“THE LAST OF THE JUST”: ANDRE SCHWARZ-BART NOVEL FROM 1959

April 17, 2011 at 9:40 am | Posted in Art, Books, History, Judaica, Literary, Philosophy | Leave a comment

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“The Last of The Just”

Lamedvavniks and Tzadikim Nistarim

According to Jewish tradition, 36 “just men” are born in every generation to take the burden of the world’s suffering upon themselves.

The Tzadikim Nistarim (hidden righteous ones) or Lamed Vav Tzadikim (36 righteous ones), often abbreviated to Lamed Vav(niks)[a], refers to 36 Righteous people, a notion rooted within the more mystical dimensions of Judaism. The singular form is Tzadik Nistar.

Origins

The source is the Talmud itself, explained as follows:

As a mystical concept, the number 36 is even more intriguing. It is said that at all times there are 36 special people in the world, and that were it not for them, all of them, if even one of them was missing, the world would come to an end. The two Hebrew letters for 36 are the lamed, which is 30, and the vav, which is 6. Therefore, these 36 are referred to as the Lamed-Vav Tzadikim. This widely-held belief, this most unusual Jewish concept is based on a Talmudic statement to the effect that in every generation 36 righteous “greet the Shechinah,” the Divine Presence (Tractate Sanhedrin 97b; Tractate Sukkah 45b).[1]

Their purpose

Mystical Hasidic Judaism as well as other segments of Judaism believe that there is the Jewish tradition of 36 righteous people whose role in life is to justify the purpose of humankind in the eyes of God. Tradition holds that their identities are unknown to each other and that, if one of them comes to a realization of their true purpose then they may die and their role is immediately assumed by another person:

The Lamed-Vav Tzaddikim are also called the Nistarim (“concealed ones”). In our folk tales, they emerge from their self-imposed concealment and, by the mystic powers, which they possess, they succeed in averting the threatened disasters of a people persecuted by the enemies that surround them. They return to their anonymity as soon as their task is accomplished, ‘concealing’ themselves once again in a Jewish community wherein they are relatively unknown. The lamed-vavniks, scattered as they are throughout the Diaspora, have no acquaintance with one another. On very rare occasions, one of them is ‘discovered’ by accident, in which case the secret of their identity must not be disclosed. The lamed-vavniks do not themselves know that they are ones of the 36. In fact, tradition has it that should a person claim to be one of the 36, that is proof positive that they are certainly not one. Since the 36 are each exemplars of anavah, (“humility”), having such a virtue would preclude against one’s self-proclamation of being among the special righteous. The 36 are simply too humble to believe that they are one of the 36.[1]

Lamedvavniks

Lamedvavnik is the Yiddish term for one of the 36 humble righteous ones or Tzadikim mentioned in kabbalah or Jewish mysticism. According to this teaching, at any given time there are at least 36 holy Jews in the world who are Tzadikim. These holy people are hidden; i.e., nobody knows who they are. According to some versions of the story, they themselves may not know who they are. For the sake of these 36 hidden saints, God preserves the world even if the rest of humanity has degenerated to the level of total barbarism. This is similar to the story of Sodom and Gomorrah in the Hebrew Bible, where God told Abraham that he would spare the city of Sodom if there was a quorum of at least 10 righteous men. Since nobody knows who the Lamedvavniks are, not even themselves, every Jew should act as if he or she might be one of them; i.e., lead a holy and humble life and pray for the sake of fellow human beings. It is also said that one of these 36 could potentially be the Jewish Messiah if the world is ready for them to reveal themselves. Otherwise, they live and die as an ordinary person. Whether the person knows they are the potential Messiah is debated.

The term lamedvavnik is derived from the Hebrew letters Lamed (L) and Vav (V), whose numerical value adds up to 36. The “nik” at the end is a Russian or Yiddish suffix indicating “a person who…” (As in “Beatnik“; in English, this would be something like calling them “The Thirty-Sixers”.) The number 36 is twice 18.

In gematria (a form of Jewish numerology), the number 18 stands for “life”, because the Hebrew letters that spell chai, meaning “living”, add up to 18. Because 36 = 2×18, it represents “two lives”.

In some Hassidic stories, disciples consider their Rebbes and other religious figures to be among the Lamedvavniks. It is also possible for a Lamedvavnik to reveal themselves as such, although that rarely happens—a Lamedvavnik’s status as an exemplar of humility would preclude it. More often, it is the disciples who speculate.

These beliefs are articulated in the works of Max Brod, and some (like Jorge Luis Borges) believe the concept to have originated in the Book of Genesis 18:26

And the Lord said, If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare all the place for their sakes.[2]

Notes

  • a In Hebrew numerals, 30 is lamed  and 6 is vav‎‎. Together they yield 36.

References in popular culture

  • The mystery thriller novel The Righteous Men by Sam Bourne deals with the murder of the righteous ones, one by one, and solving the murders.
  • In “Three Septembers and a January,” from Neil Gaiman‘s comic The Sandman, Death remarks: “they say that the world rests on the backs of 36 living saints – 36 unselfish men and women. Because of them the world continues to exist. They are the secret kings and queens of this world.”

References

  1. 1.                              a b Zwerin, Rabbi Raymond A. (September 15, 2002 / 5763). “THE 36 – WHO ARE THEY?”. Temple Sinai, Denver: americanet.com. Archived from the original on Jan 18, 2003. Retrieved 3 August 2010.
  2. 2.                              “Genesis » Chapter 18”. bible.ort.org. Retrieved 3 August 2010.

The Last of the Just

Andre Schwarz-Bart (Author)

Editorial Reviews

Library Journal

Schwarz-Bart’s 1959 novel is a chronicle of Jewish persecution beginning in England in 1105 and ending with the Holocaust. This book was a huge hit when first released, eventually being translated into several languages. It is both a historical document and a compelling piece of fiction.

Product Description

According to Jewish tradition, 36 “just men” are born in every generation to take the burden of the world’s suffering upon themselves. This book tells the story of two Jews, divided by eight centuries, who are persecuted to death, becoming part of the catastrophic history of the Jewish people.

Product Details:

  • Paperback: 374 pages
  • Publisher: Overlook TP; First Edition
  • January 31, 2000
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 9781585670161
  • ISBN-13: 978-1585670161
  • ASIN: 1585670162

In this classic of 1959 André Schwarz-Bart reworks the Jewish legend of the Lamed Vavs, the handful (36 in most versions of the story) of Just or Righteous Men who live among the Jews in every generation and who provide the merit on which the world depends. The tradition dates back to the 5th century Babylonian Talmud. It was elaborated by kabbalistic Jews in the 16th and 17th century and by Hassidic Jews in the 18th century: the Lamed Vavs are humble men and unnoticed as special by their fellow Jews. At times of great peril, so this version has it, “a Lamed Vavnik makes a dramatic appearance, using his hidden powers to defeat the enemies of Israel or mankind” (Encyclopedia Judaica).

Schwarz-Bart was born in France and lost most of the members of his family in the Holocaust.

Schwarz-Bart imagines the story of the Levys, one family in which the role of the Just Man was hereditary. They have suffered death down the ages, beginning with the massacre of the Jews of York in 1185. In later generations this wandering Jewish family suffers at the hands of the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions; they are expelled from one area after another; the Cossacks add their contribution; and when we come to the late 19th century, the family leaves its home in Zemyock in Russian Poland and settles in Germany. At this stage there are three generations: at the head of it is Mordecai, the venerable patriarch, who accepts that all suffering is part of God’s will and who tells his family that there is no point in putting up any resistance. His son Benjamin thinks there is an escape in trying to merge into German society; but the Patriarch tells the story of the Just Men to his frail and scholarly little grandson, Ernie. Ernie lives in his own intensely active and romantic imagination, and, with the arrival of the Nazis in 1933, he is convinced that he is to be the next Just Man.

The remaining two thirds of the book deal with Ernie’s life from that time onwards. There are terrible scenes of brutality – gangs of Nazis attacking Jews as they go to the synagogue, atrocious bullying of the Jewish children by a teacher and by their fellow-students. Ernie’s life is full of suffering and strengthens his conviction that the calling of being Just Man has indeed fallen upon him. The scenes of cruelty are interspersed with the vivid poetical and mystical nature of Ernie’s imagination. With one terrible exception when he is in utter despair – a touch of human nature which rescues the portrait of him from being just too accepting – he identifies with suffering everywhere, not just among the Jews; he is open to the beauties of the earth amid all the horrors that rage upon its surface. It is this lyrical element of the book which sets it apart from so many other accounts of what happened to the Jews under Nazi persecution.

Before the gates of the prison that was Nazi Germany finally slammed shut, the Levy family managed to emigrate to France, only to be trapped there when the war broke out. Ernie volunteers for the French army, though in a non-combatant role as a stretcher-bearer. The horrors of war are described, not with the excruciating detail with which the author had dealt with the brutality in Germany, but with Voltairian brevity and irony.

After the defeat of the French Army, Ernie manages to get into Vichy France. The instinct for survival overcomes for a while his mission to become a martyr: he converts, he attends Mass, he fornicates, he nearly begins to lose his Jewish appearance; but in his ever fertile fantasy he sees himself as a dog and sometimes literally behaves like one. Anyway, his disguise does not work: he is recognized as a Jew, and with that moment he recovers for himself his Jewish identity.

He makes his way back to the Jewish quarter of Paris where he finds four devout old men from Zemyock who have not yet been deported. Before his own deportation, old Mordecai had told them that he believed his grandson to be one of the Just Men. Ernie is now treated by them with the utmost reverence, and he becomes conscious again of his destiny.

But what will drive him to seek entry into the hell of Drancy and the extinction that awaits in Auschwitz is not the consciousness that he is one of the Just Men, but something altogether less mystical, more human. At one point in the heart-wrenching last pages, Ernie`s compassion makes him tell the terrified children in the cattle-truck that they will soon be in the Kingdom where “an eternal joy will crown your heads; cheerfulness and gaiety will come and greet you, and all the pains and all the moans will run away.” He is reproved by an old woman for not telling them the truth. He replies, “There is no room for truth here”. So will they find the truth in the next world? Will they find an answer to the question that, in his dreams, he heard a fiddler sing:

“Oh, can we rise as far as heaven
To ask God why things are as they are?”

The Last of the Just  

In 1959 The Last of the Just won the Prix Goncourt, the top literary award of France (the French Booker). A sweeping epic of a thousand years of Jewish life in Europe, the novel traces the fortunes and tragedies of one family with a special heritage. A member of each generation of the family is one of the 36 just men that Jewish tradition claims feel the suffering and pain of all the living, and without whom the world could not go on. Since the Jewish word for 36 is lamed vov, these men are often called Lamed Vovniks.

This strange and singular honor was attributed to the Levy family in 1085 following an attempt by the Bishop William of Nordhouse to massacre the Jewish citizens of York. To save his people, the Rabbi Yom Tov Levy leads them to an abandoned tower where they withhold a siege of six days by the local Christians. Rather than succumb to the indignities of their captors, the Jews decide to take their own lives. As was done in Massada a thousand years earlier, the Rabbi takes on the role of blessing and killing each of the members of his community and then taking his own life. Some of the children, including the rabbi’s son Solomon, survive. When Solomon becomes a man he has a vision from God where he is told that, because of his father’s noble act, beginning with him, each generation of his family will contain one of the Lamed-Vovniks.

The first 140 pages of this book presents a history of the Levy family, their lineage of Lamed-Vovniks, and their fame in the Jewish community. The last three hundred pages tells the story of Ernie Levy, who is born in the Twentieth Century, during the events leading up to and in the Holocaust.

Sweeping in scope and yet focused on the life of a single man, this book presents the joys of Jewish community life and the accomodations they make to survive being a European minority marked for extermination by the Christian majority. It presents European history from a Jewish perspective and provides a detailed background to the insanity that is the Holocaust.

The point of view is that of a family of holy men whose compassion and wisdom gives the story great depth and understanding. Sadly, the Levy Lamed-Vovniks are all male. While the women of the story are well portrayed and strong personalities, they are never the main characters so the book has a decidedly male perspective. 

There are in the world 36 `just men’ that take on the suffering of the world, that are the reasons God allows the world to continue. There are among these men, some number of `unknown just’ who see the world differently from most of us.

That when one of these `unknown just’ dies his soul is so cold that God must hold him in his fingers for a thousand years so that he can open to paradise.

Ernie Levy in The Last of the Just is one of those men. A thousand years of history, two thousand years of suffering are all concentrated in the story of one boy, the movement of a family from Poland, to Germany, to France, to extermination. The story of a people, the story of a family, the story of a man, the story of the twentieth century.

The Last of the Just

Since the Palestinians are today’s “Jews”, “The Last of the Just” should impel all Jews to support the Palestinians.

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