Free sample chapter: “Scenes of Jewish Life in Alsace – Village Tales from 19th-Century France”

The Between Wanderings Collection has published a new English translation of Auguste Widal’s charming book Scenes of Jewish Life in Alsace. Below is a free sample chapter.

Widal grew up in a largely Yiddish-speaking village in 1830s France, and his stories evoke a rural Jewish world that was vanishing quickly. The tales first appeared in the French Jewish magazine Archives Israélites starting in 1849. The author revised and expanded them for a mainstream French magazine in the late 1850s and for this book in 1860, both under the pen name Daniel Stauben.

This translation restores the Yiddishisms and Jewish wording that the author deleted when reworking the stories for a largely Gentile audience. The edition also adds illustrations by Alphonse Lévy, a 19th-century Alsatian Jewish artist whose drawings and etchings mesh perfectly with these tales.


CHAPTER ONE

Shabbes fish

IT WAS NOVEMBER OF 1856. An invitation from an old friend brought me back to Alsace, to scenes of village life I had known first as a small boy and which I now witnessed again years later with great emotion. As it happened, this short first trip gave me a chance to observe not only the curious characters who populate rural Jewish society in Alsace, but also some striking religious rituals: Friday’s and Saturday’s Sabbath observances, followed by a wedding and later a funeral. These episodes all happened in the order presented here. Imagination played no part in the many events I shall narrate.

The village of Bollwiller, with its large Jewish population, lies a short distance from Mulhouse. Bollwiller is home to Papa Salomon, a handsome old man of seventy whose face exudes wit and warmth. Papa Salomon was to be my host, so I set out from Mulhouse to Bollwiller one Friday afternoon late enough to avoid reaching the village before around four o’clock. Arriving earlier would have disrupted their preparations for Shabbes—the Sabbath. On Fridays, women and girls in Jewish villages do double duty: the Laws of Moses forbid handling fire on the Sabbath, and so besides supper they must also prepare meals for the next day. As I still recalled, Friday mornings and afternoons are hard work, but the evening is one of those rare moments of rest when a Jewish community fully displays its true spirit. For these good folk, when the last rays of the Friday sun fade, so do all the worries, all the sorrows and all the troubles of the week. People say that the Danyes Vage (Wagon of Worries) travels through the hamlets each night, leaving the next day’s allotment of grief on poor humanity’s doorstep. But they also say that this wagon, a painful symbol of country life, halts on Fridays at the edge of each village and will not rattle into motion again until the next evening. Friday is everyone’s night of joy and ease. This is when the unhappy peddlers that you see all week with a staff in their hand and a bundle of merchandise—their whole fortune!—bending their back as they trudge up hills and down valleys, living on water and brown bread… On this evening, without fail, those peddlers will have their barches (white bread), their wine, their beef and fish. In summer, they will lounge in the doorway of their home in shirtsleeves and slippers, and in winter, they will sit behind a nice hot stove in a jacket and a cotton cap. On a Sabbath Eve, yesterday’s deprived peddler would not change places with a king. Continue reading

Purim on enemy lines: a French Army rabbi and a minyan of Algerian soldiers celebrate at the front (1915)

Zouave soldiers crossing a river in northern France in World War I, preparing to attack German trenches. A large minority of the North African Zouaves were Jewish. [Image from the London periodical The Graphic, April 10, 1915.]


Today’s “guest blogger” from the past is a rabbi who served in World War I. Under the pen name “A Jewish Chaplain” (“Un Aumônier Israelite”), he wrote articles about his wartime experiences for the French Jewish magazine L’Univers Israélite.

In 1915, he was chaplain to the Jews in an Algerian division of Zouaves (French light-infantry forces, originally recruited from African countries that France had invaded and colonized). Below, our anonymous rabbi tells us how he and his minyan sought Purim joy and comfort in perilous conditions, close to the front line.


Memories of Purim at the front

(L’Univers Israélite, March 24, 1916.
Translation from French ©2017 by Steven Capsuto.)

Circumstances keep me from celebrating Purim among soldiers this year, and so my thoughts return to a year ago when I was just starting out as a chaplain.

I arrived at the front a few days before Purim. At my request, I had been assigned to an Algerian division. I suspected there must be a number of our believers there, but I did not know any of them and did not know how to find them. I considered trying an approach that had served me well a few weeks earlier in Saint-Denis, when I had wanted to identify some Jews among the Zouaves stationed there. I had posted myself outside the door to their quarters, and each time a Zouave came out, I would ask, “Do you know Shema Yisrael?” “No, I don’t,” replied one. “Which company is he in?” asked another. “I knew someone with a name like that, but he’s not here anymore.” After other disheartening responses, finally one Zouave’s eyes lit up at my question, letting me know he had understood. Through him, I met other Algerian Jews, but one after the other, they were all Continue reading