Commentary Magazine


Cedars of Lebanon: A Yiddish Tale of Chivalry

We offer below a selection from a classic of Yiddish folk literature, the famous Boba Buch (or Bova Buch) of Elijah Bahur. So far as we know, this is the first translation into English of any part of the 16th-century romance which continued to delight its Jewish readers for literally hundreds of years; whole sections of it entered into the popular mythology, and its phrases were freely incorporated into the popular idiom—for example, boba maaseh itself—“old wives’ tale.”

Like many of the medieval Yiddish chap-books designed to entertain the Jews shut up in their ghettos, the Boba Bitch was a free and highly imaginative rendering of a Christian tale, this one from the popular Italian literature. Naturally, very little that happens in Elijah Bahur’s version of the original chivalric romance could have happened to a Jew living in his medieval ghetto, and it was this distance from the actual which insured the book’s enormous success. To get to know in fantasy the outside Christian world of chivalry was, to put it in the characteristic idiom of the Boba Buck itself, like “dancing at someone else’s wedding.” Bahur put into his book the racy colloquial Yiddish of his day, interspersing it, with great comic effect, with deliberately distorted Biblical and Talmudic phrases; and of course it is the actual Jewish way of life that we see interwoven with the alien chivalric elements: the Queen, for example, observes the traditional seven days of sitting shiva for the King she has had murdered.

To Elijah Bahur, his Boba Buck was in the direct line of popular Jewish literature going back to the legends of the Talmud. Quite matter of factly, the first edition of the Boba Buch ends with the classic formula: “Concluded is the tractate of Boba Dantona.”

With the gradual changing of the popular language, the Yiddish of the first version of the Boba Buch came finally to be unintelligible to its readers—in something like the way Chaucer has become too difficult for the ordinary reader. Consequently, later authors at various periods took the liberty of rewriting the original medieval romance in the more modern style of their own day. N. B. Minkoff, in his book on Elijah Bahur, tells us that as late as 1909-10 there appeared new editions of the Boba Buch in Vilna, and there may have been still later versions.

Most recently, J. I. Trunk re-edited the Boba Buch for modern Yiddish literature—and his rendering must be counted as a tour de force. The translation here given, which I have prepared, is of a section from Mr. Trunk’s work—it appeared as part of his book Kvalen un Beimer (“Wells and Trees”), published by the Ferlag Unser Tsait in 1958.

One final word about the style of the original From the a Buch: it was written in ottova rima, an Italian stanza of eight eleven-syllabic lines, rhyming as a b a / a b c c. In my translation of the modern Yiddish version, I have followed Mr. Trunk, rhyming only occasionally, when the material lent itself.—Jacob Sloan.

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The old king Hertzik Gvidon and his young wife Brandonia. Boba is born, though the old man is cold behind the ears.

Once there was a king, whose name was Hertzik Gvidon, and he was an old man. The Evil Urge goaded him on to marrying a virgin maid, and her name was Brandonia. Within the year she lay in childbirth and made a bris for her first-born son, and he was named Boba [Bova].

Not far from the capital city where the King Hertzik Gvidon lived, there stretched a deep forest, in the middle of which stood an ancient and gloomy castle surrounded by all kinds of walls and turrets and deep moats. The castle was called Shanushuman, and the only way you could get to it was over drawbridges that were always raised. The King Hertzik Gvidon had his treasures hidden in the castle. The castellan, who was called Sini-bald, was a mighty warrior, one who could single-handed dispatch a whole army, and Sini-bald was true to the old King unto death.

To this same Sini-bald, in the castle Shanushuman, the King entrusted his only son Boba, that he might teach him to fight, to shoot, and to ride, and all necessary military tactics.

The lad grew mightily—by the time Boba was ten years old he had dispatched three burly heroes, like flies.

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II

Then did Brandonia weep and complain: Why, oh why, have I been taken and made pregnant by such a broken vessel?

The virgin maid Brandonia, whom the King Hertzik Gvidon had taken out of her rags and tatters and made a queen, was one of those sweet little women: “may they be sown far and wide and yield a meager crop.” She was false and devious, like the Primal Serpent. It was the Evil Urge that made her for the King, body and soul, his darling mistress.

Now she looked around her and saw the lords and generals who doffed their hats when she appeared. Pure blood and milk were they. Then she looked again and saw her husband the King, already an aged man and sickly in the loins. All night long he lay coughing next to her in bed. And she spake in her heart—said she to herself: “What good to me is such an old broken vessel, and such a broken fiddle as this?”

Later, she looked at her son Boba. And once again she spake in her heart—thought she to herself: “By such a broken vessel I was taken and became pregnant, and this is the fruit, this is the song.”

Her thoughts grew darker and darker.

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III

The false wife sniffs the Evil Urge’s incense, And she spake in her heart: “Now, God willing, I shall share the golden wedding broth with General Ritzer.”

When an evil woman’s concocting, things begin to brew. King Solomon, of blessed memory—that was something he knew and knew. He had enough experience with them—false wives, that is. They made his head reel, although at first he thought he could be happy with so many. Later he told all about it, poor fellow, in his Proverbs book.

And she raised her eyes—that sly creature Brandonia, who had gone in rags and tatters and now wore garments of gold—she raised her eyes up to one of the generals of the royal army. He was blood and milk, called Ritzer.

Queen Brandonia discarded all womanly shame, and began to cast eyes at the young general.

The Evil Urge played her tune on his fiddle—and the general twirled his mustache ends. What it means when a general—blood and milk—twirls his mustache ends, there’s no sense wasting good paper and ink in telling.

Then did she whisper—the sly Brandonia whispered a secret into General Ritzer’s ear, all the while smiling with the seven smiles of the Primal Serpent. As follows: Let him just see to it that the old dotard Terah be dispatched to his forefathers—may he there bask in Paradise!—then she and he together, she and the murderer, that is—would share the golden wedding broth, and she would make him king.

Now if the Serpent was able to talk so righteous a woman as Mother Eve into eating one little apple from the Tree of Knowledge—could he not talk a general, all blood and milk, into becoming a king?

General Ritzer spoke softly into her ear, into the Queen Brandonia’s ear: “Fear not, your Majesty. The old man will soon be baking bagels underground, with my help. Only see to it that he comes hunting with me in the forest.”

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IV

The Queen feigns sickness. Old Gvidon rides off to the hunt. His young wife has a craving for sweet fawns-flesh or the like. Ritzer dispatches the old man to Paradise. A fine funeral.

Queen Brandonia wasted no time in thought; straight off, making herself out to be sick, she took to bed, and screamed that she was “all choked up inside.”

Enter the King—the old King Hertzik Gvidon came to pay his young wife a sick call. Lovingly, he asked her how she felt.

“If I can’t have a piece of roast deer flesh,” yammered the Queen, “what’s my life worth? I’ll end up dead, and you can go looking for another queen.”

Old King Gvidon knew all about the cravings young wives have at certain times. Had her time come again? wondered Hertzik Gvidon with joy. “And if I don’t give her deer flesh, mightn’t she miscarry?—God forbid!”

Then the King assembled his followers, including all his generals. They mounted their milk-white steeds. They took along a pack of hunting dogs. Old Hertzik Gvidon rode his favorite horse, and on his hand he perched his favorite sparrow-hark. The hawk was a keen hunter, who had caught beasts hidden in places where no general could find them.

The retinue rode off into the forest, amid the trumpeting of trumpets and blowing of horns. The pack raced on ahead. The King’s sparrow-hawk seized a little fawn, right in the act of suckling at its mother’s teats. General Ritzer drew his bow, supposedly to shoot the deer. But he aimed straight at the King’s heart, and the pointing arrow flew true.

Then perished the King—King Hertzik Gvidon fell from his horse, dead. “And the city of Shushan was disconsolate”—they hung all the mirrors in the capital with sheets, and old Hertzik Gvidon had a fine funeral.

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V

Ritzer and Brandonia do think and fret both
       night and day:
Oh, that they might live to see Boba put
       away!

And it came to pass on the morrow after the seven days of mourning were over that Queen Brandonia rose from the mourner’s stool. Her sharp little tongue was soon arguing with the seventy counselors of the King that it would be only right to break dishes and lead her under the marriage canopy with General Ritzer. Firstly—argued she—you can’t just take a young woman and let her sit around an everlasting widow. Secondly: you can’t leave the throne empty as an attic.

She had a real false shrew’s tongue, simply rolling in honey. And then she made up to them with all kinds of womanly charms. The Evil Urge played her tune on his fiddle. In brief, I the author don’t know for sure what each of the seventy counselors thought to himself—but all of them suddenly hit on the same idea. They began twirling their mustache ends.

They twirled and they twirled until there was a big wedding. Soon after the Seven Benedictions of Marriage, the murderer Ritzer became emperor.

And the wrath of the king subsided.—The wicked Brandonia and General Ritzer were lovey-dovey to one another. Now Queen Brandonia had a man entirely blood and milk, and not some old broken vessel coughing away all night.

And it came to pass when the king was seated—when they were sitting cozily together, eating from each other’s lips, King Ritzer spoke to Queen Brandonia as follows:

“Last night I dreamed,” said the murderer, “that the darling boy Boba you had with that old Terah dotard of a husband of yours came from the castle Shanushuman in the forest. He chopped my head off and became emperor. On account of this dream, soul of mine, I couldn’t shut an eye all night.”

Sly Brandonia was, after all, as bad as the Primal Serpent. She couldn’t bear the thought that she had been made pregnant by a man who was a broken vessel, and so that wicked woman stretched her darling lips into a charming smile and said to King Ritzer, said she:

Don’t you eat your heart out, kitten. I’ll bring the dear boy here and poison him off like a mouse.

And the thing found favor in the eyes of the King—Ritzer gave her a kiss on the cheek, and lined up his troops, and sent them off to the forest to the castle Shanushuman to bring back Boba.

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VI

What a consternation was there!
We are treating of war now, we’re not at
      the Leipzig Fair;
We’re not buying and selling sheep’s hides.
We’re hacking with halberds on every which
      side.
Blood is running-—like the Red Sea tide.

Now we—I the author and you the readers, that is—know that Lord Sini-bald was the castellan of Shanushuman, where he was tutoring Boba in military tactics—to fight, to ride, and to shoot. Sinibald was one of those truthful men of yore who had no truck with falsehoods. He knew in his heart, poor fellow, all the evil that was done under the sun, and how the murderer Ritzer had crept up to the Emperor’s stool, and that it had been a plot between Ritzer and the young Queen to get rid of the old King.

So he thought it over, did Sini-bald, and hauled up the drawbridges in front of the castle Shanushuman. He put on a black suit of steel armor, and he put a black suit of steel armor on Boba. Both of them girded on their swords and bows and arrows and waited for Ritzer’s troops that had been sent to bring Boba back, by peaceful persuasion, if they could. Supposedly, his sweet darling mother was dying to see her dear boy. But Prince Sini-bald was no fool, and he saw through the whole play-act from A to Z.

The troops appeared, on foot and on horseback. They were armed with swords and halberds, and armored in steel and iron. Their captain, called Amalek, ordered the alarm horn sounded, and announced to Sini-bald the reason they had come: he was to give the king’s son, Boba, over to them.

Sini-bald said: N-O—no.

Generals aren’t fond of long confabulations. Amalek ordered the battle horn blown, and the fighting began.

They hacked away with swords and halberds. The forest echoed with the sound of steel swords knocking on steel armor. Sini-bald and Boba—they were two against two thousand—chopped off heads like cabbage. Horses and soldiers wallowed in blood. Sini-bald got an arrow in the back, and fell heavily wounded.

Boba was left alone with his trusty blade. But now he showed what he had learned in Prince Sini-bald’s one-room “cheder,” and that his hands weren’t cramped like a woman’s in labor. All by himself he went on to chop off about three hundred heads. At last, however, he threw in his hand, and cried out, “I pass!”

They bound his hands with chains of gold. The few troops that were left, those that could still breathe, led him off to the beating of drums and the fifing of fifes, to the royal court and his mother Brandonia.

Down on the more than nine hundred armored corpses lying in front of the castle Shanushuman, the crows descended from the trees and the sparrow-hawks from the sky. Dumah, the Angel of Death, came, too, with his whip of fire. A flock of vultures held a splendid banquet.

[A second excerpt from the Boba Buch will appear in a following issue.—Ed.]

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