To celebrate the publication of The Slaughterman’s Daughter, we asked author Yaniv Iczkovits to tell us about the real-life history behind his sprawling historical epic.
Growing up in Israel, I always felt that something was missing in our history. As a child I learned a great deal about the Biblical period, the Zionist movement, the awful events of the First and Second World Wars, and of course, the establishment of the Jewish state. But what happened in the thousands of years that passed between the binding of Isaac and the assassination of Isaac Rabin? Well, what we mostly learned is that Jewish people in the Diaspora always prayed for a return to Israel. We learned that they suffered under cruel kings and discriminating laws. But even if this was true, why did they remain in these countries and how did they live normal lives?
I’m not sure if I was entirely conscious of having a desire to know more about these times. But I do remember that each time I encountered a family photo from 1925, or a piece of conversation about life in Europe, I knew that something was missing.
My research led me to read a lot of 19th Jewish history and literature. I had no intention to write a book about it, but I was curious about this enormous missing link in my family’s story. I learned at first that all Jewish life in Eastern Europe shared three common characteristics: 1. At some point, somewhere, a fire will take hold in the Shtetl; 2. A stranger will enter the Shtetl and provoke disagreements; and 3. A lot of women will be abandoned by their husbands.
The Hebrew term “agunah” (meaning lodged, trapped, stuck) relates to the latter, for it is the term for a Jewish woman who has been abandoned by her husband. An agunah is trapped because she cannot get a divorce – a “get” (גט), she cannot remarry and, basically, she cannot continue with her life. Not only that, she still has to single-handedly support her many children, as God commanded: Be fruitful and multiply and replenish the Earth and subdue it. Shmuel Yosef Halevi Czaczkes, a young writer back in 1908, was so disturbed by the problem that after he wrote his famous story Agunot, (the plural of agunah) he decided to change his name to Shmuel Yosef Agnon (a variation of the term agunah). Many years later he won the Nobel Prize for literature.
This problem of abandoned wives was so common that you would see hundreds of advertisements in Hebrew and Yiddish newspapers from women seeking the help of Jewish communities to find their long-lost husbands. Where did these husbands go? Well, it depends. In the late 19th century, the world opened up for Jewish people. Or, if we want to rephrase it more accurately, we should say that Jewish people became more open to the world. Religion lost its grip in many orthodox communities. It was believed that Hasidic Judaism, by forming an alternative to the orthodox method, was responsible for that. But soon it became clear that many Jewish people did not wish merely to change their method of praying, they wanted to change their lives.
In the west it was the United States, di golden medina, the land of opportunity, that attracted people. In the far east it was the dangerous and exciting Palestine, a desolate place where Jewish people would work the land and transform their entire culture. In other major cities in Europe, like Odessa or Minsk, there were universities, knowledge, progress and prospects.
But these exciting opportunities were reserved only for men. The idea that a woman would leave her husband and children was not a remotely realistic one. Women had to take care of their families, and if the husbands left, women could only wait for them to return. By the way, as much as it’s hard to believe, the problem of the agunah still persists in the present day. And in some religious neighbourhoods in Jerusalem you can still find advertisements on bulletin boards from agunot who seek the help of their communities to locate their lost husbands.
And so it was pretty clear to me that the protagonist of my book should be a woman.