Kafka’s Gay, Hasidic Hebrew Teacher

Was Hebrew poet, journalist and teacher Georg Mordechai Langer’s the first modern attempt to reconcile homosexuality and Judaism?

Georg Mordechai Langer turns up from time to time as a curious sidebar to the life of Franz Kafka. One biographer of Kafka describes Langer as “a medieval Jewish mystic born into the wrong century”; another refers to him as “the Orthodox fanatic.” But Langer’s interests went beyond religion. A prolific author, he wrote books, essays, and articles on a variety of subjects in Czech, German, and Hebrew. He was a published poet and an anthologist who possessed an authentic grasp of Hasidic scriptures and Kabbalistic literature. His striking proficiency in Modern Hebrew allowed him to eke out a living giving Hebrew lessons to young Zionists in Prague.

Like Kafka, Langer came from an assimilated, German-speaking, middle-class family, and like Kafka, he showed an avid interest in all things Jewish. But while Kafka restricted his exploration to the secular—attending the performances of a Yiddish theater troupe from Poland and reading Hasidic tales, but rarely setting foot inside a synagogue—Langer made the unusual decision at age 19 to leave his comfortable bourgeois home in Prague and journey to eastern Galicia where he became a student in the court of the Belzer Rebbe. When Langer returned home several months later he’d grown a red beard and side curls and—to the utter dismay of his family—paraded about Prague in a caftan and wide-brimmed hat. Shortly after the Great War broke out, he was drafted into the Austrian army and was soon jailed for refusing orders that interfered with his religious practices. Deemed “mentally bewildered,” Langer was discharged. He returned to Belz where he spent the war years studying Torah, Talmud, and Kabbalah.

Langer comes alive in the introduction Elana Wolff has written for the translation she and her husband, Menachem Wolff, have published of Langer’s Piyyutim ve-Shirei Yedidot (Poems and Songs of Love, Guernica Editions). According to Wolff, Langer was also a serious student of Freud and his disciples, and employed “Freudian methods in analyzing subconscious sources of Jewish ritual, mysticism, and the origin of the religious idea.” This led to his book-length study, Die Erotik der Kabbala (The Eroticism of Kabbalah, 1923). Langer’s most popular book was Devět bran (Nine Gates, 1937), a compilation, in Czech, of Hasidic tales of saints and wonder­-working rabbis.

 

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