About Zalman Shneour: Born in Shklow, Shneour (1887–1959) was a major figure of Jewish modernity and one of the most popular Yiddish writer between the World Wars. He wrote poetry, prose, and plays in both Yiddish and Hebrew. Like many of his generation, his life was spent moving from city to city in search of literary community or escaping political turmoil: from Odessa to Warsaw to Vilne, and on to such Western cities as Bern, Geneva, Berlin, Paris, New York (where he died), and Tel Aviv (where he is buried). His psychological fiction brought the insights of Nietzsche and Freud into the narrative world of Eastern European Jewish life.
Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Jake Pascoe. See his bio below.
In A Death, the narrator Shloyme is well along on his jaunt toward self-destruction when he lets slip a key to understanding this novel’s haunted and conflicted image of Jewishness. “Lost and alienated, I stood there for a while in the middle of my room. My head hung low. Then — I raised my hand and smacked my fist, as hard as I could, into my own temple. Shlimazl, what have you done?”
Shloyme invokes the archetype of the Shlimazl here, an illustrative Yiddish term which exists conjointly with its partner in misfortune, the Shlemiel. These are generally untranslatable ideas but are usually explained as “The Shlemiel is the one who spills the milk, the Shlimazl is the one who gets milk spilled on them.” The Shlemiel and the Shlimazl are desperately lacking in agency, one can’t help mucking up at every turn and the other can’t do much without the world crashing down upon them. These archetypes come from a people who, in 1905 when this novel was written, also largely lacked agency. Ghettoized and frequently exiled, harassed, and scapegoated, the wandering Jews made their way about Europe under the thumb of kings, popes, and tsars. For the past several hundred European years, the Jew was Shlemiel and Shlimazl, repeatedly invoking the wrath of controlling nations and left to the hands of fate. It’s interesting then, with such ubiquitous terminology, Shloyme cites the wrong one. “Shlimazl, what have you done?” he says to scold himself. An odd comment since, by its definition, a Shlimazl can’t do anything. The Shlimazl sits idly as the milk, the soup, the storming forces of a pogrom, the spies of the Inquisition, and the march of the Crusades knock them aside. But “Shlimazl, what have you done” — it’s as if Shloyme concedes that his life has been twisted by powers beyond his control, he is a Shlimazl to his Jewish soul and, knowing that, tries to will himself into action. And if a Jew can only be someone who causes misfortune or who gets misfortune thrust upon them, Shloyme picks both. The novel can be read as Shloyme’s attempt to blow past the confines of Jewish passivity in a leap toward oblivion. We begin the novel not long after he’s figured out just how to do that: to finally become a man of action, Shloyme has decided to commit one final act: he’s going to kill himself.
A Death: Notes on a Suicide by Zalman Shneour, is the story of Shloyme, a teacher in a murky and undefined Eastern European city who, over the course of 19 swift and cruel diary entries, strips apart his life in preparation for his suicide. Having bought a revolver under the guise of protecting himself from anti-Jewish riots sweeping the country, he falls into a kind of a twisted erotic love with the gun, which serves as his final spiritual companion while his psyche and humanity crumble.
The novel was written in Yiddish in 1905 and finally translated into English in 2019 by Daniel Kennedy, who terrifically awakens all the tormented language Shneour took Shloyme through 117 years ago. In a fascinating introduction, Kennedy writes about the “neither…unremarkable nor obvious choice” of choosing to write in Yiddish at the turn of the 20th century. Much of Jewish literacy at the time was centred around Biblical Hebrew, he explains, while Yiddish was a language of the people of sorts, spoken mainly by the uneducated working class. Hebrew was in the long process of being rebuilt, as linguists and writers hauled it out of its frozen state in liturgy and scripture into the modern spheres of science, philosophy, and literature. While some saw Hebrew as the more elegant or sophisticated choice, the reality was that Hebraic literacy among the Jewish masses was limited. While “walls would soon be erected between the hitherto porous worlds of Yiddish and Hebrew letters” in Warsaw and Odessa, Shneour wrote out of an intellectual circle in Vilna that saw equal but varying benefits of both languages. Shneour’s choice to write in Yiddish was exactly that, a choice, and in authoring a story of such guttural and fricative morbidity, Yiddish would serve his macabre goals well. After over a century of gestation, Kennedy expertly brings forth all the textural and grueling details of Shneour’s Yiddish in desolate passages of Shloyme’s self-destructive fantasies:
Just one small kick and the stool falls out from under you… Your neck muscles soon lose their power and flexibility — they cannot save your outstretched neck, they cannot hold on. Your body becomes seventy-seven times heavier, pulling you down without mercy … the daylight turns cloudy-white as though mixed with milk, then green, then black; the veins in your temple pound as if with pointed hammers; with a terrible anguish your lungs flounder like fish pulled living out of the water; your brain is on the verge of bursting under the strong current of blood which has no means of escape; the tips of your feet twitch ever so slightly, barely noticeable, like a steel spring, winding down — one more moment and…
But Yiddish was not just an aesthetic decision. Perhaps, in a glowering nod to that innate class divide between Hebrew and Yiddish, A Death is a pointed jab at restrictive Jewish traditions and society, at the Rabbis, community leaders, upholders of Jewish tradition as a whole, and their unremitting influence on personality and psychology. Shloyme goes so as far as to call fellow young Jews “victims of education” as he sets about on his mission out of victimhood with the singular goal of self-immolation in mind.
Shloyme’s parapraxic slip between Shlemiel and Shlimazl is his disdain for Jewish restrictions, both religious and social, at its most indirect. Most of the novel is filled with Shloyme’s very present sense of alienation from Jewish sensibilities. When remembering the period of mourning following the death of his father in childhood, for example, he recalls seeing him “surrounded by a group of women…their lamentations were deafening, and they blew into their handkerchiefs with hyperbolic vigor… Why are the women shrieking like that? It would be better if they were quiet; if it were still…why have they covered all the mirrors?… It’s all so excessive, so needless…”. The strict Jewish laws surrounding mourning practices are, to Shloyme, frivolous at best and disingenuous and pointless at worst. He begins to fantasize about his own death now and it lacks the distinctive Jewish characteristics of his father’s. “I too will die, but not with a beard and moustache like my father had… I won’t have furniture or a house … no women will cry for me; they will not blow their noses into their handkerchiefs… Of course I will die, I’ll die.” Most interesting to me is Shloyme’s specification of his appearance — he’ll neither be surrounded by ritualistic Jewish mourning and prayers nor will he have his religious Jewish father’s distinctly Jewish beard and moustache.
Shloyme wanders the streets of his city on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish calendar. Conspicuously not in synagogue, Shloyme roams the limen between the Jewish and Christian quarters. Suddenly, the synagogues “opened their rectangular mouths and with hot, musty air, started spitting out thousands of Jews…I stood there for quite some time, separated, alone, on the corner of a narrow alleyway, enduring the pushing and shoving of knees and elbows, courtesy of the hungry passersby. I stood and observed the great masses, snaking on all sides through the fray evening, and I was besieged by negative thoughts. I all but gnashed my teeth. Who was I so angry with? What in God’s name did I want?” Shloyme, though living amongst Jews, knowing only Jews, teaching Judaism to Jewish children, though Jewish by blood himself, feels absolutely excluded by Judaism. He has yet to specifically identify it, but seeing the outpouring of a Jewish crowd fills him with an unmistakable, if implacable, bile.
These are not new occurrences; later in the novel, Shloyme drunkenly admits to a friend that, as a child, he “began to suspect that everyone I saw around me in my daily life, including my father, my stepmother, my uncle and aunt, my friends from kheyder [Jewish school] and the teacher himself— I began to suspect that none of them were real people…but demons; a host of wicked demons who’d disguised themselves as people. While I alone was the only real person in the world. The demons torment me… That’s why God sent me down among them…I was convinced that all the mitzvahs and all the laws, all the respect and moralizing, the learning with the teacher— it was all crafted for my benefit, weak little me who was incapable of abiding by it.” Here we learn that Shloyme sees Judaism as some sort of solipsistic torture device, a fiendish plot by a god to torment him and restrict him. It is not, in fact, a means of worship or organization around God’s law, but simply an elaborate series of purely miserable entrapments, to entangle Shloyme and make him miserable. To be Jewish, to Shloyme, is all the Hell that is required on Earth.
Shloyme can’t particularly identify where the seed of his suicidal urges begins, but he does know that it built gradually. When he finally sits down to diagnose the origins of his dark impulses, he pens an explanation that can be read as analogous to the situation of the Eastern European Jewish community in 1905, as well as the experience of Jewishness at large:
I had nowhere to fall from because I never reached a high enough point. Minor occurrences and events, tedious little pains, a long chain of dark days — half awake, half asleep — an inner pride and constant outer shame, discomfort, ridicule; strong desires and weak hands… fragments of an unrealized hope… Like a tree growing without sunlight, like thorns sprouting without rain, the idea flourished in my desolate heart. Back in my father’s house, it took shape year by year, though I did not perceive it. Later, far from my father’s house, it continued to grow out in the world, in hunger and solitude, and yet I did not see its unmistakable form. But now it has grown ripe and stands before me in all its stubborn coldness, in all its stony, firmly minted details saying: “Abandon life.”
Shloyme writes of his suicidal wish so spiritually and hauntingly that it becomes clear to me that it is tied to the great spiritual drive, or non-drive, of his life: his Judaism. And since the novel largely documents Shloyme’s preparations for suicide as stripping his life of all its features, it’s not a particularly enormous leap to read Shloyme’s urge for suicide as an attempt to de-Judaize himself, rendering the novel as a whole as a somber cry against the inescapability of Jewishness.
But de-Judaizing oneself is not so simple a task as halting the adherence to Jewish customs (which Shloyme does, absconding synagogue and his studies), eating non-Kosher food (which Shloyme does during a ritual fast, ironically enough) or deserting God (which Shloyme does in a poem that he writes prior to the events of the novel: “If I should come on foot, I’ll see the face of God/ My God is ever pale and mute/ If I go out: the Devil comes to meet me —/ My Devil’s smile is so cold…/ I wish to confess: ‘I love you.’/ But those words, too, are tired and old”). In a quest to complete the task, Shloyme tacitly consults a dark, mystic force to rid himself of his Judaism: his revolver.
Shloyme’s revolver, the tool that will end his life as a Jew and otherwise, is elevated with the divine life of spiritual being from the very first lines of the novel. It’s a specific spiritual being, no less, one that Jews from childhood are keenly aware of: the Angel of Death. “I’ve been hiding it for almost two weeks now, right here in my pocket, the instrument of my ultimate demise; the slaughtering blade of the Angel of Death: the revolver… When I gaze into its deep, dark barrel I feel the Angel of Death, eternal and mute, staring back at me with one of its thousand eyes.” The revolver, Shloyme’s closest ally, is anthropomorphized as the great slaughterer of Egyptians, the distinctly non-Jewish opposites of the Torah. In the Passover story, the Angel of Death sweeps through the Land of Egypt, killing all Egyptian first-borns, carefully distinguishing Egyptians and Jews. To avoid the risk of confusing the two, God instructs Moses on how to publicly differentiate Jewish homes from Egyptian homes, lest the Angel of Death mistake a Jew for an Egyptian. Shloyme, given his feeling of exclusion from the Jewish community, has always lived within this ambiguous space of Jew and non-Jew, but with the decision to kill himself, he too makes deliberate attempts to confuse the Angel of Death by stripping himself of all markers of his Judaism so that he may finally be slaughtered. “With an earnest expression, I sought out a piece of Chalk, took up the clothes, spread them out on the bed, knelt down on my knees next to the bed and began drawing little death’s heads on the fabric, white little skulls … with crossed bones underneath … They looked like pale death-seals. An unknown mystical hand had stamped them onto my clothes, by the border between life and death … the clothes were already on the other side of life … these were stamps from the customhouse on the other side, it wasn’t me who’d put them there, not me.” He is moved by a divine energy to mark himself, just like the Jews are instructed through Moses by God to mark their doorposts with lamb’s blood in the Passover story. Although for Shloyme, it’s instead to summon the Angel of Death.
But the revolver is more than a distant and ineffable spiritual being; it’s Shloyme’s most intimate companion. The revolver is not just filled with divine life but an erotic and sexual one as well. Shloyme speaks to it and caresses it, even going as far as to strip naked and snuggle it: “I haven’t slept with you in so long, you little bastard,” he says before undressing and getting into bed with it, “it’s been ages, my dear little revolver.” Shloyme’s sexual feelings toward this mystical object is in contrast with the last object he lifted to talismanic profundity. In Shloyme’s cathectic history, we can see his transition away from Judaism. As a child, he became obsessed with a small piece of earth, ostensibly taken from Palestine to be buried by the head of every dead Jew. “I carried that lump of earth around with me for a good long time. I’d sit alone with it for hours, in silence. Now I understand that this pale piece of earth was like a childhood precursor to my revolver. The earth evoked such feelings in me, similar to the feelings the revolver now evokes in me. But back then they were still chaotic, without conception, without a purpose.” When he rediscovers the piece of earth under his bed as an adult, he compares it to the revolver and sees that “the revolver glows, the revolver is alive; the earth is dead.” The metaphorical qualities of the lump of earth from the Holy Land are obvious, but its contrast with the revolver is still striking. Even when it (and the practice of Judaism/experience of Jewishness) was idolized by the young Shloyme, it contained none of the eroticism that he associates with the revolver. His relationship with the gun is a congress, filled with mystical sexual ecstasy. When it comes to mysticism, this is a distinctly Christian tradition in the vein of St. John of the Cross and Theresa of Avila. And why wouldn’t it be? If we can define mysticism as an immediate awareness of a divine presence, it makes sense for this awareness to manifest erotically in Christian mystics, seeing as the fundamental marker of Christianity is in a mediator of flesh between man and God, that of Jesus Christ. That Shloyme’s relationship with his mystic object is sexual is antithetical to the history of Jewish mystical language and square in the vein of Christian mysticism. The revolver is a distinctly anti-Jewish and non-Jewish Angel of Death-erotic Christ hybrid, and through the pathway of Shloyme’s libido, it consumes and destroys him.
With the power of his Angel of Death, Shloyme’s efforts to rid himself are largely a success. He pulls himself out of Jewish thinking, out of Jewishness, out of Jewish time itself. A Death is written as a diary entry, each marked with a date on the Jewish calendar, beginning at the 20th of Elul and carrying on through the 23rd of Tishre. But as Shloyme progresses on his path to self-destruction, these markers of time secularize to “After Midday,” “12 at Night,” “A few hours later,” until finally culminating in what may in fact be a postscript to the novel but still serves as Shloyme’s culminating blow on his Judaism: “August 1905.” The year of our Lord. Shloyme rends Judaism and is able to stand, reduced to his basest nucleus, before the city at dawn, completely separated from all that has ever marked him.
Nu, what to do with all this.
Shneour’s vision of a mystical battle out of Judaism and into the gentile arms of death is profound and horrifying and stark in Jewish writings on suicides. Events like Masada and York Castle are commonly discussed instances where Jews killed themselves en masse rather than be forced into conversion or subjugation to a non-Jewish power. Generally speaking, these histories are taught as a solemn but necessary success for Jews to retain their Judaism. Shneour instead details an instance of suicide that occurs expressly to escape Judaism, to tear oneself away in the night into a non-religious (or at least a non-Jewish religious) morning. It’s a perspective not routinely discussed in a contemporary Jewish education, which I certainly don’t view as dogmatic and propagandistic, but has clearly idealized the fervour of Jewishness in 19th and early 20th-century Eastern European Jewish communities and ignored the cases of dissatisfaction. A Death takes that dissatisfying sentiment and compounds it repeatedly, until it’s a brutal object of seething resentment, making absolutely clear that Judaism’s own “cold thing,” to use Shloyme’s words, has “entered [us], sinking into the depths of [our] soul, impossible now to dislodge.” I hope that Shneour would forgive those editorial brackets. It seems like he would.
I tried to halt myself from reducing this Eastern European Jewish novel to a “pre-Holocaust” novel, since so much of trying to find a Jewish identity in the 21st century is frustrated by the pervasiveness of Holocaust imagery, veneration, and discourse. I’d like—as best I can—to limit the universality of that specific history to discussions of Jewish history at large. But it’s particularly difficult not to read this novel in a non-anticipatory light when it’s filled with such brutally corporal descriptions of mass death in general and Jewish death in particular. One of the most profound images of the book comes as Shloyme falls into his darkest moments and describes the world tumbling into doom and the necessity of suicide.
We are the real treat, we would-be suicides!…Yes I can already see the corpses falling like hail…it’s raining suicides, there’s a deluge…they won’t be able to avoid us any longer, to get away, to look to the stars and ignore us, stepping over our bodies and making jokes…we will become a force, a terrible force … no more getting trodden underfoot, feet will be trodden under us…we will stop every current with our death current, all movements with our mountain of bodies. We will block every spring, we will hit the brakes on progress— ha ha — progress, what progress? Us! Us! Ha ha… you understand, or don’t you? Ha ha ha well, now I’m laughing. You’d be forgiven for thinking I’ve gone completely mad.
I find this impossible not to read in the cynical light of a 21st-century Jew, restricted by a Jewishness informed almost completely by the Holocaust, trying to establish something more holistic, a Judaism purer, and repulsed at each attempt. I find this impossible not to read as spoken in unison by the massacred Jews of history, who stand in the way of me finding some identity beyond projected victimhood, beyond persecution, beyond the restriction of the Jewish law outlined with peremptory urgency by schools, synagogues, rabbis, and teachers, fighting with the strength of hundreds of millions to keep me out of a Judaism unpolluted by the limitations of history, a Judaism that rests in spirituality, not in collective disempowerment. A Judaism of transcendence rather than a Judaism of woe and melancholy.
In this way, A Death is more than prescient, it’s nearly a re-writing of contemporary Judaism’s imagined psychological history. It reveals that Jewish frustration is immortal. The dissatisfaction of the young Jew, the generational squabbles, the refusal of complacency, was a reality even in the idealized Shtetl days of pre-war. Days that are hallowed in folk tales and jokes, whimsified and Oz-like, a moral and a punchline at every turn. If A Death is good for something beyond its bleak sumptuous prose, it’s that it stands as proof of Jewish dissatisfaction as a grand Jewish tradition. And if it’s a Jewish tradition, it’s part of good company.
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Jacob Pascoe is a writer and filmmaker based in Vancouver. His work spans narrative film and music videos to prose and essays. He studied film production and literature at the University of British Columbia. His website is here: jakepascoe.ca