The Silent Woman

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“The Silent Woman” by Leopold Kompert: I found this story in, of all places, the anthology The Best Ghost Stories (1919) on Project Gutenberg. It isn’t a ghost story at all, nor even the least bit supernatural. The editors (Arthur B. Reeve and Joseph Lewis French) apparently felt that the story was a fine example of “Jewish mysticism” — which it may or may not be, but I still don’t see why it qualifies for this volume.

All the same, it’s an interesting story, one I thought worth sharing. It takes place after a wedding in the Jewish section of what appears to be a village or small town outside of Prague. The bride vanishes in the middle of the festivities. Some of the guest fear that she’s been spirited away by a ghost; a few have other suspicions.

Ruben Klattaner stood in the hall entry below, and let the people hurry past him without exchanging a word with any. Bitter disappointment and fear had almost crazed him. One of the last to stay in the room above with Selde was, strange to say, Leb Narr, of Prague. After all had departed, he approached the miserable mother, and, in a tone least becoming his general manner, inquired:

“Tell me, now, Mrs. Selde, did she not wish to have ‘him’?”

“Whom? whom?” cried Selde, with renewed alarm, when she found herself alone with the fool.

“I mean,” said Leb, in a most sympathetic manner, approaching still nearer to Selde, “that maybe you had to make your daughter marry him.”

“Make? And have we, then, made her?” moaned Selde, staring at the fool with a look of uncertainty.

“Then nobody needs to search for her,” replied the fool, with a sympathetic laugh, at the same time retreating. “It’s better to leave her where she is.”

Without saying thanks or good-night, he was gone.

Leb Narr of Prague was close, but not quite correct.

The bride shows up at the rabbi’s house in the middle of the night, with a confession. No, her parents didn’t force her to get married; she forced herself. Her husband comes from one of the richest families in the community. She doesn’t love him, but she loves the idea of being “the first lady of the gasse” — and so she forced herself to go through the courtship and the marriage. But now that the marriage has been finalized, she realizes what a terrible, lifelong lie she’s committed herself to.

What’s she’s done is a sin (to say the least), and the rabbi imposes a penance — a severe penance… .

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The author of the story, Leopold Kompert, was a Bohemian Jewish writer and one of the creators of so-called ghetto literature: a genre of literature from about the mid-late nineteenth century, a sort of German-Jewish counterpart of German romantic-era literature, or of the regionalist and folkloric writings of the type produced by Walter Scott, James Hogg, Washington Irving, or Nathaniel Hawthorne. According to James Hess (the link above points to the text in question), Kompert’s ghetto tales give a somewhat nostalgic, romanticized view of Jewish community life, aimed partly at a Jewish readership that was dealing with secularism and acculturation — but mostly at the mainstream (non-Jewish) reading public.

“The Silent Woman” has little touches of folklore and folk belief scattered throughout: evil spirits, the evil eye, ghosts.

At night it was almost impossible for a timid person to approach [the rabbi's house], for people declared that the low supplications of the dead could be heard in the dingy house of God when at night they took the rolls of the law from the ark to summon their members by name.

And though the decorations, so to speak, are Jewish, the fundamental issues (marrying for money, deception, moral duty) are more universal.

In my search for Winter Tales, I’ve read a lot of European and American short stories from the mid-nineteenth to the early twentieth centuries over the last few months. Many of them came from a decidedly Christian point of view, folklorically speaking, so it’s refreshing to read a story from a similar time period (Kompert was actively writing between 1848 and 1883) and place, but with a different perspective. The penance is extremely harsh, and the story reads a bit like a fairy tale (Kompert’s first collection was called Marchen aus dem Ghetto — “Fairy Tales from the Ghetto”). It’s an interesting, interesting story… .

There’s one reference I couldn’t quite figure out. In her conversation with the rabbi, the bride keeps shrieking out the name “Naphtali,” much to the rabbi’s consternation. Naphtali was the son of Jacob and Bilhah, the handmaiden of Jacob’s wife Rachel (Bilhah was Rachel’s proxy, because Rachel believed herself to be infertile). The name Naphtali apparently means “my struggle”. The name does tie in with the matrimonial deception theme of Kompert’s story: Jacob wanted to marry Rachel, but Rachel had an older unmarried sister, Leah. The family tricked Jacob into marrying Leah (they switched the sisters at the wedding), because older sisters have to get married before younger ones, or something like that. He ended up marrying both of them eventually.

But I didn’t quite get why the bride would call out that particular name, or why it made the rabbi so upset (beyond having an overwrought woman burst into his study in the middle of the night, I mean). If anyone can explain that to me, I’d love to hear it.

You can read “The Silent Woman” online here. Enjoy.


6 thoughts on “The Silent Woman

  1. Perhaps she calls the name Naphtali in expressing her wish that there were someone else to take her place in the bedroom with her husband. Also, for whatever it is worth, the word Narr (Leb Narr’s last name) means “fool” in both German and Yiddish.

    • Ah… that could be it. Leb Narr did play the role of The Fool (in the sense of Jester, or entertainer) in the story. He was entertainment at the wedding, and in the section I quoted above, he played the Jester’s other role: saying out loud what no one else dares to say.

  2. I’m trying to figure that one out, too. I tried a cursory Google of Naphtali but I couldn’t make a connection but perhaps I should read the story first. I wonder if the name is the same in the original German, too. Perhaps, it had a cultural meaning to German-Jews in Bohemia at that time? A short hand for a feeling or assumption?

    • You should read the story, definitely ;), but I’m not sure it will be much more illuminating on the Naphtali point. I suspect it must have some symbolic cultural meaning (as you say); I’m hoping someone who reads this will know what that might be.

      I think Kompert’s work is available on German Project Gutenberg, too — though this one might possibly have been in Yiddish first, I’m not sure. I also don’t know which collection the story was originally published in, possibly Marchen aus dem Ghetto.

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