Abishag: from Biblical Obscurity
to Literary Fame
By MIKA AHUVIA
A beautiful virgin; an aged, enfeebled monarch; and
their perplexing (and unconsummated) relationship. The tale of Abishag (“very
beautiful”) and King David, from the biblical book of Kings, was fodder for the
poet Rilke—and for three subversive Yiddish writers after World War I.
The story of King David and Abishag, from the biblical book of Kings, is one of
the more striking Bible stories. Yet it didn’t inspire much interpretation
until modernist writers—and in particular, secular Yiddish writers—began
exploring it, making their own artful, smart and subversive way through the
story. In 1923, David Pinski’s five-act play, King David and His Wives, presented
a strikingly unconventional analysis of the legendary King. Pinski, a Yiddish
poet and playwright, exploited his audience’s familiarity with the biblical
narrative, which begins with these four verses:
King David was old and advanced in years; and although
they covered him with clothes, he could not get warm. So his servants said to
him, “Let a young virgin be sought for my lord the king, and let her wait on
the king, and be his attendant; let her lie in your bosom, so that my lord the
king may be warm.” So they searched for a beautiful girl through all the
territory of Israel, and found Abishag the Shunammite, and brought her to the
king. The girl was very beautiful. She became the king’s attendant and served
him, but the king did not know her sexually.
Thus Abishag is introduced; her function described; her role
in David’s life delimited. Pinski’s play opens with a youthful David’s
conflicted courtship of Michal, and by the fourth act, the play has shed light
on the King past his prime, entering his harem and finding “old, cold mothers”
instead of the young wives he once loved. When Abishag is brought to the King,
she learns of her role as would-be wife. For her part, she is overjoyed.
Here it is not impotency—or a halakhic
consideration—that prevents David from consummating his relationship. Rather,
it is the King’s own intellectual stance, which he explains in exceedingly
Greek and Platonic terms. (A Platonic relationship is one in which sexual
attraction exists, but it is redirected toward intellectual enlightenment, as
in Plato’s Phaedrus.) A second
interesting feature is that although the topic appears to be religious, the
play is entirely secular in subject matter. Pinski's audience was familiarity
with the biblical narrative, but there’s nothing else religious about this
play. Thus, Pinski presents a complex portrait of biblical personages that can
be read both as continuous with past tradition (as a midrash), or as definite
break from the past.
Pinski wasn’t the only Yiddish writer taken with the Biblical story. Three
years later (1926), also in New York City, Jacob Glatshteyn wrote a poem
entitled “Abishag,” which foregrounds the anxieties and weariness that
overwhelm the King late at night. Glatshteyn used the David/Abishag story to a
different end: he sought to emphasize the alienation endemic to modern urban
life. Outside the King’s chambers, loud troublemakers await the King’s demise
and displacement. David thus commands Abishag:
Shout into the street: King David is not yet dead.
But King David wants to sleep and they won’t let him.
Adoniyahu with his gang shout my crown off my gray head.
One could argue that King David, peaceless, tired, and
remote, is supposed to symbolize the spirit of Jewish culture, and that
Abishag, the lovely youth, symbolizes Yiddish literature, which has arrived too
late to enliven the Jewish people. This might allude to how the new sensitive,
Introspectivists Yiddish poets (Glatshteyn was one himself) happened upon
Yiddish at the worst time—just as its potential audience was declining.
However Abishag is not given enough credit in Glatshteyn’s poem to justify this
reading. The Introspectivists appreciated Yiddish language and poetry too
much—“We believe in Yiddish. We love Yiddish” their manifesto states—to equate
it with a marginal character, doomed to play a silent part in Jewish history.
If anything, Glatshteyn and his colleagues saw Yiddish language as the son who
“must break away altogether from his father and set up his own tent.” The
poem’s title is “Abishag” because her name conjures up a vague recollection
that’s troubling when brought into focus: an image of helpless youth and
hopeless old age unproductively joined together.
Following Pinski and Glatshteyn, Itzik Manger (1936) was the first and only
poet in the interwar period to treat Abishag’s position with poignant sympathy.
In his poem, “King David and Abishag,” he describes the sense of loss that
She is the
And warms the old man’s bed.
She had supposed—such notions as
A country girl conceives.
Often at night, sees her fate,
And silently, she grieves.
By transporting biblical scenes to rural Eastern Europe,
Manger was able to blend folksy and modern, thus emphasizing the spatial,
chronological, and moral distance between biblical events and the contemporary
social standards. By highlighting the unjust and tragic roles played by
heroines in Jewish narratives, Manger exposed the bankruptcy of ancient Jewish
texts. At the same time, by drawing on familiar texts, Manger created a sense
of intimacy and exclusivity with his audience, which allows him to criticize
the biblical texts with some impunity.
These three Yiddish writers, Pinski, Glatshteyn, and Manger sensed that the
intimate distance between David and Abishag was a fitting analogy to the
individual’s encounter with modernity. In these works they do not express an
anxiety about passing into obscurity. As Abishag’s revival in literature in the
last century demonstrates, we cannot predict what aspects of their cultural
heritage future generations of Jews will appreciate. Like Abishag, Yiddish
literature may be rediscovered. The Jewish people have already proven once that
they can resuscitate a neglected language; perhaps they will come to realize
that two languages are necessary to express their ever-conflicted national
character. If they do come to this realization, they will find a language and
literature capable of coming to terms with the challenges of any age.
This piece was adapted, with the author’s
permission, from a longer essay.