King of Yiddish
King of Yiddish: A Novel by Curt Leviant. (Livingston Press, 305 pp. $30 hardcover, $18.95 paperback)
Curt Leviant is the author of nine novels—each one crammed to the brim with references to Yiddishkeit, Yiddish and Hebrew, all discussed with an erudite command of Jewish history. His latest, King of Yiddish, follows the comic misadventures of one Shmulik Gafni, a professor of Yiddish studies at a prestigious Israeli university. As with all academic novels, the reason that the politics are so vicious is that the stakes are so low. And the reason that Gafni creates a firestorm of sarcasm and ill will can be chalked up to his pedigree:
“Jerusalem, it was known all over Jerusalem, the holy city, that Shmulik Gafni, Overlyfull Professor, Chairman, and Distinguished University Researcher of Yiddish language, Literature, Culture and Folklore on the Mendl and Sadie-Yentl Elizenbahn Chair of Yiddish Studies at the University of Israel, the most famous scholar, Sh. Meichl-Rukzak, who was himself a leading candidate for that honorific, in an interview with The New York Times (with the help of a translator) called Shmulik Gafni ‘Mister Yiddish’….”
Leviant is both a smart and humorous writer. His Yiddish-speaking characters know how to answer a question with a fired-back question of their own, and all of them have trouble telling a story in a straight line.
As a result, they invariably wander, jumping from one topic—or person or place—to another. Fortunately, these digressions are witty.
The serious part of King of Yiddish centers on Gafni’s frequent trips to Poland, where he searches for the anti-Semite who murdered his father and uncle during the infamous pogrom on July 4, 1946, in Kielce.
Gafni gets help from a wide variety of oddball characters: a pecan-sized imp named Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who owns a cafe in downtown Vienna (later, flashes of Jewish mysticism restore him to full adult size); and a congregation of Polish Jews who have been blessed—or cursed—with immortality. Imagine the sharp, comic asides that fly when Gafni chooses Malina, a Polish shikse, to be his new wife. It is hardly surprising that Yiddish-speaking gossipers have a field day or that Malina, also a professor, adds layers of complication to poor Gafni’s already complicated life.
King of Yiddish may not be for everyone, including those American Jewish readers who regularly deplore the absence of Yiddishkeit in many—if not most—American Jewish novels. They might wish the book were shorter, easier to follow, less complicated.
I, on the other hand, have no problem in recommending Leviant’s novel to the widest possible audience. It’s that witty and that good.