From: Cervantes: Bulletin of the Cervantes Society of America 17.2 (1997): 94-105.
Copyright © 1997, The Cervantes Society of America

The Jewish Don Quixote


In 1878, the renowned Jewish writer Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh published a Yiddish version1 of Don Quixote entitled The Travels of Benjamin the Third.2 In the novella, Don Quixote and Sancho Panza are reconstituted as two small-town Jewish fools, who are traveling through Poland on their way to Israel. The novella mimics the structure, plot, and characters of Don Quixote.
     However, The Travels of Benjamin the Third pushes themes from Don Quixote to satiric extremes. For example, in The Travels everyone is as mad as the Jewish Don Quixote, Benjamin, and the relationship between him and Sancho Panza (Sendrel) is an homosexual marriage. As will be shown, these deviations from Don Quixote were generated by the radically different settings of the two works. In The Travels, the landscape the two central characters travel through is

     1 It is difficult to accurately define the relationship between Don Quixote and The Travels of Benjamin the Third. Literary critics have alternatively labeled The Travels a “parody”, “satire” and “rewriting” of Don Quixote. However, I believe Ruth Wisse evokes the relationship most accurately when she writes that the novel Don Quixote is a “frame device” to The Travels. Her term is thus inclusive of both the satiric and parodic uses made of Don Quixote in The Travels. See Ruth Wisse, The Schlemiel as Modern Hero (Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1971), p.32.
     2 For the English rendition, see the wonderful new translation by Hillel Halkin in Tales of Mendele the Book Peddler: Fishke the Lame and Benjamin the Third, eds. Dan Miron and Ken Frieden (New York: Schocken Books, 1996), pp. 301-391.
     [P. 95] For the Yiddish original see “Masoes Binyomin hashlishi” in Ale verk fun Mendele-Moykher Sforim, ed. N. Mayzl (Warsaw: Farlag Mendele, 1928), Vol. 9.


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not seventeenth-century Spain, but nineteenth-century anti-Semitic eastern Europe, where there were considerable and real dangers to Jewish travelers.
     While I have not uncovered any correspondence which states outright why Abramovitsh chose Don Quixote as his literary model, certain conclusions may be drawn as to its appeal:
     1) Don Quixote presented a character so captivated by literature that he had lost touch with the real, material world.3 The shtetl Jews whom Abramovitsh wished to parody, were also so enthralled by literature and story telling (for the shtetl Jews, it was Biblical stories) that it crippled their ability to live in the ‘real’ world.
     2) Previous to the publication of The Travels, Abramovitsh had employed the ‘posited author’ devise found in Don Quixote. In fact, nearly all of Abramovitsh's writings were mediated by the figure of Mendele (who, as a narrative tool, resembles Cide Hamete Benengeli).4 Abramovitsh's desire to mimic Don Quixote may have been influenced by Cervantes's use of a narrative model Abramovitsh himself was adept at.
     3) Don Quixote may have appealed to Abramovitsh for its “hybrid elements”, as described by M. Bakhtin:

Don Quixote is the parodied hybridization of the “alien, miraculous world” chronotope of chivalric romances, with the “high road winding through one's native land” chronotope that is typical of the picaresque novel (165).

Don Quixote presented Abramovitsh with a literary model for counterpointing the “miraculous world” chronotope of (for shtetl Jews) Biblical narratives, with the picaresque form (which was a genre that appealed to Abramovitsh).5

     3 For a cogent analysis of Don Quixote's difficulty discerning fact from fiction see Ulrich Wicks, “Metafiction in Don Quixote: What is the Author Up To” in Approaches to Teaching Cervantes' Don Quixote, ed. Richard Bjornson (New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1984), pp. 69-76.
     4 For the finest analysis of Abramovitsh's use of Mendele as a narrative device, see Dan Miron, A Traveler Disguised: A Study in the Rise of Modern Yiddish Fiction in the Nineteenth Century (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1996), Chapters 4-7.
     5 For Abramovitsh's greatest picaresque novel see Dos kleyne mentshele in Gezamlte verk fun Mendele Moykher-Sforim, Volume 3, eds. A. Gurshteyn, [p. 96] M. Viner, and Y. Nusinov (Moscow: Farlag Emes, 1935-1940). For the English version see The Parasite, trans. Gerald Stillman (New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1956).

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     4) Don Quixote could be used to show the intrinsic differences between Jewish and non-Jewish forms of delusion. Unlike Don Quixote whose madness was an individual idiosyncrasy and could be outgrown, Benjamin's madness was historically generated and would not change until the Jewish plight improved. Where Don Quixote could thus mature and become more rooted in the real world, for Benjamin no improvement was possible because the real world excluded Jews. His stasis, like that of Jewish culture, was total, unchangeable and historically generated. Don Quixote was thus an exemplary model to convey the historical roots of Jewish cultural stagnation.
     The similarities and differences between Don Quixote and The Travels of Benjamin the Third give the novella both its comic power and its satiric leverage. A comparison of the works will bring to light how Abramovitsh used Don Quixote as a paradigm to build a subtle yet powerful political critique of Jewish oppression.6

*   *   *

     Previous to the publication of The Travels of Benjamin the Third, Abramovitsh was highly disparaging of many of the parochial, unprogressive attitudes of Jewish shtetl life. In this way, he matched the outlook of numerous Jewish intellectuals of the period. These Jewish ‘enlighteners’ (called the Maskilim) believed that if the Jews would become more modern in belief and action, their condition would improve.7

     6 Although there has been much analysis of The Travels of Benjamin the Third, little has focused specifically on its parallels with Don Quixote. The most thorough comparison remains Shmuel Niger's analysis in Mendele Moykher-Sforim: zayn lebn, zayne gezelshaftlekhe un literarishe oyftuungen (Chicago: L. M. Stein, 1936), pp. 182-187. For other more limited comparisons see Ruth Wisse, The Schlemiel as Modern Hero (Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 1971), pp. 31-34; Ken Frieden, Classic Yiddish Fiction: Abramovitsh, Sholem Aleichem, and Peretz (NY: SUNY Press, 1995), pp. 83-84; Theodore Steinberg, Mendele Mocher Seforim (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1977), pp. 87-89.
     7 It was only with the massive pogroms of the 1880s that many Jewish writers and intellectuals began to focus on how anti-Semitism had caused Jewish isolation and poverty. For an impassioned yet convincing analysis of how the pogroms affected Jewish literary life, see Benjamin Harshav, The Meaning of Yiddish (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990), pp. 119-138.

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     The Travels of Benjamin the Third marks a turning point in Abramovitsh's artistic development. Unlike his earlier writings, which rarely considered the mitigating, external causes of Jewish ‘backwardness’, The Travels took heed of them. Thus while The Travels certainly ridicules Jewish shtetl culture, the work suggests that the primary cause of Jewish cultural stagnation is entrenched anti-Semitism. When considering The Travels of Benjamin the Third, all of Abramovitsh's mockery of traditional Jewish life must thus be balanced against his larger critique of an anti-Semitic system which caused Jewish stasis.
     Set in the late nineteenth century, when many east European Jews still lived in small, poor shtetls with pre-modern conditions, Benjamin (Don Quixote) and his sidekick Sendrel (Sancho Panza) are Jewish country bumpkins who come from a shtetl that is “a God forsaken place, far off the beaten track” (304). The culture of their shtetl is dominated by story telling rather than action. For every moment of life in the shtetl there thus exists a tale to give it grandiose significance. The primary narrative used by the shtetl to construct an alternate, idealized reality is the Bible:

Once, it so happened, someone arrived in Tuneyadevka with a date. You should have seen the town come running to look at it. A Bible was brought to prove that the very same little fruit grew in the Holy Land. The harder the Tuneyadevkans stared at it, the more clearly they saw before their eyes the River Jordan, The Cave of the Patriarchs, the tomb of Mother Rachel, the Wailing Wall (307).

Benjamin is the archetypal son of this environment of extreme isolation compounded by constant fantasy weaving and a denial of the base reality.
     Like Don Quixote, Benjamin is a passive man seeking to activate his stagnant life by becoming an heroic character. In Don Quixote, although chivalric stories are the catalyst for Don Quixote's quest, he is the real author of his plot. Within the book, fellow characters enact his chivalric imaginings by playing the parts of knights, damsels in distress, etc. There thus exists in Don Quixote a bipolar reality —the chivalric and the real— that most other characters in the story are able to navigate. Only Don Quixote lacks the ability to enter and exit the ‘mad’ realm at will.
     In The Travels of Benjamin the Third, the bipolar reality of Don Quixote is singular, with no stark division between Benjamin's madness and the rest of the world's sanity. In fact all the male Jewish

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characters in Benjamin's world are deluded. Day after day they sit around talking and weaving elaborate fantasies, while relegating all work to their wives. Unlike Don Quixote, whose quest is generated by his unique inability to differentiate fact from fiction, in Benjamin's culture, no men are able to do this. 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 constant negation of reality is an anti-Semitic system that has effectively curtailed Jewish action. The society is stagnating because it has had to build strict barriers to the non-Jewish world in order to remain safe. The culture is dominated by inflated rhetoric because real action is impossible.
     Therefore, while in Don Quixote the villains the knight errant must slay are generally of his own making, in The Travels of Benjamin the Third the villains are real. Rather than being dragons or knights, they are the non-Jews that inhabit the world just beyond the shtetl. For Jews, an heroic encounter is thus not between good and evil knights but Jew and non-Jew.
     However, in both works there are two distinct “aesthetic regions” where:

we have the encounter of two literary regions, of two different worlds . . . It is not the density of the vegetation but the laws of style that separate these inhabitants of two globes constructed differently, two noncommunicating spheres (Martínez-Bonati).

Where in Don Quixote it is the fantastic and the real, in The Travels of Benjamin the Third it is the Jewish and the anti-Semitic. The difference between the two realms is manifested by their languages:

     Sendrel rose, walked over to the peasant, and said as politely as he could:
     “Dobry dyen! Kozhi no tshelovitshe kudi dorogi Eretz-Yisro'eyl?” “Shtsho?” asked the peasant, eyeing him bewilderedly. “Yaki Yisro'eyl? Nye batshil ya Yisro'eyl.”
      “Nye, Nye,” interrupted Benjamin impatiently from where he sat. “He thinks you're asking about a person named Israel, not about the land” . . . The peasant spat, told them both to go to the Devil, and drove away muttering: “Eres-Srul, Eres-Srul!” (334)

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     The two languages, and their aesthetic systems, can not and do not speak to one another. Yet, whereas for the peasant the problems with communication are annoying and at times comedic, for the Jew, they are dangerous and are a literal barrier to Jewish mobility. Thus, where Don Quixote's abnormal chivalric speech is made fun of, and often even lightheartedly encouraged, Benjamin's abnormal talk puts him in danger. To exit the shtetl and enter the broader realm is to risk death because one's speech is a foreign language in the surrounding milieu.
     Unlike Don Quixote, whom few take seriously, nearly everyone believes in Benjamin's delusions of grandeur. In fact, the mere act of having set out on the road has made Benjamin a hero. He is even suspected at times of being the Messiah:

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).

     Where the culture considers Benjamin to be a hero, Mendele, the story's co-author and narrator, constantly portrays Benjamin as a fool. Nevertheless, like Cide Hamete Benengeli (the purported author of the Arabic version of Don Quixote), Mendele takes on the guise of a serious chronicler. However, unlike Cide Hamete Benengeli, who is only occasionally sarcastic, throughout The Travels Mendele's voice is highly ironic. A typical example is the following, where Mendele juxtaposes Benjamin's seeming religiosity against his real selfishness:

. . . Benjamin was waiting by the windmill with a bundle under his arm. In it were all the necessary items for his journey: his prayer-shawl, his phylacteries, a prayer-book, a Psalter . . . In his pocket were fifteen and a half farthings, taken from beneath his wife's pillow (326).

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     Mendele's most cutting satiric representation is of the relationship between Benjamin and Sendrel. In Don Quixote, Don Quixote's asexuality is counterpointed against Sancho's earthy lusts. Although Don Quixote creates an imagined love quest for Dulcinea, in reality he is unable to act within the realm of relationships. The world of sexuality is totally foreign to him. While his relationship with Sancho Panza is intimate, it is within the sanctioned, hierarchical structure of the master / servant relationship.
     In The Travels of Benjamin, there is a radical departure from the central theme of an asexual, single Don Quixote: Benjamin has left his wife to undertake a coupling with Sendrel. Their relationship is a mock-marriage parodying the degenerate state of Jewish marriage in the shtetl.
     Benjamin and Sendrel's romance begins after Benjamin has a frightening experience in the forest beyond the shtetl. In what the literary critics Dan Miron and Anita Norich label “a scene of seduction,” Benjamin entices Sendrel to join him on the journey (Miron and Norich 61). The moment Sendrel agrees, Benjamin abandons his wife, stating “Why should I care about my wife?” (324).
     Their honeymoon begins when Sendrel arrives at their rendezvous point transformed into a woman:

It was indeed Sendrel in a calico smock and a greasy kerchief clinging to his cheeks. He had a gash beneath each eye, a stick in one hand, and a large pack on his back —but to Benjamin he was as beautiful as a bride (328).

     The narrative voice switches to Benjamin's. He describes his feeling towards Sendrel by using erotic imagery:

“As a hart longing for a spring, or a thirsty man in the desert, when water gushes from a rock,” he has said, “so I leaped for joy to see my trusty companion!” (328)

     In contrast to Don Quixote, who fears women, Benjamin dislikes them and is in love with a man. Benjamin's misogyny pervades the entire story. However, Mendele constantly points out the hypocrisy of Benjamin's misogyny, by contrasting it with the reality that women are the only ones in the Jewish realm getting anything done:

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

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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 at a 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 system in which the role of men and women is strictly divided: women symbolizing reproductivity (earning a living, taking care of the family, giving birth to children), and men denoting total unreproductivity.
     However, Benjamin's abandonment of his family is not unique, but something all shtetl men partake of by shirking their familial responsibilities to inhabit the empty realm of petty discourse:

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).

In the mock marriage of Benjamin and Sendrel, Benjamin seeks to renew this division of male as spiritual, female as material:

. . . “the two of us are a pair made in heaven. We go together like a body and its soul. You'll be in charge of the physical half of our expedition, eating and drinking and all that, and I'll be in charge of the mental half.” (333)

     Benjamin is a symbol of all that is wrong with male shtetl culture: a constant denial of reality; a shirking of material responsibilities; the elevation of the spiritual in order to perpetuate a system where women do all the work. Thus while his relationship with Sendrel mimics the idealist / realist dichotomy of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, it also satirizes an entire cultural system. However, it is clear that it is the anti-Semitic system that must be blamed for this: it has crippled the shtetl's economic system and therein created this generation of Don Quixote like luftmentsh (head in the clouds).
     At the end of the story, Benjamin and Sendrel are forced to take the place of some wealthy Jews who have been conscripted into the Russian army. However, Benjamin lays responsibility for the internment not on the Russian system that interned Jews for decades (as a conversion tool), but the Jews who sold them out. Benjamin declares:

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“No, it's the fault of the low-down, lying Jews!” (384).

     The wealthy Jews' buying off of their internment responsibilities, echoes Benjamin's desertion of his family. Yet Benjamin is totally unaware of the parallel. Benjamin's easy blame of the Jews, and his lack of consideration of the larger system that brought Jewish corruption, is just as ill sighted as his belief in the holy nature of his journey.
     In Benjamin's speech to the military tribunal, Benjamin attempts to use the family he has abandoned as the reason why he should not be forced 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)

Some critics have misinterpreted this speech as the moment at which Benjamin “vindicates” himself. For instance, Ruth Wisse writes:

faced with the alternative of real power, which means in these circumstances, conformity to the status quo, militarism and anti-Semitism, Benjamin's foolishness seems a blessing in disguise, a way of remaining innocent in action as well as in thought (38).

     Wisse's analysis ignores Mendele's negative portrayal throughout the novella of Benjamin's desertion of his family. For instance:

Frolicking birds took to the air with a song as if to say: “Come, let us chant our matins for that fine-looking fellow by the mill! Why, 'tis Benjamin —Benjamin of Tuneyadevka, the latter-day Alexander— the stalwart soul who has set out from his native land, leaving behind his wife and children, to follow God's path where it leads him!” (326-327).

     At the end of the story, having gained their release from military service, Benjamin and Sendrel march off to continue on their journey (rather than returning to their deserted families).8 The novella's ending and Benjamin's speech to the tribunal show that Benjamin has not vindicated himself, nor changed in the least. In the course of implicating the military system, Benjamin negatively implicates himself as well (by seeking to use the wife he deserted as an excuse to be released). However he is unaware of this. Nothing has changed.

     8 Although the ending does not state where they are heading, the reader knows Benjamin and Sendrel are continuing on their journey, since in the prologue Mendele discusses the eventual successful completion of the expedition. See pp. 301-304.

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     Yet, however much Benjamin represents a negative archetype of the male shtetl Jew, Mendele indicates the means of transcendence with ironic clear-sightedness. For, in the end, it is Mendele, in the guise and voice of a ‘man of the people’, who manages to subvert all of Benjamin's fantastic claims. Moreover, it is Mendele who effectively conveys that the Jewish proclivity for self-delusion is the result of an oppressive, anti-Semitic system. It is this system that has forced Jewish traditional life to stagnate and therein created the static figure of Benjamin.
     By placing Don Quixote in a Jewish context, Abramovitsh constructed a subtle yet powerful critique of Jewish shtetl life. Where Jewish culture was like the fantasy weaving Don Quixote, Mendele was like the hearty realist Sancho Panza, constantly pointing out the difference between fact and fantasy. Moreover, the novella made it clear that there were valid historical reasons for the cultural urge to escape the stagnating, corrupted reality, in order to inhabit a fantasy world of endless heroic possibilities.



Abramovitsh, Sholem / Mendele Moykher-Sforim. “The Brief Travels of Benjamin the Third” in Tales of Mendele the Book Peddler: Fishke the Lame and Benjamin the Third, pp. 301-391. Trans. Hillel Halkin. Eds. Dan Miron and Ken Frieden. New York: Schocken Books, 1996. For the Yiddish original see Ale verk fun Mendele-Moykher Sforim, Volume 9. Ed. N. Mayzl. Warsaw: Farlag Mendele, 1928.

——. The Parasite. Trans. Gerald Stillman. New York: Thomas Yoseloff, 1956. For the Yiddish original see Dos kleyne mentshele in Gezamlte verk fun Mendele Moykher-Sforim, Volume Three. Eds. A Gurshteyn, M. Viner, and Y. Nusinov. Moscow: Farlag Emes, 1935-1940.

Bakhtin, M. M. The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Ed. Michael Holquist. Trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981.

Frieden, Ken. Classic Yiddish Fiction: Abramovitsh, Sholem Aleichem, and Peretz. New York: SUNY Press, 1995.

Harshav, Benjamin. The Meaning of Yiddish. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990.

Martínez-Bonati, Felix. Don Quixote and the Poetics of the Novel. Trans. Dian Fox. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992.

Miron, Dan. A Traveler Disguised: A Study in the Rise of Modern Yiddish Fiction in the Nineteenth Century. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1996.

Miron, Dan and Anita Norich. “The Politics of Benjamin III: Intellectual Significance and Its Formal Correlatives in Sh. Y. Abramovitsh's Masoes Benyomin Hashlishi.” In The Field of Yiddish: Studies in Language, Folklore, and Literature. Fourth Collection. Ed. Marvin I. Herzog, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Dan Miron, and Ruth Wisse. Philadelphia: Institute for the Study of Human Issues, 1980. pp. 1-115.


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Niger, Shmuel. Mendele Moykher Sforim: zayn lebn, zayne gezelshaftlekhe un literarishe oyftuungen. Chicago: L. M. Stein, 1936.

Steinberg, Theodore. Mendele Mocher Seforim. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1977.

Wicks, Ulrich. “Metafiction in Don Quixote: What is the Author Up To.” In Approaches to Teaching Cervantes' Don Quixote. Ed. Richard Bjornson. New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 1984. pp. 69-76.

Wisse, Ruth. The Schlemiel as Modern Hero. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971.

Prepared with the help of Sue Dirrim
Fred Jehle Publications of the CSA HCervantes