A new translation of Kafka’s diaries recalls his attitude to Judaism
JTA – A huge lover of Yiddish theater, we know that Franz Kafka fell in love with his Hebrew teacher and even confronted the owner of his brothel in a synagogue on Yom Kippur one day.
The contours of Kafka’s life have long been known to historians, but a new translation of his diaries into English paints a fuller picture of the famous Czech author, recalling his complicated and sometimes fraught relationship with Judaism.
Famous for his ability to talk about loneliness, alienation and blind bureaucracy, Kafka saw the way to live in society in Judaism.
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“These beautiful and powerful separations that Judaism carries,” he recalls in the rambling style that characterizes his diaries.
“We have a place. We see each other better, we judge each other better. »
Later, speaking of a Jewish play he found particularly moving, Kafka reflected on his vision of “Jews in a particularly pure way, because they live only in religion, but without effort, understanding, or misery.”
A member of several Zionist organizations, towards the end of his life he falls in love with his Hebrew teacher, the daughter of an Orthodox rabbi, Dora Diamant (her name is scarce in these diaries).
The Diaries of Franz Kafka, translated by Ross Benjamin and published this week by Penguin Random House, recounts all of the writer’s writings from 1908 to 1923, the year before he died of tuberculosis at the age of 41.
Other versions of Kafka’s diaries were previously published thanks to his Jewish friend and literary executor Max Brod (translated by Hannah Arendt), but they were often partial and neglected valuable writings about his understanding of Judaism.
A German edition of his diaries was published in 1990.
Raised in Prague by a non-practicing father, the author of “The Metamorphosis,” “The Court” and “The Castle” did not appreciate several elements of the Jewish culture to which he was exposed as a child, including the bar mitzvah.
In Prague, the assimilated German-speaking Jewish population at the time looked down upon the poorer, Yiddish-speaking Eastern European Jews.
These diaries reveal the young Kafka’s fascination with Jewish culture as he came of age, particularly with a traveling Yiddish theater troupe from Poland, which he would see more than twenty times.
He has a strong relationship with the company’s star actor Jizchak Lövy, organizing events for him and giving him the opportunity to talk about Jewish life in Warsaw.
Kafka himself introduces these programs with a few words in Yiddish.
His own father has prejudices against Levi: he describes it this way: “My father said about him: He who sleeps with dogs wakes up with fleas. »
“The Metamorphosis” is about a man who turns into a giant cockroach for no reason and is rejected by his family.
Benjamin notes in his introduction: “Scholars believe that such tropes, prevalent in the anti-Semitic culture that permeated Kafka’s existence, influenced his literary themes. »
He even adds that Brod censored Kafka’s sometimes ambiguous statements about his Jewish brothers.
During his friendship with Lévi, Kafka refers to anti-Semitic stereotypes of Jewish ugliness: “When I leaned towards him, my hair touched him and I was afraid that I had caught lice. »
Benjamin explains, “Here Kafka confronts his own concern as a Western European Jew about the hygiene of his Eastern European Jewish counterpart. »
This uncensored version of the diaries also contains additional revelations, such as Kafka’s thoughts on his sexuality.