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Midwest Jewish Studies Association - Shofar Book Reviews

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Blood Libel: The Life and Memory of Mendel Beilis, edited by Jay Beilis, Jeremy Simcha Garber, and Mark S. Stein.  Chicago, IL: Beilis Publishing, 2011.  324 pp.  $15.00.

More than ten years ago, Jay Beilis, the grandson of the famous Mendel Beilis, known for being the scapegoated victim of a blood libel case in Czarist Russia a few years before the outbreak of World War I, came to New Zealand for one of our Waikato Jewish Studies Seminars. It was not only a great honor to have this man at our sessions, thus giving us living connection to one of the most important events in modern Jewish history, but a pleasure to meet Jay Beilis himself.  Though not a professional scholar, Jay was an excellent informal speaker, and what he told us about his grandfather excited a great number of people on the long weekend of the seminar. Most of us had heard of the libel case through our reading of Bernard Malamud’s novel The Fixer, and thus thought we knew a fair bit about what happened in Kiev and why the false accusation of ritual murder caused such a stir in the world. Jay disabused us of many misunderstandings and took a rather strong stand against Malamud for misusing Mendel’s own Yiddish account of his ordeal. He handed out to the attendees a copy of the memoir, The Story of My Sufferings. It was a book I had vaguely heard about but not read. When I did read it, the next time I taught The Fixer to undergraduates, I had the students study this personal story and compare it to the novel.

              This new edition of Mendel’s memoir is partly re-translated from Yiddish and has sections previously edited out returned to the text, as well as explanatory notes appended. The anthology also adds several very valuable extra documents: a short history of the affair, a letter from 1930 written by Chief Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook from what was then Mandatory Palestine to the American readers of The Story of My Life and Suffering, and an expanded essay by Jay Beilis, Jeremy Simcha Garber, and Mark S. Stein first published in De-Novo, Cardozo Law Review called “Pulitzer Plagiarism: The Malamud-Beilis Connection.” Finally an Afterward by Jay Beilis, along with several appendices containing additional documents and discussions of the various versions of Mendel’s Life and many photographs pertinent to the study of the Beilis case. If anyone is to study The Fixer from now on this collection is an absolutely necessary casebook to go with the novel.

              But though there is clearly a legal question of intellectual property to be worked out over Bernard Malamud’s failure to explain adequately his use of Beilis’ memoir, that is something that probably would never have arisen in previous times when it was understood that artists work within traditions, absorbing and transforming one another’s works, and that the rhetoric of fiction adheres to its own integrity. This raises several distinct questions: was Malamud the historical man and author deliberately stealing from My Life of Suffering? The contemporary plagiarism problem, however, is complicated not just by the entry of film and video versions of history (more than just extensions of the older genres of historical fiction), but by the emergence of a new kind of literate and educated public who have been cut off from these traditional notions of genre and divorced from the most elementary notions of history and historiography.

Thus the second question pertinent to the matter is, does The Fixer as novel, and then as film, stand in for the history of Mendel Beilis, the popularity (once at least) of the book and cinema replacing facts themselves? We need to ask whether a literary author is responsible for the misuse or misunderstanding of his work of art. Malamud himself in his private letters and published interviews emerges as disingenuous in his response to the complaints raised by David, Mendel’s son, on behalf of the family. The author never made a public statement of apology for the confusions his fiction caused.

              Hence, is it any longer sufficient to argue that Malamud’s fiction is a work of art? Do we read it today in the sense that Shakespeare’s historical plays are recreated representations of the themes and images to be extrapolated from the past, wherein the past is a metaphor of the present, and aesthetically and morally more significant than Raphael Holinshed’s chronicle or some other sixteenth-century treatise on history? Jay Beilis and his co-editors provide ample data and documents to open up lively discussions, although their arguments are somewhat one-sided and overly aggressive. New editions of the novel might, were publishers willing, contain explanatory notes and new sections of critical discussion taking in what is at stake.

              And so, at which point, then, does The Fixer become considered “an American classic” and reach the classroom and the general public with full and adequate scholarly apparatus? I would argue that this is not only Malamud’s finest and most important novel, but also one of the most significant parts of the mid-twentieth-century Jewish-American renaissance. The author has transformed the historical episode radically, midrashed its meanings—posing questions pertinent to American Jews after the Holocaust, in that Yakov Bok (Jacob Goat), the scapegoat and fixer (read: kabbalistic repairer of the world) ironically is in a state of rebellion against Judaism and its community. Yakov is not a nice or admirable person—nor probably was Malamud (the elementary teacher). That the novelist has “borrowed” or “copied” passages from Mendel Beilis’s book goes without saying, but whether these passages constitute plagiarism—wilful intellectual theft—is another kettle of fish. Fiction, even historical romances, does not come with footnotes.

              Be that as it may, would the achievement of cultural importance absolve Malamud from moral and legal responsibilities? Thanks to Jay Beilis’s persistence in defending the honor of his grandfather, the legal and ethical issues cannot be put aside. But we now have to ask whether anyone—teacher, critic, cultural historian, educated lay person—is responsible for addressing the issues of historical accuracy, legal debate, and ethical treatment of the subject’s reputation and heirs. That the three editors had to resort to self-publication and use a print-to-order model shows how uninterested (if not worse) are academic and commercial publishing houses to address the questions explicitly raised in this book and those deeper questions implied in the relationship between facts, fiction, and intelligent imagination.

              As it stands, the casebook almost seems like special pleading against an author and a novel of great cultural value: Malamud’s Yakov Bok has only the most tenuous relationship with the actual Mendel Beilis, and the novel engages with the nature of theodicy (as does the Biblical book of Job) and natural justice (as does Spinoza, whom Bok reads in fragments found in a faded copy of that philosopher he finds). The novel does not have the trial reach a verdict, only a process of suffering in prison and a corrupt system of investigations prior to a court of law. For Malamud, the trumped up charges against Bok resonate in the atmosphere of America’s post-war McCarthy committee and in the shadow of the Holocaust with its banality of evil. In the twenty-first century, however, there is a social obligation for fair treatment of historical models and open disclosure of documentary sources—even specific citations, as the Cardozo Law Review essay claims—and therefore Jay Beilis and his family need to be reassured that their ancestor’s good name and the true value of his sufferings are known for their own sake and in relation to the novel which has obscured the memory of Mendel, his wife, and their children and grandchildren.

Norman Simms

University of Waikato

Hamilton, New Zealand