When times are desperate as they have been in many eras and many places, people tend to resort to desperate measures. They cast their lot with prophets, dreamers, and seers who foretell a bright future--the coming of the millenium, it is often called----when all problems shall be solved, the rough made plain, the poor made rich, and sick shall be healed. Movements develop. They may die away in time or they may thrive and create great civilizations. Western civilization, after all, is based on one such movement. We generally refer to these movements as "cults", unless of course they are successful. In many, but not all, millenial movements, people anticipate the immanent arrival of the New Age so strongly that they throw away their possessions and engage in dissolute behavior: singing, dancing, drinking, engaging in previously-forbidden sex, and so on. Sometimes the "pure" remove themselves to isolated spots to await the end of the world or the Great Change, in extreme cases, they may even commit suicide. Anthropologists have studied many such groups or religions; others are found in history books or newspapers. Our times are not devoid of such groups: remember Jonestown, remember the Branch Davidians, remember that group that committed suicide in California. China (the Taiping), Brazil (Antonio Conselheiro),, Papua New Guinea (the cargo cults), Africa (many studies), Burma, Europe---the list is nearly endless. The Jews have not been immune either. In the 1660s the famous "false Messiah" arose in Turkey, claiming to be ready to lead the Jews to Judgement Day and a new era. Throughout eastern Europe hope sprang up, especially in the Polish-Ukrainian regions devasted by the murderous Bogdan Chmielnitski not long before.
Written as a novel, with lively, colorful characters, Singer describes perfectly the course of such a millenial movement in Goray, an isolated Polish village. Whether you are interested in literature or anthropology, this is a description you cannot afford to miss. We follow the rise and fall of a local cult leader, a prophetess, and the feverish hopes of the Jews, longing for deliverance from "singing King Alpha's song in a strange land". Amidst strange marriages, the breaking of all the strict laws of kashrut, and the wild visions of prophecy, Goray's hopes soar and crash. If you think that the rise of post-Holocaust, post-pogrom Israel is just politics and has nothing to do with any sort of millenarianism, then you should read this wonderful book and reconsider. Powerful language, dark, dreadful images full of demons and damnation only possible from a master like Singer show the strength of the ancient dream of Israel. The tragedy is, of course, that in modern times the dream was realized at somebody else's expense. Reading Abdelrahman Munif's "Cities of Salt", in conjunction with Singer's book would not be a bad idea. It illustrates the world on which such dreams impacted. SATAN IN GORAY is a wonderful book of literature, anthropology, and history from which great understanding may flow. The world needs this understanding.