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In the Demon’s Bedroom: Yiddish Literature and the Early Modern, by Jeremy Dauber. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2010. 399 pp. $85.00.
In the Demon’s Bedroom, a major contribution to the study of Jewish literature in the Early Modern Period, centers on a selection of Yiddish literary works from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries which feature supernatural, fantastic, or simply incredible elements: collection of fables, a story of the marriage between a man and a she-devil, a dybbuk story, and a romance. However, the attractive subject matter is not the most important factor which makes this book deserving of the attention of scholars of Yiddish literature and Jewish culture, but rather the innovative analyses, the inspiring theoretical discussions, and Jeremy Dauber’s theses on the sophistication of a Yiddish reading audience and on the way tensions between rich and poor and challenges to the notion of theological order and the place of women in a changing world are dealt with in a literature that may at first glance seem unsophisticated.
Dauber first briefly introduces the reader to Early Modern Yiddish literature and its scholarship in order to set out the theoretical framework of this study, which he does brilliantly and lucidly. In the Demon’s Bedroom is primarily a work of literary analysis and focuses on the capacities for nuance and reading on the part of the audiences of popular Yiddish literature. The analyses draw specifically on the reader-response approach and genre theory, and consider the works and their readership in their historical, cultural, and socio-economical context. An excursus on ghosts and demons in Shakespeare’s Macbeth and Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus in Chapter 2 serves to elucidate methodological points set out in the methodological discussion and honed in a scholarly field which is more developed than that of Older Yiddish Literature. These analyses prepare the reader for similar ones of the Yiddish texts that follow in the subsequent chapters.
The Yiddish works Dauber analyzes were written or adapted and reissued in a period of historical ferment and of growing skepticism, and he examines them with “an eye to potential fissures, complexity, skepticism, and anxiety, rather than simple acceptance, blind piety, and implicit assumption of stupidity” (p. 10). Although these texts were composed by educated authors for a non-educated audience, this lack of education on the part of the Yiddish reading audience is relative and mainly pertains to a command of Jewish canonical works in Hebrew and Aramaic, not to a lack of literacy skills. In fact, as Jeremy Dauber demonstrates in his sophisticated and erudite analyses, texts which may at first glance seem simple reveal that they were written for readers with a capacity for both belief and skepticism who knew how to decode genre conventions: the composers tried to preempt the readers’ ability to recognize incongruities between the narrative and metanarrative levels by incorporating potential critiques. As Dauber points out, some of these strategies may elicit further skepticism on the part of the audience by alerting it to a disparity between the conservative order (re)presented by the author and its own, more complicated experience of the world.
This book fills a gap in the study of Older Yiddish literature and will undoubtedly inspire others to engage with it and its subject matter. Therefore it is fortunate that the narrative works selected by Dauber are available both in scholarly editions and in good English translations, which makes the subject matter accessible even to an audience which may be less familiar with Yiddish language and literature of the Early Modern Period. They are Seyfer mesholim, the Yiddish fable collection of Moshe Wallich (Book of Fables, translated and edited by Eli Katz, Detroit, 1994), Mayse fun Vorms (“The Man who Married a She-Demon: A Tale of the Town of Worms”) and Mayse shel ruekh bk”k Korets beshas haraash milkhome (“The Tale of the Evil Spirit in Korets During the Turmoil of War”) (both published as scholarly editions by Sara Zfatman and available in translation in Joachim Neugroschel, ed. and trans., The Dybbuk: A Haunted Reader, Syracuse, 2000), and Briyo and Zimro (edited by Erika Timm, translated by Neugroschel [as “Béria and Zímra”], in The Dybbuk: A Haunted Reader). Thus, in more than one way, this well-written book may be an impetus for the study of Yiddish literature in the Early Modern Period.
Heinrich Heine University