Angel Wagenstein translated from the Bulgarian by Elizabeth Frank, by Deliana Simeonova

Isaac's Torah

Concerning the life of Isaac Jacob Blumenfeld through two world wars, three concentration camps, and five motherlands

Publication Date: Oct 14, 2008

320 pp


List Price US $23.95
ISBN: 9781590512456

This novel is the saga in five parts of Isaac Jacob Blumenfeld, who grows up in Kolodetz, a small town near Lvov, which, when he’s a boy, belongs to the Hapsburg Empire, but which subsequently belongs to Poland, Soviet Russia, Germany, and then Russia again. Isaac survives the absurdity and horror of Eastern Europe during the 20th century by pretending to be a fool. If this is an old Jewish art, then Isaac is a consummate artist. He plays the fool all his life, from his boyhood in Kolodetz shetl to the time when he is an accused war criminal in a Gulag in Siberia.

Inseparable from Isaac’s life and story are the Yiddish jokes and fables of Kolodetz. These and the counsel of his dear friend, the rabbi and chair of the atheist club in Kolodetz, Shmuel Ben David, sustain Isaac through two world wars, three concentration camps, and five motherlands. The book puts on record, with full art, what is perhaps the central story of the last one hundred years. It is a wise book.

Excerpt from Isaac’s Torah

“Wagenstein’s picaresque story portrays Jewish humor and Jewish wisdom as inextricable twins and time-tested agents of survival.” —The Nation

“A very funny book about very sad events. Isaac Blumenfeld suffers at the hands of the Nazis, loses his entire family when his village is invaded, and is sent to a Siberian labor camp because of mistaken identity. But, incredibly, Bulgarian author Angel Wagenstein makes us laugh.” —ForeWord Magazine

“Angel Wagenstein’s novel is an important monument to the lives of those who suffered the horrors of the two World Wars and all those wars’ extenuations, but rather than a lamentation of Blumenfeld’s, and the Jewish people’s, loss, it is a celebration of his and their lives. As uplifting as it is tragic, Isaac’s Torah is a great contribution to the literature of the period, the Wars, and the Holocaust, and to world literature as a whole.” —Three Percent

“Armed with Yiddish lore and the wide-ranging advice of a colorful brother-in-law who is alternately a rabbi and an atheist, this simple tailor’s son from the shtetl of Kolodetz tries to navigate a course through the great terrors of his age.” —The Washington City Paper

“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.” —Booklist

“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.” —Publishers Weekly