The Books of Jacob
Jennifer Croft is the recipient of a 2015 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant for The Books of Jacob, for which Polish author Olga Tokarczuk was awarded the 2015 Nike Literature Award, Poland’s highest literary honor. Croft’s translation brings to life the historical figure of Jacob Frank, the Messianic leader of a mysterious 18th-century Jewish splinter group that believed in “purification through transgression.” Read Croft’s essay on translating The Books of Jacob here.
On Moliwda’s Visit to Iwanie
Moliwda sets out from Warsaw for Lwów when the ice on the roads re-solidifies, leaving them traversable once more. After his meeting with Archbishop Łubieński, he is taken to Iwanie by a priest named Zwierzchowski who has been assigned to anti-Talmudists. The priest gives him a whole chest full of catechisms and instructional pamphlets, as well as rosaries and religious medallions. Moliwda feels like one of those street vendors saddled down with all different types of devotional objects. Separately packed in tows is a figurine of the Virgin Mary, carved a little clumsily out of linden and brightly painted, for Mrs. Frank from Mrs. Kossakowska, as a gift and a memento.
He arrives in Iwanie on March 9, 1759, and no sooner has he arrived than he is overcome by feeling—for in Iwanie he sees the image of his own little village near Craiova, containing all the same elements, just colder and so not quite as cozy. The atmosphere is the same, a constant holiday, which the weather even seems to further: there is a slight frost, and way up in the sky the cold sun casts down bright, chilly beams. The world looks cleansed. People make tracks upon the white snow, so you can follow them wherever they go. Moliwda thinks how snow keeps life more honest: everything is somehow more distinct, and every rule applies more absolutely. These people who meet him in Iwanie look radiant and happy despite the brevity of the day. Children with puppies in their arms come running up to his carriage, along with women flushed from work, men flashing big grins. Smoke rises in straight vertical lines from the chimneys, as though a sacrifice made in that spot were now being met with unconditional acceptance.
Jacob greets Moliwda ceremoniously, but once they are inside his little shack, and once they are alone, Jacob fishes out Moliwda’s stocky figure from inside his wolf fur and holds him for a long while, patting him on the back and repeating, in Polish, “You came back, you came back.”
They’re all here: the Schorr brothers—though not the father, who somehow hasn’t quite recovered from that beating—as well as Yehuda Krysa and his brother and brother-in-law. Nachman is here, newly married to some young girl (marrying at that age is barbaric, Moliwda thinks), Moshe in the fumes, the other Moshe, the Kabbalist, with his whole family—everyone. Now they crowd into this little chamber, where the windows have frozen into a pretty pattern.
At the welcome banquet Jacob sits in the middle of the table, beneath a window, which frames him from behind like he’s a picture. Jacob against the black backdrop of night. Everybody takes each other’s hands. Everybody takes a good look at everybody else, as though they haven’t seen one another in ages and ages. Then there is a solemn prayer, which by now Moliwda knows by heart; after a moment’s hesitation he joins in. Then they converse, at length and in chaos, in all different languages. Moliwda’s fluent Turkish wins over Osman’s somewhat suspicious followers, who look and act like Turks although they drink almost as much as the Podolians. Jacob is in a good mood. He is vibrant; one takes pleasure in observing the enthusiasm with which he eats. He praises the dishes, tells stories that elicit bursts of laughter.
Moliwda used to wonder whether Jacob would be able to feel fear. He ultimately decided that Jacob could never have known the feel of fear, as though he’d simply been born without it. This gives Jacob strength: people can sense that absence of fear, and that absence of fear in turn becomes contagious. And since the Jews are always afraid—whether of a Polish lord, or of a Cossack, or of injustice or hunger or cold—they live in a state of extreme uncertainty, from which Jacob is a kind of salvation. The absence of fear is like a halo that radiates a warmth from which you can heat back up a chilled and frightened little soul. Blessed are those who feel no fear. And although Jacob often repeats that they are in limbo, they are comfortable enough in limbo.
When Jacob disappears for even just a moment, conversations come apart, no longer laced with the same energy as when he’s there. His mere presence is enough to instill order; eyes travel to him involuntarily, like moths to flames. And so it is now. Jacob is the focal point of the evening. Jacob glows. Late at night they start to dance, first the men alone, in a circle, as though in a kind of trance. When, exhausted, they return to the table, two women come out to dance in their stead. One of these women will spend the night with Moliwda.
In the evening, Moliwda gives a solemn reading to the company assembled of the letter he’d dashed off a few days earlier to the Polish king, in the name of these Wallachian, Turkish, and Polish brothers:
Jacob Joseph Frank departed with his wife, children, and more than 60 other persons from the Turkish and Wallachian lands, barely escaping with his life, for having lost all his worldly possessions, and knowing only his mother tongue and some dialects of the East, and knowing not the customs of this most glorious Kingdom and having thus no means to live within it, neither him nor his people, whom, even being so numerous, he had brought over to the true faith, now supplicates your Royal Highness in all His Compassion for a place and a mode of sustenance for our society…
Here Moliwda clears his throat and pauses; a doubt flickers through his mind, and he wonders if this letter is not somewhat disrespectful. What could the king care about them, when his own subjects—those peasants born Christians, those multitudes of beggars, orphaned children, hapless cripples—needed help?
…so that we might now settle down in peace, for to live with Talmudists is unbearable to us, and a danger, insofar as that intolerant nation has never learned to think of us as anything other than wrong-faithed schismatics, etc.
Unheedful of the law given to this land by Your Excellency, they are everywhere and at every moment persecuting, pillaging, and attacking us, as was exemplified not long ago in Podolia, so near your Majesty Himself…
From the back of the room comes a single sob. It is followed by others.
Thus we request that Your Majesty appoint a commission in Kamieniec and in Lwów, that our rightful belongings might be returned us, our wives and children given back, and that the decree from Kamieniec be observed in a manner that is satisfactory, and we entreat Your Royal Highness to condescend to proclaim in a public letter that our brothers in hiding might come forth, with their thirst for faith akin to our own, that they might make themselves known without fear; that the lords of these locales might be an aid in the acceptance of the holy faith, and were the Talmudists to inflict any oppressions therefrom resulting, that these same brothers might be helped in reaching safety, as to unite with our society.
His listeners like his ornate style. Moliwda, greatly pleased with himself, now reclines atop the carpets—for since Hana’s arrival Jacob has inhabited a larger residence, which Hana has furnished according to the Turkish custom. It’s a bit incongruous in that outside there is snow, and gusts of wind. The dwelling’s little windows are almost entirely covered over with powdery blown snow. As soon as the door is opened a fresh dusting enters the interior, which smells of coffee and licorice. And it had seemed only a few days earlier that spring had arrived.
“I’ll spend a couple of days here with you all,” says Moliwda. “It reminds me of Smyrna.”
Moliwda means it. He feels more at home among these Jews than he does in Warsaw, where they don’t even know how to prepare coffee correctly, pouring too much, watering it down, which then causes heartburn and anxiety. Here you can sit on the floor or on bowed benches at low tables where coffee is served in teensy tiny cups, as though for little elves. And here they provide him with decent Hungarian wine.
Hana comes in and greets Moliwda warmly, handing him Jacob’s daughter, little Eve. The child is quiet, calm. She seems intimidated by Moliwda’s great red beard. She looks at him unblinking, as though trying to determine who exactly he might be.
“She seems to have fallen in love with Uncle Moliwda,” laughs Jacob. But then that evening, when it’s just the five of them—with Osman, Chaim of Warsaw, and Nachman—and once they’ve opened up their third jug of wine, Jacob points a finger in Moliwda’s face and says, “You saw my daughter. Know that she is a queen.”
They all nod agreeably, but this is not the reaction that Jacob desires.
“Do not think, Moliwda, that I mean merely that she’s good-looking.”
There is a brief silence.
“No,” Jacob continues. “She truly is a queen. You don’t even realize yet just how great a queen she is.”
Once it’s down to a smaller group of brothers, Moliwda—before he gets particularly drunk—gives the others an update on their efforts with Archbishop Łubieński. They’re on the right track, although the Archbishop still has doubts as to whether their hearts are truly and fully with the Church. The next letter Moliwda will write will be on behalf of Krysa and Shlomo Schorr, to make the Archbishop believe that there are many among them who wish to be baptized.
“You’re very clever, Moliwda,” Nachman of Busko says to him, patting him on the back. Everyone has made fun of Nachman ever since his second marriage—for his childlike bride totters around after him wherever he will go. Nachman, meanwhile, seems somewhat terrified of his own marriage.
Moliwda suddenly bursts out laughing.
“We never had our own savages like the French and the English did with their Bushmen and their Pygmies. These Polish lords would love to draw you all—their very own savages—into their fold.”
The Georgian wine that arrived with Hana’s carriages is clearly working now. They talk over one another.
“…and that’s why you were going behind our backs to Bishop Dembowski?” Shlomo Schorr is saying in a rage to Krysa, grabbing him by his somewhat sullied stock tie. “That’s why you were bothering with him on your own, so that you could get his favors for yourself, right? And that’s why you were going back to Czarnokozińce for letters from the bishop that would grand you safe conduct. Was he promising you that?”
“Oh yes, he always promised me that we’d gain independence within the Kingdom. There was never any mention of baptism. And we ought to keep it that way. After he died it all fell apart. And you idiots are clamoring for baptism like starving pigs. That was never part of it!” Krysa leaps up and slams his fist up into the ceiling. “Afterwards somebody sicked some thugs on me that beat me within an inch of my life.”
“You are despicable, Krysa,” says Shlomo Schorr. On pronouncing these words he walks straight out into the snowstorm. Snow flies inside through the briefly opened doorway, melting on impact with the floor’s fresh spruce covering.
“I agree with Krysa,” says Yeruchim. Others nod at this; they can wait on baptism.
Here Moliwda chimes in: “You’re right, Krysa, in that here in Poland no one is going to give full rights to the Jews. Either you become Catholic or you remain nothing. Now their graces back you up with gold, because you’re against the other Jews, but if you were to want to go off somewhere and get set up with your own religion, they’d hound you about it right away. And they’d keep at it till they had you prostrate in their church. Anybody who thinks otherwise is mistaken. Before you there were heterodox Christians, Arians, innocuous people who were much closer in terms of their religion than you all. And they were tormented until they were finally driven out altogether. They had everything taken away from them, and they were either killed or driven out.
He says this in a sepulchral time. Krysa cries again: “You all want to go straight into the belly of that beast, that Leviathan…”
“Moliwda’s right,” says Nachman. “There’s no other option besides baptism. Even if it’s just for the sake of appearances,” he adds under his breath, glancing hesitantly at Moliwda, who has just lit his pipe. He lets out a cloud of smoke that obscures his face for a moment.
“If it’s just for the sake of appearances, you’ll have to prepare yourselves for them to be sniffing around among you from now on.”
There is a prolonged silence.
“You guys have a different system for copulation. You don’t see anything wrong with a husband sleeping with his wife, nothing shameful,” he says, now rather drunk, once he and Jacob are alone, squatting in Jacob’s shack, wrapped in sheepskin coats, because the poorly sealed windows let in the cold.
Jacob has eased off the alcohol by this time. “I like it that way,” he says. “It’s more human. People who have intercourse get closer to each other.”
“Since you can sleep with other men’s women, while no one sleeps with yours, they all know that you are the one in charge,” says Moliwda, “the way it works with lions.”
This comparison seems to please Jacob. He smiles a mysterious smile and starts to fill his pipe. Then he gets up and says he’s going out for a moment. He doesn’t return for a long while. That’s the way he is: unpredictable. You never know what he’ll do next. By the time he comes back in, Moliwda is very drunk indeed, and he insists on continuing the conversation:
“And how you decide who’s going to be with who, and you make them do it with candles lit—I know why you do that. Because of course it could be done discreetly, in the dark, everyone with the person of their choosing… But this is how you conquer them and bind them together so tightly that they’ll be closer than family, greater than family. They will have a common secret, they’ll know each other better than anyone, and as you know well, the human spirit is inclined to love, to loving, to connection. There’s nothing more powerful in the world. And they’ll say nothing about it. They have to have a reason to keep quiet—they have to have something to keep quiet about.”
Jacob lies down on the bed on his back and inhales the familiar-scented smoke that immediately makes Moliwda remember Georgian nights.
“And then there are children, of course. What ultimately ends up happening is shared children. How do you know that that young thing that lay with you last night won’t have a child soon? And whose will it be? Her husband’s or yours? That binds them together tightly, too, since that way they’re all fathers. Whose child is Shlomo’s youngest daughter?” asks Moliwda, now absolutely intoxicated.
Jacob lifts his head and looks at Moliwda for a moment; Moliwda’s eyes have softened, clouded.
“Shut up,” says Jacob. “That’s none of your business.”
“Oh I see,” says Moliwda, “now it’s not my business, but when you want a village from the bishop, then it is my business.” He reaches for the pipe, as well. “It’s a good system. The child belongs to the mother, and thus to the mother’s husband, too. It’s mankind’s greatest invention. It means that only women have access to that truth that excites so many.”
That night they go to bed drunk, sleeping in the same room because neither wants to go out in search of the way to his own bed, with the blizzard that is raging around the town. Moliwda turns to Jacob, not knowing if he’s asleep yet or not, or if he can hear him—his eyes are partly closed, but the lamplight is reflected in the slender glassy strips below his lashes. Moliwda feels that he is talking to Jacob, but maybe he isn’t talking at all—maybe it only feels that way—and he doesn’t know if Jacob is listening.
“You always said she was either pregnant or in confinement. And these long pregnancies and long confinements meant that she was always unavailable, but in the end you had to release even her from the women’s rooms; you, too, must be bound by the same justice you impose on everyone else. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
Jacob doesn’t react. He’s lying on his back, his nose pointing straight to the ceiling.
“I watched you communicating by glances on the road, you and her. And she was telling you no. Am I right? And your glance also said no. But now that will mean something more. I’m waiting, I’m asking you for that same justice with which you handle your own people. I’m one of you now, too. And I’m asking for your Chaya.”
There is a silence.
“You have all the women here, they’re all yours, and all the men, body and soul. I understand—you all are something greater than a group of people with the same goal; you’re something greater than a family, because you are bound together by all the sins that are forbidden to a family. You’re bound by saliva and semen, not just blood. Those ties are strong. They bring you closer together than ever before. That’s how it was at home in Craiova, too. Why should we submit to laws we don’t believe in, laws that are incompatible with the religion of nature?”
Moliwda jabs him in the shoulder, and Jacob exhales.
“You embolden your people to be with one another but not like they want, not just following the call of nature—you decide, because you are their nature.”
He’s mumbling by the last sentence. He can tell that Jacob is asleep now, so he stops talking, disappointed by the lack of reaction he’s received. Jacob’s face is relaxed and calm—he clearly heard nothing because he wouldn’t be smiling that way if he had. He is beautiful. It occurs to Moliwda that he is like a patriarch even though he is young, his beard still black, without a trace of gray, flawless, and Moliwda thinks he must be catching this same Iwanie madness, because he also sees a kind of glow around Jacob’s head, just like Nachman had told him so excitedly—Nachman, who now also calls himself Jakubowski, after Jacob. Suddenly Moliwda thinks of kissing Jacob’s lips. He hesitates for a moment and touches his fingers to Jacob’s mouth, but even that does not awaken him. Jacob simply smacks his lips and rolls over.
In the morning they have to shovel the snow in front of the door, because the drift is too deep for them to be able to get outside.
Polish author Olga Tokarczuk’s books have been translated into Bulgarian, Catalan, Chinese, Czech, Danish, Dutch, Estonian, Finnish, French, German, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Lithuanian, Macedonian, Norwegian, Romanian, Russian, Serbo-Croatian, Spanish, Swedish, and Ukrainian. In 2015 alone she has won the Nike Prize, Brueckepreis, and the prestigious annual literary award from Poland’s Ministry of Culture and National Heritage, and been shortlisted for the Angelus Central European Literature Award, among other honors.
Jennifer Croft is the recipient of Fulbright, PEN, and National Endowment for the Arts grants, as well as the Michael Henry Heim Prize, and her translations from Polish, Spanish, and Ukrainian have appeared in The New York Times, n+1, Electric Literature, BOMB, The New Republic and elsewhere. She holds a PhD from Northwestern University and an MFA from the University of Iowa. She is a founding editor of The Buenos Aires Review.
This piece is part of PEN’s 2015 PEN/Heim Translation Series, which features excerpts and essays from recipients of this year’s PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grants.
This translation is available for publication. Publishers and editors who wish to express interest in this project are invited to contact PEN Literary Awards Coordinator Arielle Anema (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Translation Fund Advisory Board Chair Michael F. Moore (email@example.com) for the translator’s contact information.
Since 2009, the Fund’s annual contribution for grant awards has been augmented by support from Amazon.