One of the very first sounds heard in modern Yiddish literature was a cry of anguish over the injustice of arbitrary taxation. The year was 1869, and the pioneering Yiddish and Hebrew writer Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh (aka Mendele Mocher Seforim) wrote a play denouncing corrupt Jewish tax collectors whose sole purpose in life was to squeeze the lifeblood out of their fellow Jews in the shtetl. He called the play “The Tax” (Di Takse), knowing this word would evoke a compelling dramatic situation: Readers knew that taxes typically meant exploitation, providing a way for wealthy Jews to prey upon their hapless, poorer brethren. A recurring image in Abramovitsh’s play is that of wolves devouring sheep.
The system of taxation that occasioned the play was one that made corruption virtually inevitable. According to this system, the Russian government would compute the amount of money it expected from each Jewish community. This amount would be paid up front by a specific individual, who leased the right to collect taxes from his fellow Jews on candles and kosher meat, two indispensible items for religious life. From 1844 onward, a percentage of this tax would also filter back to communal institutions, such as the local school and burial society. Since tax collecting was considered a form of livelihood, the collector could extract more than he had originally paid. But since this “salary” was not regulated, the collector could set the taxes at whatever rate he determined, leaving the community at the mercy of a potentially brutal master.
Abramovitsh’s play underscores the triumph of self-interest over charity. The tax collectors meet over sumptuous feasts to lament the plight of the poor, all the while increasing their own profits. “Surely, God will help these poor Jews,” the rapacious Wolf Spaudik remarks (note the first name). “But in the meantime, it won’t hurt to raise the tax on a piece of meat by a few kopeks.” As the poor get poorer, a ray of hope comes from the young scholar Shloyme Veker, who decries the tax collectors’ corruption. But though the scholar’s name means “awakener,” his efforts at reform come to naught. He finally abandons the town in desperation.
The burdens of shtetl taxation continued to be documented in the next generation by the Yiddish realist Dovid Bergelson. In his 1914 story, “In a Backwoods Town,” Bergelson envisions the shtetl elite as a decadent class on the verge of extinction. The kosher tax monopoly is held by Elisha, a man devoid of charitable impulses, whose wealth was inherited from his grandfather. Elisha is so loathed by the local butchers that they organize a work stoppage, depriving him of hundreds of rubles. When he uncovers a plot to smuggle in meat from a neighboring town, he is fatally beaten by a ruddy-cheeked butcher boy.
Both Bergelson and Abramovitsh construct moral fables pitting innocent shtetl Jews against corrupt tax collectors. These ordinary Jews preserve their moral instincts and feelings of solidarity, suggesting that a world of tzedakah might one day displace the cynical rule of the “town benefactors.”
In the United States, the possibilities for this kind of moral fable diminish, since the direct
presence of the tax collector is lost in an abstract, impersonal system. This new arrangement is palpable in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s novel Enemies: A Love Story (1966), which moves Yiddish narrative from the context of moral conflict to that of existential quandary. Herman Broder, who managed to avoid the Nazis by hiding out in a hayloft in Poland, earns a living in America by ghost writing speeches for a sham rabbi. Having made hiding a way of life, he never pays any taxes. For this freedom, he pays a heavy price: He is constantly beset by fantasies of the Internal Revenue Service one day demanding its due.
Singer’s novel presents the hitch in the American system of taxation, a system that ostensibly draws its legitimacy from the will of the people. By concealing its face behind three impersonal letters, IRS, the agency has become an abstraction. And the rage expressed by the old-world victims of corrupt tax collectors has become, in the person of Herman Broder, a pervasive paranoia, a form of anxiety that has lost its target. The scourge of the tax collector has disappeared, but so, too, has any hope for charity.email print