The Light that Failed


The following selection is the opening chapter of a novel by the nineteenth century Tunisian Judeo-Arabic writer Messaud Maarek. Maarek attempted in his writings to bring Arabic-speaking Jewry into the mainstream of European culture, while yet maintaining Jewish identity. He does this by resorting to the novel, a literary form previously unknown among his people, of which Jews became aware through the growing French presence in North Africa after the middle of the nineteenth century. He attempts to broaden his readers' horizons by bringing information of a historical character into his writing, subtly urging the modern spirit of liberalism and enlightenment. To this end he creates a new Judeo-Arabic idiom. His language is heavily influenced by classical Arabic models, although he perforce had to use colloquial forms, usually impermissible in standard written Arabic, in order to get his message across to a readership which had little contact with the classical Arabic tradition. Unlike their Muslim neighbors, literate Jews wrote and read colloquial, rather than standard, Arabic, written of course in Hebrew characters. Maarek studiously avoids foreign words of European origin with which most forms of modern Judeo-Arabic are permeated, and clearly wants to increase his readers' appreciation of high style and pure language. As the reader will observe, this results in a somewhat pedestrian and stilted style, displaying the less desirable features of Victorianism. Nonetheless, one must sympathize with the difficulties faced by an individual trying to apply the guidelines of the highly sophisticated French literary tradition to the uninhibited colloquial of North Africa; it is somewhat like planting a formal garden from Versailles amid the exuberance of a North African socco.

Maarek liked to choose his themes from Jewish life in Eastern Europe. Probably, there was an awareness of the renascence of Hebrew literature there, and of the existence of a substantial secular literature in Yiddish. In this way his work maintained its Jewish character, yet he was able to impose on his characters the moral qualities favored at the time in western Europe – diligence, faithfulness, kindness, toleration, acceptance of lawful authority.

This work concerns the struggles of one Esther, daughter of Rabbi Shabbetai ben Meir (1621-1662), a Lithuanian rabbi, who, while yet in his twenties, wrote a commentary of immense erudition on Rabbi Joseph Caro's code of Jewish law, the Shulhan Arukh. Glosses and strictures on this code reflecting the usages of Ashkenazic (East European) Jewry were written by Rabbi Moses Isserles, and Rabbi Shabbetai married Isserles's great-granddaughter. The work of all three men have remained standard authorities up to this day, and all aspirants to an orthodox rabbinic diploma must immerse themselves in their writings. Rabbi Shabbetai's work is called Sifte Kohen ("Lips of the Priest") after Malachi 2.7, indicating that he was of priestly descent. Rabbi Shabbetai lived through the pogroms of 1655 in Lithuania, which came in the wake of the Chmielnicki persecution of 1648-1649. He wrote an account of the times in a book Scroll of Darkness, which serves as the historical source of Maarek's novel.

Beautiful Esther

The year 1648 brought an end to the many battles which caused great confusion in western and central Europe, and which destroyed peoples and demolished their countries -- all on account of accursed religious zeal.

For eighty years the fire of war burned in the Netherlands; for thirty years the inhabitants of the German provinces fought against one another, and warring countries left them in ruins. Populous lands were emptied of inhabitants. Arts and sciences were brought down to the lowest degree. Peace was achieved only after meetings between the representatives of the powers, and discussions extending over several years. Peace treaties were concluded by the rulers of the earth.

However, during that confused period of war, eastern Europe dwelt in peace and security. Nonetheless, there in that happy land, the kingdom of Poland, where our brethren had selected their dwelling, the fire of civil war broke out with full force, bringing great trouble on the land, and causing cities to be denuded of their inhabitants.

It happened that General Chmielnicki, the chief of the Cossack regions, revolted against his master the king of Poland on account of the oppression he suffered at the hands of his minister, when he threw him into prison, and condemned him to decapitation. However, the general fled from prison, and succeeded in inciting the Cossacks who belong to the Greek Catholic Church, to revolt against the government of the Poles, who belonged to the Roman Catholic Church.

In a short time the general assembled an encampment of twenty thousand soldiers. Each day his army increased. The revolt spread among the Tatars to the extent that his army greatly exceeded that of the government, which numbered only six thousand.

This uprising by the general against Poland left the land in ruins, and the savage Tatars, who from time to time attacked the country, left it in a state of poverty and desolation. The Jews suffered in particular, and the leading people in the cities drank the bitter cup.

We have not ventured to share with the reader the wickedness and evil deeds of the enemy, nor give the number of battles, nor mention the names of the cities, nor what tortures the inhabitants suffered at the hands of so strong an enemy. Let us divert our attention from these problems, the knowledge of which is heartbreaking, only taking note of what is required to tell this story.

Let us direct our steps now to the humble abode of one of the famous men of that country, one of the great men of our people, and let us observe this learned man in his own house, where he immerses himself in study and putting his knowledge to use in broadening the boundaries of learning.

In the small city of Pinsk, in a humble house in the ghetto, dwells Rabbi Shabbetai Kohen and his wife and only daughter. Rabbi Shabbetai Kohen was one of the most famous people among the Jews of the time on account of his great knowledge and penetrating intellect. He was famous for his commentary Sifte Kohen which he wrote on the Shulhan Arukh, and it is needless to recount his intelligence and his deep knowledge of the "sea of the Talmud."

Come with me, dear readers, to his dwelling place, and stand in astonishment as you see this man doing wonders in his exposition of the Talmud, and whose fame in the Jewish world at the time of our story is impossible to describe.

In accordance with the custom of the Polish Jews, he had got married well before the prime of life. Miriam his wife came from a noble and distinguished family, well known for good works and the fear of God. Since she grew up among such people, she acquired sincerity of mind and uprightness in deed, and was greatly admired by all on account of her wonderful character. Yet Rabbi Shabbetai's house was not a place of joy and happiness, since Miriam the mistress of the house had taken sick, and Esther her only daughter was frail.

As we enter the house we see Rabbi Shabbetai standing broken-hearted over his sick wife's bed, and near him is his only daughter, six years old, whose tears are falling on her cheeks.

The man is holding the hand of his wife, who has a burning fever which does not allow her to get any rest. "My dear," says Miriam to her husband, "I feel inside me that I have but a short time before I must leave you and our dear daughter forever. I hope you will not dissuade me from talking to you in this way, because, as I slept, I saw my grandfather, and he ordered me to bless you before departing from you, and to tell you not to be overwhelmed with the difficulties which will confront you in the future. It is true that hard times will come upon you and our daughter, but I will be concerned for you and pray for you against every ill. I will pray ceaselessly to the Lord until he sends you the angels to guard you, and keep you from all injury and danger."

As she finished speaking, she fell back on the bed exhausted. Rabbi Shabbetai strove to comfort her with words, and erase from her mind the idea that she would soon die, but she listened to what he said and smiled.

"My dear," declared the woman, her voice weak from exhaustion, "the happiest day of my life was the one on which I became your bride. But those happy days did not last. Now the event prescribed for all creatures has come to me. Live happily, my dear, live, light of my eyes, in health. My dear daughter, may you have good and blessing. God save and protect you from all harm."

Miriam closed her eyes and her lips, and could not utter another syllable. Her heart overflowing with parental love ceased to pulsate, and her soul, so lovingly attached to her husband went up to her maker.

Alan D. Corré