Fabulating a Diaspora Tale

By Ben Nadler.

My earliest Jewish education came from my father’s parents. They were committed to exposing their patrilineal Jewish grandchildren to Jewish culture, lest we be lost to other influences. To this end, my grandparents made the drive from Washington D.C. to Philadelphia on every major Jewish holiday, bearing Jewish history books, kosher salamis, and endless lectures. My bubbe and zayde were also deeply committed to the idea of diasporism, and so my own understanding of Jewish culture has always been diasporic.

Like many first-generation New York City-born Jews of their generation, my grandparents, Len and Zeace, spoke Yiddish and felt connections to the places in Eastern Europe (in this case, Poland, Lithuania, and Romania) that their parents came from before the Shoah. Their belief in diaspora culture, however, went far beyond one-degree-removed nostalgia for the lost worlds of the shtetl or Vilnius. Diasporism was a core part of their religion. In some ways, it was their religion. Judaism, as they understood it, was precious, transportable, unconfined by borders, and essentially incompatible with state power.

As aggressive defenders of diaspora culture and experience, they rejected Zionism. While not members of the Jewish Labor Bund, they were influenced by the Bundist concept of “doikayt,” or “hereness.” Non-Zionist and anti-Zionist ideological positions were not unusual in the pre-1948 American Jewish milieu where my grandparents came of age. However, by the time they were attending Reform synagogues in the final decades of the 20th century, their perspective was considered almost heretical.

My grandparents’ devotion to the diaspora led them to seek out Jewish people and communities in any country where they lived or worked—ranging from Japan, to Sweden, to pre-revolution Iran. In the late ‘90s, after my grandfather retired, they self-published a book entitled Living Judaism around the World, which interpolated histories of some two-dozen far-flung diaspora communities with bits of tangentially-connected travelog. As a child, I viewed their shameless promotion of this book (they traveled around the country lecturing from it, and handed out copies at social gatherings like Hanukkah gelt) as embarrassing. I now cherish the volume, despite its myriad flaws and idiosyncrasies, for its earnest vision.

It is perhaps fitting then, that, as a writer, I am deeply interested in telling stories about diasporic Jewish lives. Here at LABA NYC (located five blocks up 2nd Avenue from the apartment and tailor shop where my bubbe grew up) I am even printing my own little diaspora book, a fiction chapbook entitled Codex Lev: A Romance of Ashkenaz. It often feels as if there are only two stories about historical Jewish diaspora experience in Europe that we tell (at least in the United States): tragic, passive victimhood or quaint, idyllic shtetl life. There are reasons these narratives persist, but I hope to tell a different story.

The origins of the Codex Lev came not from Len and Zeace’s travels, but from a voyage my wife, Oksana, and I took three years ago. Due to Oksana’s participation in the last gasp of a Cold War-era “transatlantic friendship” fellowship, she and I moved to Berlin in the fall of 2020, right after the first wave of German COVID-19 restrictions were lifted…and right before the next wave of coronavirus and the next wave of restrictions. I didn’t know many people in Berlin, and the lockdown meant there was nowhere I could go meet people, so I spent a lot of time wandering around by myself, smoking cigars, talking to ghosts, and making up stories.

One afternoon, Oksana and I took the train out to Spandau Zitadelle, a historic fortress in an area on the outskirts of Berlin I was mainly aware of from a Chumbawuba song. Centuries of history are piled on top of each other in Spandau. The medieval Spandau castle was built in the 12th century, then the early-modern fortress was built in the 16th century. Spandau contained the Prussian armory in the 19th century, and a German national armory in the 20th century. Beneath all of this, there are Jewish graves: In the museum’s “archeological window,” one can see medieval Jewish headstones, which were taken from the local cemetery and used as building material for the fortress.

Neither I nor Oksana (a Soviet-born Jew) had considered that there was Jewish life here in Berlin so long ago, before our ancestors’ communities were pushed east. Such sub-strata sites of Jewish death and life are of course not completely uncommon in Central Europe. A few months after our visit to Spandau, when COVID travel restrictions began to lift slightly, we visited Vienna. In my head, I had carried a linear narrative in which the Viennese Jewish community grows in the modern era, thrives following emancipation, and ends with the Anschluss and the Shoah. Herzel rides suspiciously through this narrative on his bicycle. This narrative is not untrue, but it’s linearity is. For one thing, there is a Jewish community in Vienna today. There was also an earlier community which thrived in the city from the 12th century through to its destruction in the early 15th century, in what is known as the Wiener Gesera. The physical ruins of this community have only been uncovered relatively recently.

In my work as a fiction writer, I am interested not only in these broad historic events, but in individual lives. I want to imagine how Jewish people lived in Vienna in 1400 or 1410, in a functioning, centuries-old diaspora community. In Spandau, I sounded out the Hebrew names still legible on the uncovered gravestones. I wondered, What had their lives been like, here? Novalis, an 18th century German poet, said “novels arise out of the shortcomings of history.” (The British novelist Penlope Fitzgerald uses this quote as the epigraph of her own fictional imagining of Novalis’ life, The Blue Flower.) As a past-facing writer, I often turn to what the scholar Saidiya Hartman calls “critical fabulation,” the process of using imagination as a tool to inhabit lost lives only limned by the historical record.

Because my field (I use the word “field” here as much in the sense of “playground” as “discipline”) is literature, not archeology, the sites in which I search for diasporic lives are textual. One particular type of text I have been looking at this past year is late medieval German “Fechtbücher,” or fighting manuals. As historians of the period have observed, a few of these books make reference to sword fighters and wrestlers who are identified as Jewish in some way..

These references intrigued me, not so much because of their novelty, but because they gestured towards broader questions about what was possible in this period: Were medieval Jews always passive victims of violence, or violent actors as well? How did “baptized Jews” fit into communal identities of the time? How did collective Jewish traumas affect individual relationships to arms and violence? How did Jewish bodies move through the space of Europe? Of course, some of the questions are still relevant today. Most urgently: What does it mean for a person to bear arms, both with and without state sanction?

One particular 15th century fechtbuch, often referred to as “Codex Lew” or “Jude Lew,” concludes with the line: “Here the art of the Jew who was called Lew comes to end.” Dierk Hagedorn, the contemporary translator and editor of Jude Lew, writes of the lack of historical clarity around who the Jew called Lew was: “did Lew actually contribute to fencing–was he author, editor, or scribe? Unfortunately, nothing is known about this person…”

This type of historical unknowing created the opening for critical fabulation, for writing towards a different kind of knowing. As a fiction writer, I don’t have to know who the historical Lew was, I just have to discover who my own character might have been. My story speculates what the life of this man might have been like, and how his personal ability and desire to bear arms and perform violence might have existed in relation to the violence and disenfranchisement acted against Jews in this same period and region.

In my work, I am always conscious of the relationship between content and form. Further, in past-facing work, I am conscious of the relationship between the time in which I write and the time in which my characters live. That is to say, one is always writing from their own subjective position, even if they are looking far back. The genre of “Codex Lev” started in the more comfortable mode of heavily-interior literary fiction, but as I immersed myself in late medieval Europe, the story began to take on the structure of a romance, a genre popular in both German and Yiddish in the era where my story is set.

Similarly, as I began to construct a chapbook, I began to think less in terms of print production than in terms of the hand-written, hand-illuminated manuscripts of the era, which immediately preceded Guttenberg’s press and the print revolution. I eschewed page numbers, which are largely a convention of the print era. Although the chapbook is digitally printed, it is filled with hand-drawn, hand-written, and hand-cut illuminations by the artist Alyssa Berg, a dear friend and long-term collaborator of mine.

Alyssa and I were conscious of illumination as a different process than illustration, more about co-creating the manuscript, rather than providing one-to-one visual translations of the text. The project became more and more about the page, and the relationship between words and page. Further, Alyssa’s deep consideration of the botanical realm helped to build out the world I was exploring—a barely pre-modern world, where the categories of the human, plant, and animal were not quite so clearly delineated.

In many ways, the primary audience for “Codex Lev” is my dead grandparents. Still, I hope others might be interested in joining me in this speculation about a diaspora life. The story I ended up writing is by no means meant to be the actual story of the specific Jewish man referenced in the fechtbuch. Nor is it meant to be a representative story of what Jewish life was like in the Holy Roman Empire in the early-15th century. It is merely a tale of what might have potentially happened to one imagined man in the diaspora. I hope it’s a good story.