Olga Tokarczuk’s Panoramic Novel of Jewish Poland

Olga Tokarczuk’s Panoramic Novel of Jewish Poland

End Times

Olga Tokarczuk’s book of false messiahs.


Messianism is the collectively held belief that an individual with supernatural powers will redeem our world from human misery. It is a religious phenomenon directed toward the future, but it has its origins in the material present, in the economic, social, and cultural crises of a particular historical moment. The conviction that the end of time has arrived—or soon will—comes from the hope that this messiah will help the world reverse course.

Ours is a profoundly troubled time, and one with a few false messiahs as well. When Olga Tokarczuk set out to write her mammoth novel The Books of Jacob in 2014, these messiahs were perhaps less rooted in the kinds of nationalist movements we have become accustomed to across the world in the past decade and more so in the furies of religious fundamentalism found in an earlier century. But her vision of messianism appears no less potent today, as the countercurrents against liberalism have spread across the globe.

Tokarczuk’s inquiry begins in the Poland of the 18th century. Charting the movements of Jewish messianism, in particular the so-called Frankists, she also considers the violence and anti-Semitism in Poland that spawned these countercurrents. At the center of her novel is the real-life Jacob Frank, born in 1726, who began his career as a prominent mainstream Jewish thinker before his increasingly messianic views led to his excommunication from the Jewish community, his eventual rejection by Muslim leaders in the Ottoman Empire, and a heresy trial among Christians, which resulted in his imprisonment in a monastery in Czȩstochowa, a city in southern Poland.

In a display of narrative elasticity, Tokarczuk tells Frank’s story not through his own eyes but through how others perceive him. Frank is seen numerous times as a self-proclaimed fool, dispensing all kinds of cockamamie theological theories that seek to dismantle, or else unify, the Abrahamic faiths. Or he is shown committing or inspiring acts of depravity. But his persona is less important than those of the Talmudists, archbishops, noblemen, freethinkers, bodyguards, and his own cadre of radical followers whose deeply held convictions he massaged into an appealing common faith with astonishing ease.

The Books of Jacob is divided into seven parts with names like “The Book of Sand,” “The Book of the Road,” “The Book of the Comet,” and “The Book of Metal and Sulphur.” Each is made up of countless mini-chapters, the vast majority of them written in the third person, with the exception of letters and diaries by a handful of witnesses of Frank’s messianic adventures, or peripheral figures whose accounts help explain the major ideological trends of the period. Defying the traditional choice of the past tense as the default verbal conjugation of the novel, Tokarczuk tells her multitudinous tale in the present tense, as if Frank’s exploits are happening before our very eyes.

Readers learn that Frank—the titular Jacob in The Books of Jacob—was a follower of Shabtai Tzvi, a false messiah from Smyrna whose impact reverberated deeply in Jewish history and whose odyssey was chronicled in minute detail and with enviable insight in a biography by Gershom Scholem. Tzvi’s rise as a messiah came about at a time of intense religious violence and anti-Semitism. The Khmelnytsky massacres, in which Cossacks killed an estimated 40,000 to 100,000 Jews living in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, took place in the middle of the 17th century. It was therefore not surprising that, among Jews living in the region, an sense of impending Armageddon was in the air. An ossified rabbinical hierarchy, often slow to process or respond to the brutality against Jews, only made this anxiety more acute.

For many, mysticism and a more spiritual and unmediated expression of religion became appealing. The Sefer ha-Bahir, the Zohar, and other mystical documents in circulation for a while acquired new adherents during this period. Tokarczuk’s novel incorporates many of these concepts into its text: We read about the Shekhina, the female aspect of the divine; Ein Sof, the Almighty prior to any self-manifestation; and the Merkhava, the celestial light invoked in Ezekiel’s biblical vision. And all this otherworldly philosophizing is set against a tapestry of relentless disaster: comets igniting the formation of popular cults, epidemics erasing entire populations, and wars bringing ruin and desolation. The impression one gets is of a cosmic fight between light and darkness.

Many turned to Hasidism. Fostered by Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer (later known as the Baal Shem Tov), this mystical expression of Judaism was not quite messianic. Instead, it emphasized spiritual awakening and fighting against the rationalist straitjacket of the Talmudic status quo, and thus it focused on the joys of encountering the sacred in daily life, encouraging its followers to congregate around storytelling masters who offered lessons about the magical dimensions of the universe. But Tzvi took a different tack: Enormously charismatic, he was visited by extreme mood swings, and his ecstatic experiences were apparently quite performative. This histrionic aspect allowed him to command a large cadre of fanatical believers. His devotees were willing to follow him anywhere, literally—from Smyrna, where he angered the rabbinate, to Salonika, known as a Kabbalistic center, to Constantinople (today’s Istanbul). Everywhere he went, Tzvi commanded attention. In Constantinople, he enlisted a Jewish preacher who avowed him as the messiah; and in Palestine and Cairo, where he went next, he was able to penetrate the court of the Turkish governor. His movement developed roots in major European cities, including Venice and London, as well as in North Africa.

Then, in 1666, after being arrested by the Ottoman authorities, Tzvi left his followers. He was given three options by the sultan’s vizier in Adrianople: to be put to a special type of trial (an archer would shoot a series of arrows at him, and if they all missed, it would prove he was the messiah); to be impaled; or to choose apostasy. To almost everyone’s surprise, Tzvi chose to convert. Renaming him Mehmed Efendi, the sultan made Tzvi his personal doorkeeper. A few of his followers were livid at Tzvi’s decision, but others justified his conversion as a vindication of sin. A portion of his followers, who until then had been mostly devout, became antinomians: They believed that to achieve beatitude, they had to become reprobates, for only a divinity that perceived the universe through opposites could be fully empathetic to the chaotic rhythms of nature. All of this might sound fanciful to us, as if Judas, through his betrayal of Jesus, was responsible for the advent of Christianity, or as if Satan, in the Book of Job, sets the right course for Job to pursue, not the Almighty. But for a young Jacob Frank, attempting to make sense of the violent world around him, Tzvi had decided to embrace a subversive understanding of evil. For Frank and his growing number of followers, Tzvi’s thinking, particularly his conversion to Islam, was an invitation to turn morality upside down. Tzvi’s decision to surrender his Judaism, the Frankists suggested, was a secret message: Right was now wrong, and vice versa. This attitude—that the accepted moral law in society is useless because faith alone is necessary for redemption—is intrinsic to cults, whose tenets are based on the subversion of ethical hierarchies. In their view, salvation is likely to come only after extreme deprivation.

Tzvi’s and Frank’s messianic excesses took place against the backdrop of their near opposite: what is known in Hebrew as Haskala, or the Jewish Enlightenment, in which disparate figures from Baruch Spinoza to Moses Mendelssohn repudiated biblical dogmatism and sought to modernize or even secularize Jewish thought, bringing it into accordance with the larger Enlightenment. A central part of this movement was political as well as theological: Even as Europe’s Jews experienced the violent furies of anti-Semitism, Haskala thinkers contended that Jews, religious or otherwise, should be able to live as equals in an increasingly secular and enlightened Europe. This pursuit of Jewish emancipation was more a pipe dream than an achievable reality in a world in which Jews were promised civil or political rights whose fruits could not be savored immediately. The fracturing of Jewish culture in the Pale of Settlement—the region in Eastern Europe where the Russian czar had allowed them to live—resulted in a theological splintering that produced all sorts of alternatives, including extremist ones like Jacob Frank’s. Some of these alternatives were peaceful and imagined a hopeful future, while others sabotaged that future through the rejection of morality.

The conflict between the Enlightenment and spiritualism, between sectarianism and assimilation, between visions of coexistence and of extreme isolation, runs through Tokarczuk’s novel. In it, we meet rationalists who become epicureans, Talmudists who metamorphose into apostates, and law-abiding secular citizens who turn into fundamentalists. Many of these transformations are told through the story of Frank and the Frankists, who spearheaded a movement that sought to revive Shabtai Tzvi’s messianic sectarianism in the 1780s.

Frank’s energy and charisma were endless, and his life was full of incident: He was imprisoned, declared himself a baron, demanded specific behavior from his followers that baffled everyone involved, and accrued vast wealth for his sect. His followers were drawn to his ideas, including the conviction that salvation could be achieved only through the embrace of what Frank called “the religion of Edom,” which had its own ethical system. He built a court around himself and established a militia to defend him against apostates eager to bring down his movement. Called the “Holy Master,” Frank railed against his enemies with vicious fury, be they rabbis who cautioned against his insanities or political figures in Poland who saw him as seditious. He gave speeches and sermons about the end of the world, which were posthumously assembled into a volume called, in English, The Collection of the Words of the Lord Jacob Frank. Toward the end of his life, after he’d visited Czar Paul I in 1786, he passed the baton to his daughter Eve. She was herself a fanciful character, depleting the wealth her father had accrued until she was forced into bankruptcy—thereby marking the symbolic end to a movement that was a Hollywood-like epic of messianic reorganization, linking prophecy with politics and cultism with commerce.

One of the beauties in narrating this wild story of a lunatic persuading his followers that his fabrications are actually the word of God is the comfort with which Tokarczuk plays with the babel of tongues spoken by the Frankists. At one point, her characters are speaking Yiddish; at another, the Judeo-Spanish language of Ladino. They also communicate in Polish, Turkish, German, Russian, and a variety of code languages. The Jews of Europe were a multilingual lot, often forced to wander from one diaspora to the next, picking up and adapting languages as they made their new homes and cultures their own. Tokarczuk deals deftly with these dialectical adaptations, at times coloring the Polish syntax with Yiddishisms and terms from Turkish, Russian, German, and regional dialects, all of which Jennifer Croft accommodates beautifully in her English translation. There are also extended sections in the narrative in which the verbal cadence of a particular set of characters takes over.

The novel is rife as well with nonverbal code switching, charting the many transformations of different social types as they adapt to their new surroundings. The effect is much like looking at one of Hieronymus Bosch’s apocalyptic paintings. While Frank and his entourage serve as protagonists, there are countless other characters, all with their own narrative arc and evolution. While the story line progresses chronologically, the novel’s 965 pages are numbered regressively, as if we were reading backward—perhaps because Tokarczuk wants to emulate how Hebrew is read, but also to remind us that the story we are encountering is, in some ways, being viewed both retrospectively and through a distorted mirror. Time itself seems to move backward too: In the prologue of the novel, as well as throughout its pages and in the epilogue, the character Yente, who is one of Frank’s ancestors, lies on her deathbed but cannot die, no matter how hard she tries.

The last section of The Books of Jacob, however, is disappointing. Tokarczuk has looked, in intimate detail, at the way the Frankists infiltrated the upper echelons of Polish society. They changed names, becoming confidants of the king, or powerful priests, or barons, merchants, and other kinds of influencers. They became involved in trade that brought tea from China, coffee from Turkey, and chocolate from America. The last episodes take place in the German city of Offenbach, on the bank of the River Main, where Frank’s dissolute, profligate children bring his legacy to an end. Here we don’t get a Bildung of the important characters, their path to achieving a sobering realization of their own shortcomings, but rather a kind of Wikipedia list of what happened with each, the places they lived in, or the artifacts they touched. One of the protagonists, along with his younger brother, dies on the guillotine next to Danton; a Russian czar becomes fascinated with “the Jewish-Christian colony” the Frankists created; and Frank’s skull, described as “the skull of a Jewish patriarch,” is removed from his grave and makes its way to Berlin, where it serves as an example of “Jewish inferiority” and then, after the Second World War, vanishes without a trace. This last section feels like a concession to modern sensibilities, as if everything in our universe needs to be delivered in a perfectly packaged message—a clean ending to a story with a disorderly beginning.

Tokarczuk’s encyclopedic command of her sources—Jewish, Christian, and Muslim, Ashkenazic and Sephardic, Polish and Turkish—is hard to overstate. (Her basic knowledge of Frank’s story seems to come, in part, from the scholarship of Paweł Maciejko, author of The Mixed Multitude: Jacob Frank and the Frankist Movement, 1755-1816.) And her capacity to re-create the past is just splendid. Filled with black-and-white reproductions, mostly of engravings but also maps and other visual paraphernalia, The Books of Jacob was written for a Polish audience, and it is steadfast in its desire to confront readers with the glaring void in Poland’s present: Close to 3.3 million Jews lived there in 1939; in 2016, fewer than 3,200 people described themselves as Jews in the national census. It goes without saying that the Nazis did not import anti-Semitism into Poland with their arrival, nor did it end with their departure. Already in 15th-century Krakow, Jews were expelled from some areas and forced to move into others. To this day, Polish stores sell little toys and Christmas decorations that depict a bearded Jew with a sack of money. When you ask about their meaning, the answer you get is that they are good-luck charms.

In this sense, The Books of Jacob is a stunningly courageous work of art: The novel becomes a mirror through which it demands that Poland see itself. But The Books of Jacob also goes beyond its political and moral ambitions: In its sheer scope, following the Frankists as they breach borders and transcend national histories, and as they and their Jewish contemporaries are persecuted by those who want to police those borders, the novel reminds readers of both the fictions and the powerful extremism found in the idea that worlds can be gated off from one another. In an era in which a new kind of messianism is spreading across the world—one that seeks to reassert a belligerent nationalism we hoped might be transcended—The Books of Jacob also reminds us that extreme ideologies are a fixture of every age. Spread a lie and build a movement around it, or vice versa.

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