Celebrating Jewish Literature: The Prague Ghetto and Chelm

By Rabbi Rachel Esserman

When writing Jewish fiction, one important consideration is the general tone of the work. Of course, that decision may be partly based on when a particular story or novel was written. Take, for example, Siegfried Kapper’s “Tales of the Prague Ghetto” (Karolinum Press) and Izzy Abrahmson’s “The Village Twins” (Light Publications): The tone of the former book is very dark, while the latter offers humor with a touch of seriousness. This could be attributed to the fact that the latter book appeared more than 150 years after the former. 

The reason for the darkness in Kapper’s work is easy to understand: his stories originally appeared in the 1840s, when Jewish life was far more difficult than today. According to the short biography included, Kapper worked for Jewish emancipation and to advance Jewish culture. While his short works (the three stories are only 60 pages combined) are fiction, he based them on the reality of Jewish life in his time.

“Genenda: From Prague Ghetto’s Olden Days” is the opposite of a fairy tale: all the characters live unhappily ever after. At first, though, it seems a wonderful love story: Genenda is the only child of Rabbi Baruch, a cantor who brings joy to others with his singing. When David approaches Rabbi Baruch to learn his music, it seems like the rabbi and his daughter have found someone to make both their lives better. But appearances are deceiving and the result brings harm to all three characters.

“The Strange Guest” is not any cheerier: in it, readers learn the unhappy story of why a man chose to spend his life as caretaker of a cemetery. A supernatural element occurs in “Glowing Coals,” which is another deadly love story. Its end also condemns the characters to either death or mourning.

Kapper is an excellent writer if one can tolerate the dismal outlook of “Tales of the Prague Ghetto.” The stories are worth reading, though, for the author’s literary skill and his view of Jewish life and folk tales of the 19th century.

While the tone of “Tales of the Prague Ghetto” is grim, the opposite is true of “The Village Twins,” which is a novel about the village of Chelm, where things are often done backwards. Although it seemed odd that a Chelm story – which are usually short – could fill 400 pages of text, Abrahmson manages to pull it off. The novel includes humor, an interesting – if a bit unusual – plot and characters to cheer for. 

The village twins Abraham and Adam – the sons of Rebecca and Jacob Schlemiel – are impossible for most people to tell apart, including their parents. They often pretend to be each other in order to play jokes on their family, friends and teachers, although this does create problems as they get older. It’s also the cause of many adventures, including dealings with a deadly gang of robbers. One wonderful character is the town’s rabbi – Rabbi Kibbitz – who has some of the best lines in the book, although they are best appreciated in context. Things do get a bit more serious when it comes to the twins’ love lives – and when the Russian army comes calling looking for soldiers. While the characters border on caricature, they never cross the line. 

“The Village Twins” is easy to read: there are few descriptions and a great deal of dialogue. The tangles and twists of the story may not always be completely believable, but they are certainly a great deal of fun.