Many years ago, I had the good fortune to attend a musical in New York City that was entirely in Yiddish, a presentation of the National Yiddish Theatre Folksbiene. The play, Gimpel Tam, was based on the short story “Gimpel The Fool” by the late Yiddish novelist, Isaac Bashevis Singer.
Because my parents, a”h, Polish Holocaust survivors, spoke Yiddish at home, I pretty much am able to understand conversational Yiddish – if not speak it as easily.
I am convinced that when it comes to expressing one’s feelings or opinions about anything under the sun, Yiddish is one of the best languages to do it in. Yiddish terminology is in a class of its own in getting the message across. Just the word “oy,” for example, can capture and summarize in one word, what in any other language would take quite a few.
And indeed, the character of Gimpel Tam, a baker, elicited a pained oy from me – for he is a person whose I would best describe as a contradiction, an oxymoron. An example of an oxymoron is jumbo shrimp. Gimpel is a person one can greatly admire yet despise at the same time. You can’t help but be impressed by his honesty and his ability to trust his fellow man – a trait that he naturally projects on everyone else. Just like a liar automatically thinks he is being lied to – because that is what he does, so too Gimpel assumes everyone is honest and truthful – because he is.
Thus, when the townspeople tell him to run out of his bakery – that Mashiach has come and his dead parents are looking for him, he drops what he is doing and runs out. At first, Gimpel is skeptical – he has been the butt of many previous jokes, but again – as he has always done – he takes them at their word. According to his way of thinking, they must be telling the truth – for why would they deliberate lie or mislead him? Of course, the townspeople could be hallucinating, but – he tells himself – “Can the whole town be crazy?” So, the truthful Gimpel believes everyone is telling the truth. He gives everyone the benefit of his doubt, over and over again.
Gimpel soon finds himself in a situation with serious consequences; the local shadchan wants to arrange a match for him with a woman of ill repute. Gimpel, who is religious, expresses his shock at the matchmaker for even thinking of setting him up with Elke, who has an out of wedlock son. The shadchan reprimands Gimpel for doubting his good intentions, telling Gimpel he is mistaken, that the little boy is Elke’s brother, and they are orphans.
Gimpel believes him because if the shadchan says that it is so – then it is. Why would he lie to him?
In a later scene, Gimpel accuses Elke of being unfaithful, for with his own eyes he saw her with another man. She lashes out at him, chiding him for confusing a shadow with a human being. The pious Gimpel accepts her version of what he knows he saw. He is honest and so she must be.
However, I believe there is another more worrisome reason for his denial; it is so much easier to believe lies than have to deal with an unpleasant reality. Closing one’s eyes to a difficult truth takes so much less effort. Denying a horrific reality means there is no need to do something about it – which often entails much misirat nefesh – soul-wrenching endeavors and the likelihood of alienating family, friends and even one’s community.
Gimpel lives his life believing everyone’s tales, seeing only good or, deliberately “sticking his head in the sand.” In Yiddish, there is a phrase, “mach nish visen” – making yourself oblivious. It can be described by the famous scenario of three monkeys, one covering its eyes, one its ears, and one its mouth.
On one hand, giving people the benefit of the doubt is a very noble trait. In fact, we are told of the sage, Rav Zushya, who only saw the positive in people. It is said that he once saw a Jew oiling the wheel of his wagon while he davened. Instead of chiding him for working while praying, Rav Zushya looked upward to Heaven and said to G-d,” Look how wonderful Your children are. Even when they work, they daven to you!”
Yet denying reality, and instead justifying someone’s actions, can result in very dire consequences. Refusing to acknowledge the “facts on the ground,” deliberately “spinning” a situation staring you in the face and falsely re-interpreting the obvious, can be self-destructive and fatal.
For example, a woman who is frequently battered by her spouse but stays with him because she accepts his version of “the truth” – “she had it coming,” “it’s her fault,” – is doing a “Gimpel” and allowing herself to be destroyed emotionally, spiritually and often physically.
The term for convincing someone that their reality is skewered is called gaslighting. People lacking in self-esteem or who are naïve, are easy targets for those who want them to question and doubt what they know is true and accept a false reality. In these cases, reach out and get a “second opinion” from those who you know have your back. Your mental and physical well-being depends on it.
Gimpel Tam was written and directed by Moshe Yassur, scored by Radu Captari, and musical direction was by Zalmen Mlotek.