The story of Benjamin the Third represents a turning point in Abramovitsh ‘s creative growth. Unlike his earlier works, which scarcely addressed the reduction of Jewish ‘backwardness’ external factors, The Travels address them. Thus, while The Travels certainly ridicules the culture of Jewish shtetl, the work suggests that the primary cause of Jewish cultural stagnation is entrenched anti-Semitism. Thus, when discussing The Travels of Benjamin the Third, all Abramovitsh’s ridicule of conventional Jewish life must be balanced against his wider critique of the anti-Semitic structure that induced Jewish stasis.
Before the publication of The Travels of Benjamin the Third, Abramovitsh was highly disdainful of many of the insular, ignorant, and bigoted attitudes of Jewish shtetl life. In this way, he matched the outlook of many of the Jewish intellectuals of the period. Such Jewish ‘enlighteners’ (called the Maskilim) claimed that if the Jews were to become more liberal in faith and practice, their status would change. This was only after the major pogroms of the 1880’s that many Jewish authors and scholars started to reflect on how anti-Semitism induced Jewish alienation and misery. For an impassioned and compelling study of how pogroms have influenced Jewish literary existence.
Set at the end of the nineteenth century, when many East European Jews were still residing in low, impoverished shtetls with pre-modern circumstances, Benjamin (Don Quixote) and his sidekick Sendrel (Sancho Panza) were Jewish country folk coming from the shtetl, a ‘God forsaken place, far off from the beaten track’ (304). The atmosphere of their shtetl is governed by storytelling rather than practice. There is also a tale for any moment of existence in the shtetl to give it a grandiose meaning.
The Travels of Benjamin the Third, though, takes ideas from Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes to satirical limits. For example, in The Travels everybody is as mad as the Jewish Don Quixote, Benjamin, and the relationship with both him and Sancho Panza (Sendrel) is a homosexual marriage. Such variations from Don Quixote were triggered by the drastically different environments of the two plays. In The Journeys, the scenery in which the two main characters pass is not Spain of the seventeenth century, but anti-Semitic Eastern Europe of the nineteenth century, where there were significant and actual hazards to Jewish travelers.
Don Quixote can be used to explain the fundamental differences between Jewish and non-Jewish views. Unlike Don Quixote, whose madness was an individual idiosyncrasy that could be outgrown, Benjamin’s madness has historically been generated and will not change until the Jewish plight has improved. Although Don Quixote should then develop to become more deeply rooted in the modern world, no transition was required for Benjamin because the actual world lacked Jews. His stasis, like that of Jewish culture, was total, unchangeable, and historic. Thus, Don Quixote became an outstanding blueprint to express the historical origins of Jewish intellectual regression.
Like Don Quixote, Benjamin is a passive man who seeks to activate his stagnant life by becoming a heroic character. In Don Quixote, although the story of chivalry is the catalyst for Don Quixote ‘s quest, he is the true author of his plot. Within the book, fellow characters enact his chivalric imaginations by playing the parts of knights, damsels in distress, etc. Thus, in Don Quixote, there exists a bipolar reality — the chivalry and the real — that most of the other characters in the story can navigate. Only Don Quixote lacks the ability to enter and leave the ‘mad’ realm at will.
In The Adventures of Benjamin the Third, the psychotic truth of Don Quixote is universal, with no clear distinction between the psychosis of Benjamin and the rationality of the rest of the universe. In fact, all the male Jewish characters in the world of Benjamin are deluded. Day after day, they sit around talking and weaving elaborate fantasies, and relegate all work to their wives.
Unlike Don Quixote, whose quest stems from his unique inability to distinguish fact from fiction, no man in Benjamin ‘s culture can do that. The only difference between Benjamin and the other men is that while all shtetl Jews believe the biblical narratives and communal fantasies, only Benjamin and Sendrel desire to act them out. Inspired by stories they hear from men in the shtetl, they decide to travel to Israel to find the descendants of the mythical lost tribes.
The cause of the shtetl ‘s continual negation of reality is an anti-Semitic system that has successfully restricted Jewish action. Society is stagnating because, in order to stay free, it has needed to create rigid barriers to the non-Jewish world.
Thus, while in Don Quixote the villains the wandering knight must kill are generally of their own making, in The Travels of Benjamin the Third the villains are real. Rather than being dragons or warriors, they are non-Jews who exist in the universe beyond the shtetl. For Jews, therefore, a heroic encounter is not between good and evil knights, but between Jews and non-Jews.
Unlike Don Quixote, whom few take seriously, almost everyone believes in Benjamin’s illusions of grandeur. In fact, the mere act of taking the road has made Benjamin a hero. He is also speculated of becoming the Messiah at times: First to come across the two was a pair of proper old ladies, Toltze and Treine, whose well-known habit it was to don their best sabbath jackets and kerchiefs every evening and sally forth from town to greet the Messiah. One day as the sun went down, it fell to their happy lot to encounter our worthies, freshly arrived from Teterevke, on the hither side of the tollgate and to escort them into Glupsk. It did not take long for the old women to find out everything about the two strangers entrusted by fate to their care. Toltze and Treine exchanged wondering glances and poked each other smilingly in the ribs. “Well, Toltze?” “Well, Treine?” they whispered, yielding quickly to their premonitions that the travelers were no ordinary mortals (360-361).
Mendele’s most satiric representation of Don Quixote is of the relationship between Benjamin and Sendrel. In Don Quixote, the asexuality of Don Quixote is counterpointed to the worldly impulses of Sancho. Although Don Quixote is creating an envisioned love quest for Dulcinea, in reality he is unable to act within the realm of relationships. The concept of intimacy is completely new to him. Although his friendship with Sancho Panza is personal, it is part of the approved, authoritarian system of the partnership between the master and the servant.
Unlike Don Quixote, who fears women, Benjamin does not like them, and he is in love with a man. The entire story is pervaded by the misogyny of Benjamin. But Mendele constantly points to the hypocrisy of Benjamin’s misogyny, by contrasting it with the reality that women are the only ones in the Jewish realm to do anything about it: He didn’t have a farthing to his name, having spent all his days in the study house while his wife struggled to make a living from a little store she had opened after her parents ceased supporting them as newlyweds, the entire stock of which consisted of the socks that she knit, the down feathers that she stayed up plucking on winter nights, the chicken fat that she fried and rendered before Passover, and the bit of produce that she haggled for with peasants on market days and resold ata scant profit . . . . Should he take her into his confidence and reveal his plan? . . . How much, after all, could a Jewess from Tuneyadevka understand? She might be a brave breadwinner, but she was still a woman, and there was less in the head of the canniest female than in the little finger of the most doltish man (318-319).
Mendele thus satirizes a structure in which the position of men and women is narrowly divided: women symbolizing reproductive success (earning a living, taking care of the home, giving birth to children) and men reflecting the opposite.
But Benjamin’s alienation of his family is not special, but something that all shtetl men take part in by shaking away from their family obligations to enter the hollow domain of frivolous debate: All this is duly examined by a panel of distinguished citizens, which sometimes sits late into the night, leaving wives and children waiting anxiously at home while it selflessly examines the intricacies of each case without receiving a farthing in recompense (305).
Benjamin is a sign of all that is wrong with male shtetl culture: a relentless rejection of reality; a tossing of worldly responsibilities; an uplift of the metaphysical in order to maintain a structure under which women do all their work. Thus, while his relationship with Sendrel mimics the idealistic / realistic dichotomy of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, it also satirizes the entire cultural system.
At the end of the novel, Benjamin and Sendrel were forced to replace several rich Jews who had been conscripted into the Russian army. However, Benjamin claims the responsiblity for the internment not of the Russian government which has interned Jews for decades (as a method of conversion), but of the Jews who have sold them out. Benjamin states: “No, it’s the fault of the low-down, lying Jews!” (384). The rich Jews’ bribe of their internment responsibilities echoes the disintegration of Benjamin ‘s family. Yet Benjamin is completely unaware of the parallel. Benjamin ‘s easy blame for the Jews, and his lack of consideration for the larger system that brought Jewish corruption, is as poorly-considered as his belief in the sacred nature of his journey.
In Benjamin ‘s address to the Military Tribunal, Benjamin tried to cite the family he had betrayed as the justification that he could not be coerced into military service: “We herby declare, the two of us, that we are, have been, and always will be ignorant of all military matters; that we are, God be praised, married men with other things on our minds than your affairs.” (389) This could be misinterpreted as the moment when Benjamin ‘vindicates’ himself. For starters, confronted with the alternative of true force, which in such situations implies adherence to the status quo, militarism and anti-Semitism, Benjamin’s foolishness seems to be a blessing in disguise, a way of staying innocent in practice as well as in thinking.
At the end of the story, having been released from military service, Benjamin and Sendrel set out to continue their journey (rather than to return to their deserted families). The conclusion of the novel and Benjamin’s address to the court reveal that Benjamin did not vindicate himself, nor did he improve at least. In the process of involving the military regime, Benjamin has often been adversely blamed (by trying to use the woman he abandoned as a reason to be released). He is not aware of this, however. Nothing has changed.
Yet, although Benjamin is the negative archetype of the male Jew, Mendel points out with ironic clarity the means of transcendence. After all, it is Mendele that succeeds in subverting all Benjamin’s fantastic assertions in the form and speech of a ‘man of the people.’ Furthermore, it is Mendele who effectively communicates that Jewish self-deception is the result of an antisemitic system that is oppressive. It is this system which forced the stagnation of the traditional Jewish life and the formation of a Benjamin’s character.
With Don Quixote placed within a Jewish context, Abramovitsh built a subtle, but formidable review of Jewish shtetl life. Mendele was like a realist, Sancho Panza, where Jewish culture was like the fantasy that weaves Don Quixote, always pointing the difference between reality and imagination. The novel further revealed that the cultural urge to avoid the stagnating corrupt reality to live in a fantasy world of endless heroic possibilities was justified by historical reasons.