amount of germanistic speculation about its alleged Middle High German sources will change that fact.”

However, I am very glad to have had the opportunity to read these stories. While the midrashic epics were not precisely absorbing, they provided a window into a unique cultural perspective. Frakes also sedulously explains the more esoteric details of the stories such as the h'alitzah, a tradition that releases a widow from the responsibility of marrying into her deceased husband's family. (How it works: the brother-in-law renounces her, then she removes one of his sandals, spits in his face, and says, 'This is what is done to the man who does not build up his brother's house!' Then she can marry whoever she wants.) However, the most pleasant surprise of all was the utterly delightful secular epic, Vidvilt. While my lack of rigorous biblical knowledge and Jewish culture made this book a little arduous, I definitely recommend Vidvilt to anyone interested in Arthurian romances.


 ~~I received this ebook through NetGalley from the publisher, Syracuse University Press, in exchange for my honest review.  ~~


As is my invariable habit with anthologies, I have comments about the individual stories in the collection. If you want the full monty, continue onwards...


 "Abraham Our Father" (1382) was rather strange: the basic plot is that Abraham is tasked with bringing the household gods that his father makes to market but since they are quite heavy to carry, he wants to dump them. His many ploys to rid himself of the gods often involve tricks and lies, and at one point, he even goes into a patronising diatribe against his elders in which he refers to them as "children." The odd part, to me, is that his deception, rudeness, and laziness is taken as piety.


"Joseph the Righteous" (1382) is very short. In essence, it describes how incredibly hot Joseph is. He's so amazingly handsome that when he appears in front of a bunch of ladies who are peeling apples, they are so busy staring at him that they end up lacerating their own hands. It echoes the "beauty = godliness" themes that are seen in many Christian epics.


I've already mentioned the "Book of Samuel" (1525), but I have rather a lot more to say about it. Reading it was rather distressing, as it reminded me strongly of why I drifted away from my Christian origins. The book of David involves a ridiculous number of invisible hoops that the Jews fail to jump through and are punished for, but this mishrash exacerbates rather than explains them. The brutality is shocking. The David of this epic is far more disturbing to me than the David of the Bible: he goes on various pillaging missions in which he forces people to stand in a line and "slew two and let the third live. Thus did King David do in general: to men and women, old and young." David's concubines are punished because when they are raped by Absalom, they "screamed as loudly as a thief in the stable" and orgasms apparently imply it is not rape. Echoing the stories of vampires or fairies, the idols outside the gates keep David out of the city, so they catapult Joab across the city walls. When a kind woman rescues him and nurtures him back to health, he rewards her compassion by stabbing her in the stomach, savagely murdering her and her unborn baby. Unlike the innocent and impulsive boy of the Bible, this David is a firm hypocrite. Even his singing and praising before the Lord is a calculated step, and he sends Joab off to pillage and murder while he stays in the city and "focused his mind on the practice of all piety and derision of sin" by praying and singing." He boasts to God that he is without sin. When God tells him he will fall to temptation and he promptly goes off and rapes Bethsheba, he tells God that he only failed the test because God predicted that he would fail, and succeeding would make God fallible. At the same time, there were some rather interesting aspects; for example, the interactions between Saul and David echo the fairy tale template in which the wicket king promises his daughter a reward to the faithful servant boy, but first sends him out on a series of tasks that are supposed to get him killed.


"The Binding of Isaac" (1579) was rather amusing, mainly because I am unable to think about the story without remembering a certain Mitchell and Webb sketch:


The midrash adds in a subplot in which Satan appears and tries to tempt Abraham, Sarah, and Isaac from the oh-so-holy purpose of murder. The dialogue between Isaac and Abraham is scarily close to the Mitchell and Webb sketch, though. It also adds in an angel motif: the tears of the angels dull the sacrificial knife, and Raphael himself interposes his body between the knife and Isaac.


The "Book of Kings" (1515) is an amusing fragment in which the people seek to save an elderly and "cold" David with the "traditional remedy": a beautiful young woman who "will warm you, both front and back. She will then arouse you, and you will thus become warm." David tries to explain why he can't get it up with the beautiful Abishag. He claims that "God has spoken to me and forbidden me [...] I do it for the sake of moral reasons for God, my Lord." Abishag's priceless response:

"You are acting like the thieves who find nothing to steal. They want to act polite while hiding their works. And they boast to the people: ‘I would sooner die than steal and ruin someone.’ Thus you do as well, king, since you no longer have any strength. You are much too old and your loins have gone lame.”

"Solomon and Ashmodai" is another entertaining fragment in which the devil Ashmodai is captured, then manages to trick his way into the kingship by disguising himself as Solomon. The rest of the story has quite a few familiar fairytale elements.


And now onto the secular epics. The first is "Duke Horant," (1382), a standard "bridal quest epic," which is unfortunately hyperbolic, fragmentary, and rather typical for the genre.


“Bovo of Antona” (1541) is not precisely great literature; as the translator notes, the verse "often seems only very slightly removed from doggerel." It is very bawdy; at one point, the heroine Druzeyne actually seems to have goosed Bovo: 

“‘Oh, how poorly the knife has been sharpened!’ Bovo leapt up and wiped his cheek. It was as if a goose had honked at him.”

While Druzeyne is certainly rather forward, women are still property. As one tells Bovo gratefully, 

“You have shown me great friendship; because of that, my body and property belong to you.”

The story itself is as coarse and bloodthirsty as the midrash, with not only quite lot of heathen-slaying, but also an abbey-pillaging in which Bovo slaughters a fair number of monks. The morals do not precisely echo those of the parfait gentile knight. For example, at one point, the hero tricks his way into the enemy's stronghold by pretending to be a healer and slays the sick man in his bed by hacking him into tiny pieces. The protagonists are not precisely rocket scientists and the text is riddled with internal inconsistencies. My favourite moment of fail was when Bovo takes 7 months to find a pile of dirt in his tiny cell and to realise that it contains an oh-so-convenient sword.


"Pariz and Viene" (1556) is definitely the translator's favourites of the included texts. Although translated from a prose tale into Yiddish poetry, Frakes considers it to be a work of great literature in its own right. He sees Viene as one of the first strong heroines of Yiddish literature merely because she has agency, even though her life's focus is on marriage to a member of her class and she never outright disobeys her father. Even though this was written long after Christine de Pizane and is contemporary to Shakespeare's tales, it was apparently so rare for a Yiddish woman to have any agency at all that Viene is considered "strong." Her only defiance is refusing to break her vows to another man. She submits to the subsequent punishment and remains steadfast to her vows to this other man by faking disease. Personally, I found it rather antifeminist; one of the lines (ostensibly from a character, but the narrator’s own comments about the coldness of women seem to put him in agreement):

“A lady has no other virtue than that we men are born of them. They whelp us quickly but their rights are therewith at an end.”

As the narrator says,

“I am not saying that all of them are evil. It is said that there are also many honorable ones to be found. I do not think they are the norm, so I have not set them apart. I do not, however, find a great many of them; I do not know where they have all gone.”


"Briyo and Zimro" (1585) combines many familiar folkloric themes. Zimro, the protagonist, is a clever trickster: he determines whether a man with two heads counts as one or two people by showing that the second head screams when hot water is poured on the first. He tricks the pope into leniency on the Jews by telling him that without circumcision, “one Jew can defeat ten Christians” and without the ritual baths, Jewish women will have more children. His trip into the afterlife is unlike that of Orpheus or his peers; it ends happily, yet Zimro must die before he can be with his beloved.