The Dance of Genghis Cohn

       First posted 10/4/12. Reposted for Yom Hashoah in memory of Romain Gary

After Shechem raped Dinah he wanted to marry her. His father offered Jacob a generous bride price. Jacobs’s sons added on a demand that they and their townspeople get circumcised, and they agreed. At which point Shimon and Levi swooped in and killed them all. Jacob reprimanded them for messing up relations with the local Canaanites and Peerizzites but they shot back “Should our sister be treated like a prostitute. That was one Jewish response to rape.

Romain Gary (aka Romain Kacev of Vilna)

Romain Gary (aka Romain Kacev of Vilna)

Romain Gary offers another response in his dark comic novel, The Dance of Genghis Cohn. Moishe Cohn is a vaudeville cabaret comedian in Weimar Germany performing with the stage name, Genghis Cohn. He is swept up in the holocaust and now finds himself in Eastern Europe naked with other Jews on the edge of a killing pit. Schatz, the Nazi officer, decides to mock his victims by asking, “Any last requests?” Ever the comedian, Cohn bends over and cracks, “Kish mein tuchis! (Kiss my behind!)”

After the war Cohn extracts his revenge on Officer Schatz, who is now a respectable Police Chief, by possessing him as a dybuk (ghost). He makes Schatz do all sorts of Jewish things like dancing a hora, singing Mein Yiddishe Mama, and eating gefilte fish. The plot gets even wilder and more absurd but that is not the most fascinating aspect of this book. It is the psychology of Genghis Cohn that intrigues me.

Early in the book Cohn tells a joke about of a husband forced to watch Cossacks gang rape his wife. On his way out the officer asks the husband “Why are you crying?” The husband says “From your peasants I expected this, but not from an officer and a gentleman. I at least wanted you to say, “Please, may I?” The joke is horrid but it is an understandable Jewish defense against powerlessness.

Romain Gary was a Jew born in Vilna in 1914 as Roman Kacew (קצב). He was also an activist. After escaping Nazi dominated France he became a pilot in the Free French Forces and flew twenty five sorties over enemy territory. After the war, in recognition of his valor, he was awarded the Ordre de la Liberation and inducted into the Ordre National de la Légion d’Honneur. He had the literary imagination to conjure up the revenge of a helpless Jew but the courage and judgment to know that evil demands a real response in real-time.

These days, the rapists and molesters of orthodox Jewish children are mostly other orthodox Jews like Weberman, Dascolowitz, Kolko and Lebovitz. The government does not oppress Jews. We are not afraid of Canaanim, Perizim, Cossacks, and Nazis. Nevertheless the rapists and molesters get a free ride because ultra orthodox Jews are afraid of their Jewish neighbors. Parents, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, and grandparents abide the sorrow of abuse, while, like Genghis, they hurl some insults in private and harbor fantasies of revenge. At least Cohn had an excuse for resorting to humor.

Does the ultra orthodox world have any answer to the question, “Should our children be treated like prostitutes?”

2 thoughts on “The Dance of Genghis Cohn

  1. You know the standard answer. But it’s never satisfied me, because ultimately, Yaakov did not answer them. Some say that no answer would have satisfied them, so even though he didn’t agree with them, he didn’t answer. But the pshat looks much more like: there was no answer.

    • I belong to the school that midrash only works if it is plausibly consistent with the plain meaning of the text. Our oberchachumim routinely outsmart themselves to everyone’s disadvantage.

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