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Петокнижие Исааково
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978-954-529-951-3
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5 6
Format
Hardback
Size
13/20
Weight
292 gr.
Pages
216
Published
21 September 2011

Isaac's Torah

The Bulgarian author and screenwriter Wagenstein devotes his powerful novel to an affable Jewish tailor from a small town in Eastern Europe who survives the reigns of Hitler and Stalin. Wagenstein himself escaped from a concentration camp and was saved from execution when the Soviets entered Bulgaria. Half a century later, he creates self-effacing narrator Isaac Jacob Blumenfeld, threading Jewish jokes throughout the narrative not only to sweeten the bitter material but also because they encapsulate the humanistic foundation of Isaac's philosophy. Isaac's town of Kolodetz in the Austro-Hungarian empire becomes part of Poland, then the U.S.S.R., before being overtaken by Nazi Germany and eventually reclaimed by the Soviets. He is drafted into military service by each of his first three motherlands. The Germans invade, and Isaac, posing as a Pole, is sent to a Nazi labor camp. Inadvertently revealing himself as a Jew, he ends up in a concentration camp, after which the liberating Soviets exile him to Siberia. Isaac's mesmerizing voice charms through every disaster, and engages and delights the reader without distracting from Wagenstein's profound insights into life's absurdities.

“He couldn’t care about politics, but unfortunately politics showed a growing interest in him.” Always there are the Yiddish jokes, even at the most hopeless times; in fact, in Wagenstein’s engaging historical novel, the wry humor reveals both the unbelievable horrors of history and fleeting moments of transcendence. Born in the Kolodetz shtetl when it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire before World War I, the novel’s narrator, Blumenfeld, becomes a citizen of five countries, without ever changing where he lives, except when he is moved to Nazi concentration camps and then to a Soviet labor camp. Beyond what he calls today’s “Holocaust blather” with its “air-conditioned and aromatic criteria and values” are the facts, including that his wife and children never returned from the camps. Can one man be a Jew and a Nazi war criminal and a Soviet traitor? The jokes that pepper the text make you read them aloud, as do the wise comments of the rabbi who teaches Blumenfeld that meaning is in the searching and not in the finding. Great for reading groups. --Hazel Rochman

About the Author
Angel  Wagenstein

Angel Raymond Wagenstein (born October 17, 1922) is a Bulgarian film director and author. Wagenstein was born in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, but spent his childhood in France where his Sephardic Jewish family emigrated for political reasons due to their leftist politics.

Angel Wagenstein returned to Bulgaria due to an amnesty, and as a student at a lyceum, where he joined an anti-fascist group. For his acts of sabotage, he was arrested and condemned to death in 1944, and it was the invasion of the Soviet Red Army that saved him from execution.

After completing a degree in 1950 in film screenwriting at the S. A. Gerasimov All-Union State Institute for Cinematography in Moscow, he worked as a screenplay writer for the Bulgarian Cinematography Center and for the DEFA Film Studio (the former East Germany Cinematography Center). He is an author of over fifty screenplays for films, documentaries and cartoons. He became famous with his movies about Bulgarian Communists, especially guerrillas.

His film Stars, shot in 1959 by the German director Konrad Wolf, was awarded the Special Prize of the Jury at the Cannes Film Festival.

His fiction includes the triptych „Петокнижие Исааково” (Isaac's Torah), „Далеч от Толедо” (Far from Toledo) and „Сбогом, Шанхай” (Farewell, Shanghai), which have been published both separately and together not only in Bulgarian but also in French, German, Russian, English, Czech, Polish, Macedonian, Spanish, Italian and Hebrew. Far from Toledo was awarded in 2002 the Alberto Benveniste annual prize of the Sorbonne, while his novel Farewell Shanghai received the Jean Monnet Prize of European literature in 2004. The French government awarded Angel Wagenstein the high distinction of Chevalier of the French Order of Merit, and later Chevalier of Arts and Literature. He is also the bearer of the highest Bulgarian distinction – the Stara Planina Order. In 2009 he was made honorary citizen of the city of Plovdiv.

Excerpt

“Isaac’s Torah”, a novel by Angel Wagenstein

Our tailoring workshop, “Mode Parisienne”, was located on the main and almost only street in Kolodetz – a small town, miastechko in Polish, and shtetl in our language. We didn’t have a proper display window, just a low pane with glued-on scraps cut out from Paris and Vienna fashion magazines with elegant gentlemen in tuxedos and exquisite Viennese ladies in pink, though as far as I can remember we never tailored a single tuxedo or lady’s pink garment. My father was mostly involved in turning old worn-out caftans inside out and was happy as a child when, at the fitting, in front of the mirror, the clothing, turned inside out for a second time, looked as if it were new – or at least this is what he’d say through his tightly pressed lips, which were holding an incredible number of pins. He was a good tailor and here’s the place for me to mention his favorite story about how one time he’tailored a red uniform for a dragoon from His Majesty ‘s Lifeguards (I personally have never seen dragoons in our Kolodetz) and how the client was very satisfied as he looked in the mirror, but said, “I don’t understand why you needed a whole month for a simple uniform when your Jewish God created the whole world in six days!” My father replied, “But look at His work, Officer sir, and look at this wonderful uniform!”
I was eighteen years old, helping out my father in the workshop, screaking out Jewish songs on the violin for celebrations and weddings, and reading selected chapters from the Tanakh, in other words the Five Books, to the children at the synagogue school, in our language the Beys Medresh, every Friday. As for the reading – I was reading all right, and reading, as they say, with passion and heart, but I wouldn’t claim I was a Kogan at the violin. I was learning to play with the good old teacher Eliezer Pinkus, God rest his soul, he was a kind man and remarkably tactful, but one time he couldn’t hold it in anymore and carefully said to my father: “Please, don’t be offended but your Itzik has no ear for music…”, at which my father angrily asked, “But why does he need an ear? He won’t be listening, he’ll be playing!” And how right my father was, for now I was more or less playing, or rather screaking out, as I have already indicated, the violin that my dear Uncle Chaim gave me on my bar mitzvah, that is my religious coming of age, on my thirteenth birthday.
I was a dreamy boy, and traveled in my dreams all the way to Vienna, and it wasn’t only once that my father Aaron, or Ari Blumenfeld, pulled me out of these sweet journeys by his wooden tailor’s measuring stick, so that I would find myself  all of a sudden back again in Kolodetz by Drogobych, sitting at the table, with a needle stuck in an unfinished sleeve. In my dreams I was always wearing one of those spiffy Parisian tuxedos from the magazines, stepping down from a fiacre and extending my hand to help a lovely lady in a pink dress, then bowing to kiss tender and soft hand, but always right at this moment my father would smack me on the head with the measuring stick and so I never the rest of this story, neither who this wonderful lady was nor why I was helping her step down from the fiacre. I probably saw this scene somewhere in the movies.
Now, I remember about the movies. Sometimes, in a horse cart, all the way down from Lemberg, that is, Lvov, Mr. Liova Weissmann would visit. A journalist, newspaper publisher and owner of a movie projector, he was selling his newspaper, Yiddishe Heimland, and in the evening he’d show films at David Leibovich’s café. These were always films, or parts of films, about wonderful distant worlds, inhabited by divinely beautiful women, who lowered their eyelids when gallant cavaliers kissed them on the lips. We were uneducated and too simple to understand such high-class plots; moreover, Mr. Weissman, in the on-going war situation, was getting those films from god knows where, and their subtitles (at that time cinematography was silent and subtitled) were in Danish, Flemish, Swedish, and one time in Japanese or something like that – and in Kolodetz by Drogobych no one spoke those languages, especially Japanese. Only Avramchik the postman, who had fought in the Russo-Turkish war as a signalman, claimed he could understand Turkish, but unfortunately we never happened to get a Turkish film. And one time, I remember, we were watching quite a long piece that was turned upside down, when somebody tried to whistle in protest and to stomp his feet, but Mr. Weissmann anglily said that this is how the film was and he was in a hurry to get back before the night caught him. And so, the gorgeous ladies and gentlemen were kissing with their heads upside down, which was quite amusing. Sometimes they showed military newsreels and then Liova Weissmann would comment in dramatic fashion, “Our unconquerable army is advancing irresistibly!” It didn’t matter what direction the soldiers were going in – left to right, right to left, coming toward us or going away from us – the commentary was always one and the same: “Our unconquerable army is advancing irresistibly!” Quite some time later I happened to notice the fact that Mr. Weissmann would say this only when Pan Voitek, the policeman, was sneaking a look at the image on the screen.

“Isaac’s Torah”, a novel by Angel Wagenstein

Our tailoring workshop, “Mode Parisienne”, was located on the main and almost only street in Kolodetz – a small town, miastechko in Polish, and shtetl in our language. We didn’t have a proper display window, just a low pane with glued-on scraps cut out from Paris and Vienna fashion magazines with elegant gentlemen in tuxedos and exquisite Viennese ladies in pink, though as far as I can remember we never tailored a single tuxedo or lady’s pink garment. My father was mostly involved in turning old worn-out caftans inside out and was happy as a child when, at the fitting, in front of the mirror, the clothing, turned inside out for a second time, looked as if it were new – or at least this is what he’d say through his tightly pressed lips, which were holding an incredible number of pins. He was a good tailor and here’s the place for me to mention his favorite story about how one time he’tailored a red uniform for a dragoon from His Majesty ‘s Lifeguards (I personally have never seen dragoons in our Kolodetz) and how the client was very satisfied as he looked in the mirror, but said, “I don’t understand why you needed a whole month for a simple uniform when your Jewish God created the whole world in six days!” My father replied, “But look at His work, Officer sir, and look at this wonderful uniform!”
I was eighteen years old, helping out my father in the workshop, screaking out Jewish songs on the violin for celebrations and weddings, and reading selected chapters from the Tanakh, in other words the Five Books, to the children at the synagogue school, in our language the Beys Medresh, every Friday. As for the reading – I was reading all right, and reading, as they say, with passion and heart, but I wouldn’t claim I was a Kogan at the violin. I was learning to play with the good old teacher Eliezer Pinkus, God rest his soul, he was a kind man and remarkably tactful, but one time he couldn’t hold it in anymore and carefully said to my father: “Please, don’t be offended but your Itzik has no ear for music…”, at which my father angrily asked, “But why does he need an ear? He won’t be listening, he’ll be playing!” And how right my father was, for now I was more or less playing, or rather screaking out, as I have already indicated, the violin that my dear Uncle Chaim gave me on my bar mitzvah, that is my religious coming of age, on my thirteenth birthday.
I was a dreamy boy, and traveled in my dreams all the way to Vienna, and it wasn’t only once that my father Aaron, or Ari Blumenfeld, pulled me out of these sweet journeys by his wooden tailor’s measuring stick, so that I would find myself  all of a sudden back again in Kolodetz by Drogobych, sitting at the table, with a needle stuck in an unfinished sleeve. In my dreams I was always wearing one of those spiffy Parisian tuxedos from the magazines, stepping down from a fiacre and extending my hand to help a lovely lady in a pink dress, then bowing to kiss tender and soft hand, but always right at this moment my father would smack me on the head with the measuring stick and so I never the rest of this story, neither who this wonderful lady was nor why I was helping her step down from the fiacre. I probably saw this scene somewhere in the movies.
Now, I remember about the movies. Sometimes, in a horse cart, all the way down from Lemberg, that is, Lvov, Mr. Liova Weissmann would visit. A journalist, newspaper publisher and owner of a movie projector, he was selling his newspaper, Yiddishe Heimland, and in the evening he’d show films at David Leibovich’s café. These were always films, or parts of films, about wonderful distant worlds, inhabited by divinely beautiful women, who lowered their eyelids when gallant cavaliers kissed them on the lips. We were uneducated and too simple to understand such high-class plots; moreover, Mr. Weissman, in the on-going war situation, was getting those films from god knows where, and their subtitles (at that time cinematography was silent and subtitled) were in Danish, Flemish, Swedish, and one time in Japanese or something like that – and in Kolodetz by Drogobych no one spoke those languages, especially Japanese. Only Avramchik the postman, who had fought in the Russo-Turkish war as a signalman, claimed he could understand Turkish, but unfortunately we never happened to get a Turkish film. And one time, I remember, we were watching quite a long piece that was turned upside down, when somebody tried to whistle in protest and to stomp his feet, but Mr. Weissmann anglily said that this is how the film was and he was in a hurry to get back before the night caught him. And so, the gorgeous ladies and gentlemen were kissing with their heads upside down, which was quite amusing. Sometimes they showed military newsreels and then Liova Weissmann would comment in dramatic fashion, “Our unconquerable army is advancing irresistibly!” It didn’t matter what direction the soldiers were going in – left to right, right to left, coming toward us or going away from us – the commentary was always one and the same: “Our unconquerable army is advancing irresistibly!” Quite some time later I happened to notice the fact that Mr. Weissmann would say this only when Pan Voitek, the policeman, was sneaking a look at the image on the screen.

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