- Elie Wiesel: Jewish, Literary, and Moral Perspectives eds. by Steven T. Katz and Alan Rosen
Eli Wiesel’s Night, together with Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man and Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl, told the story of the Holocaust to the world. Night in particular has reached canonical status. Translated into thirty languages, it has been an entry for [End Page 152] literally millions into the nightmare of the Shoah. Its impact has endured, but Wiesel’s profound influence transcends Night. He has achieved international recognition as an author of novels, essays, dialogues, and memoirs; as a moral voice, advocate, and activist for the victims of genocide; as a witness to the Holocaust and a representative of the survivors; as a teacher of inspirational quality; as an interpreter of and commentator on the Jewish tradition; as a Nobel peace laureate; and as an engaged public intellectual and charismatic speaker. Acclaim for Wiesel has reached a level matched by few contemporary Jewish authors—including a considerable number of Holocaust memoirists—associated with any subject. The recognition awarded Wiesel, the prizes, translations, honors, and invitations testify to his accomplishments and legacy.
Steven T. Katz and Alan Rosen have edited an impressive collection by scholars in Biblical, rabbinic, Hasidic, Holocaust, and literary studies who provide deepened and nuanced analyses of the prodigious accomplishments of Wiesel’s multifaceted career. Underlying most of their contributions is an appreciation of how the Jewish past informs Wiesel’s engagement with the Jewish present (and future); their work similarly appreciates how the post-Holocaust present orients our approach to the past, the understandings we derive from the past, and especially the profound obligations we have toward those who inhabited it. This string of history and the dialectic of interpretation and questioning that it naturally fosters, constitute unique features of Katz and Rosen’s volume. Their approach parallels Wiesel’s own love of dialectic in so much of his writing, with its enigmatic stories and contentions inviting many possibilities for interpretation. The purpose of commentary and paradox—and Wiesel, so steeped in Talmudic and Midrashic tradition, certainly exemplifies this—is to invite argument, discussion, and questioning. For both the young Hasid of Sighet confronting the death camps and the mature writer engaging questions of meaning decades later, countless questions clamor, though fewer intellectually sound answers readily appear.
Wiesel has famously said, “A novel about Auschwitz is not a novel, or else it is not about Auschwitz.” In Legends of Our Times, a rabbi asks him what he is writing. Wiesel responds that he is writing stories. Are they about things that happened, the Rabbi inquires. “Yes, about things that happened or could have happened.” … “That means you are writing lies!” … “Things are not that simple, Rabbi. Some events do take place but are not true; others are—although they never occurred.” Things certainly are not simple. The writers in the new anthology tease out the paradoxes and dialectical nuances of Wiesel’s approach; building on earlier work, this new volume focuses on the full scope of Wiesel’s subsequent writing. During these recent decades Wiesel produced dozens of books, including eight novels, seven commentaries on classic Jewish texts and personalities, three essay collections, a two-volume memoir, a play, a cantata, a children’s book, a Passover Haggada, and a three-volume collection of shorter writings such as reviews, essays, speeches, and lectures. Finally, the world now has a new English-language edition of Night with a preface by Wiesel explaining the need for a new translation. The essays in the volume under review analyze the full [End Page 153] range of Wiesel’s work, but pay particular attention to writings on the Bible, Talmud, Midrash, and Hasidism, perspectives of Wiesel’s that have not received the attention they deserve. Readers will particularly appreciate the sections addressing Wiesel’s approach to Jewish tradition, an approach that combines interpretation with legend, biography, and confronting existential challenges. Wiesel fills his portraits of the great...