I first learned of Yiddish writer Lamed Shapiro through the writings of Professor David Roskies. In his landmark study published in 1984, Against the Apocalypse: Responses to Catastrophe in Modern Jewish Culture, Roskies presents Shapiro as a dispassionate interpreter of the pogroms that were a horrifying reality of the Russian Pale of Settlement and as a short story writer who was able to discern an aspect of liberation in the violence that Jews experienced during these attacks. Shapiro’s accounts of the pogroms described the transformation of the “talush” into the “ba’al-guf.” The “talush,” according to Roskies “is not bound by any place, and having no transcendental faith to uphold, he is utterly defeated in the end.” For the “talush” the “world is always fragmented, no more so than in periods of catastrophe, and the enemy is everywhere.” The “baal-guf,” in contrast, is an earthy man who revels in the physical world. The most famous “ba-al guf” does not appear in Shapiro’s Yiddish writing but in the work of Russian-Jewish writer Isaac Babel. Babel, in his Odessa Stories, admires Jewish gangster Benya Krik, a man uninhibited by the constraints of the intellect, unafraid of the Russian authorities, and the opposite of the meek Pale Jew. With the possible exception of the biblical Samson, Benya is the most celebrated ba’al-guf in Jewish literature.
Two of Lamed Shapiro’s stories reveal his acute insight into the transforming nature of the pogrom in the way it impacted both victim and attacker. “The Cross” tells the tale of a pogrom victim who witnesses the extreme brutality of the pogromist. The Russians carve a cross into his forehead and he forever bears that mark. The experience of the pogroms transforms a “talush” into a “ba-al guf.” The survivor of the pogrom comes to America and lives the life of a wanderer of the railroads. He is finally freed of his status as a victim and bears the mark of the cross as he would the frontlet of the head tefillin. Witnessing and experiencing extreme brutality has transformed him. He revels in the physical having been liberated from the realm of a nowhere man. His wanderings release the typical Jewish attachment to the intellect and the world of transcendence. The “ba-al guf” is freed from religion and revolution. He is an “iron man” who “will build that which we have let lie in ruins.”
In “White Challah” Shapiro does something unique and subversive, He tells the tale of the pogrom not from the point of view of the victim but from that of the attacker, the enemy of the Jews. Vasil, the peasant, was a sensitive youth who pitied and cried for a wounded dog. But war, brutality and hatred of the killers of Christ transform him into a brute. He only admires the Jews for their “white challah.” Shapiro traces Vasil’s barbarizing that eventually results in an act of cannibalism, with Vasil actually sinking his teeth into the body of a Jewish victim to taste the real “white challah.” According to Roskies, Shapiro condemns Christianity in “this parting tableau of desecration, for Vasil, acting on a central article of Christian faith, has inverted the priestly rite of substituting the Host for the flesh of Christ. There is no better substitute for the man on the cross than the flesh of another Jew.” Judeo-Christian civilization is ripped apart and degraded in an act of ultimate barbarity.
Lamed Shapiro never witnessed anti-Jewish violence while he lived in Russia, before immigrating to America. This makes his feat of capturing the horror and the transforming force of the pogrom even more formidable. His life was one of struggle and disappointment. While he received some recognition as a Yiddish master while alive, he was only rediscovered as brilliant after his death in Los Angeles in 1948. In 2007 an edition of his collected stories, translated into English, was published. He deserves to be remembered and recognized. His prose is original, insightful, disturbing, and, at times, shocking.