Life & Culture

The Fate of Yaakov Maggid review: Joyous but realistic celebration of a lost Jewish world

First-class translation of Ludovic Bruckstein's Yiddish short story collection proves a timely panacea in these dark times


The Fate of Yaakov Maggid
by Ludovic Bruckstein
Translated by Alistair Ian Blyth
Istros Books £12.99

Ludovic Bruckstein’s previously translated short story collection, With an Unopened Umbrella in Pouring Rain, comprised a collection of vignettes from Jewish life in the Romanian-Hungarian borderlands, just before the Holocaust wiped out the book’s entire cast of characters.

In this collection, originally written in Romanian but redolent of a world familiar from the Yiddish works of Mendele Sforim and IL Peretz, Bruckstein takes us back several centuries to the time of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Chasidism, and his disciples. Bruckstein was himself the descendant of eminent rabbis and heir to a story-telling tradition shot through with psychological insights and humour.

In The Silver Pocket Watch, a morality tale with hallmarks of the finest Jewish jokes, a rabbi gives away a valuable watch, the present of his father-in-law, to a stranger seeking alms. His infuriated wife sends him after the beggar.

When he returns without it, incurring further ire, he asks her, “What are you thinking? That I could ask for it back when I’d already given it to him? I ran after him to tell him... that it’s an expensive watch… so that he would know not to be swindled when he sold it.”

By the same token, “He who gives out of pity and a good heart finds it easy to give… whereas he who gives against his will… must vanquish himself, which is a very hard thing to do” (and therefore more laudable).

Meanwhile the Jew’s complex relationship with his maker plays out delightfully in A Monday of Fasting and Prayer. Rabbi Itzikl of Drohobyc — the hometown of the great writer and artist Bruno Schultz — spends what should be a day of fasting, eating, drinking and dancing, but instead of receiving divine sanction, “in heaven there erupted uncontrollable laughter and great joy”.

Bruckstein’s stories twist in oblique, unpredictable, eminently Jewish (or is that human?) ways.

Stories based on historical events make up the book’s second part, including the pogroms which ravaged the English Jewish community at the coronation of Richard I and the Russian practice of snatching young Jewish children to fight for the tsar’s army, sometimes accompanied by forced conversion, a brutal custom that led many Jews to emigrate.

Bruckstein’s first-class translator, Alistair Ian Blyth, has supplied copious erudite and readable notes on Jewish customs, towns and personalities in a book that celebrates a lost Jewish world joyously but realistically.

In dark times it serves as a welcome panacea.

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