By Sabbath Candlelight
By Bella Chagall.
With thirty-six drawings by Marc Chagall. New York, Schocken Books,1946. 268 pp. $3.00.
Raised as a child in White Russia, in a patriarchal Hasidic home, where the light of the Friday candles with their appropriate prayers wandered the whole week between the walls and waited for a new Sabbath—where the weekdays of the year were only bridges between the different holidays—little Bashke leaves the house of her father, studies Russian at a high school and at the Moscow University, writes her thesis on “the liberation of the Russian peasants” and about Dostoievski, and then proceeds to the miraculous, brilliant cities of the West. Her husband, Marc Chagall, climbs the ladder of fame, and she—now Bella—shares in his glory (because, as is well known, when the husband gets a chair in Paradise his wife receives a stool at his feet). Bella becomes acquainted with the “great” of her epoch. Days of vernissages and of critics’ praise, prizes and pictures sold to museums—all the fumes of fame and glory surround her.
The images of childhood retreated into the subconscious. And yet Chagall’s home was never estranged from its Eastern Jewish origins: on the walls of his studio there breathed the types of the old home, the symbolic paupers flying over housetops, the small-town musicians ascending to heaven together with their melodies, the bearded Hasidim dancing in honor of the Torah or of newlyweds. . . . But all this took place exclusively in the realm of art. After seventeen years in France, Bella Chagall began to describe her youth. She wrote her book in 1939 on the eve of the Second World War. Was it a presentiment of her own death, which came suddenly a few years later? And did she want her own chair in the paradise of art?
We find very little personal experience in Burning Lights. The ego of the author is dissolved in the general atmosphere of a life conducted according to fixed Jewish customs. She sees her childhood swathed in the hot steam of Turkish baths and the heavy fumes of Yom Kippur candles, permeated by the odors of Sukkoth-etrogim and Hanukah latkes, accompanied by the music of the Purim players and Simhath Torah dances. All this is perceived by the mind of a small child, but the child herself does not emerge as an individual. There is scarcely an episode in the whole book that could not have taken place just as well in any other of thousands of Jewish homes. But perhaps the author is not to blame for this lack of individuality.
The classic Yiddish writer Mendele Mocher Sforim wrote about his 19th-century contemporaries: and what a strange people they were! Friday night, wherever they happened to be, they all ate mashed carrots; Saturday after praying they all ate cholnt cooked for eighteen hours, and then indulged themselves in a good bout of sleeping, after which they listened to a preacher’s sermon. . . . Since then, much had changed. But Bella Chagall’s childhood remained within the confines of the old all-embracing customs and traditions. It is a picture of these that her book reveals.
The same thing, more or less, has been done during the last eighty years by almost every Yiddish and Hebrew writer. But the better of them have used this raw material primarily as background, and have not dwelt on it sheerly for its own sake, as Bella Chagall does.
Some critics saw something miraculous in the fact that an “assimilated” Jewish woman, who had written about the “liberation of the Russian peasant” and had frequented the exalted cultural milieux of the West, should all of a sudden sit down to write in Yiddish about Sabbath and the holidays in the old country. Some romantic people may even see in this the finger of God and another proof of the eternity of Israel. But theirs would certainly not be a literary point of view.
Reading the book, one is impressed by its all-pervading anguish and its nostalgia for the old world—emotions that do not get lost in the English translation. The descriptions are picturesque. Streets and houses, animals and inanimate objects, take on soul and personality. This old world is seen not only through the eyes of little Bashke, but also through those of the wife of a great painter. Marc Chagall’s drawings, which accompany the text, evoke the spirit of the epoch in a few strokes.
This book will perhaps be more accessible to average American readers wishing to get acquainted with the old world than are the Yiddish classics, for it is written by someone who also belonged to their world. And its individual chapters would certainly make appropriate reading for the younger generation on the Jewish holidays.