The fetish we know today as masochism is derived from the name of a writer, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. Born in 1835, in Galicia, of Slav, Spanish and Bohemian descent, Sacher-Masoch is known for his erotic stories about men who enjoy being tied up, whipped and seduced by women (who usually wear high-heeled boots and opulent furs). What most people don’t know is that Sacher-Masoch also wrote a series of Jewish tales with erotic themes.
These Jewish tales were a sub-genre of the then popular Dorfgeschichten “Village Stories,” which expressed nostalgia for the loss of traditional village life that was occurring as a result of rapid industrialization. The Jewish Ghettogeschichten romanticized the lives of the Jews still living in the idyllic traditional way; more impressively, the tales were of a philosemitic (pro-Jewish) nature. Yet Sacher-Masoch was not a Jew.
There have been many attempts to reduce Sacher-Masoch’s work to pornography and his stories to the simple fantasies of a very sick and perverted man. He has been called a “writer of second-rate erotic fiction,” and his tales have been labeled “pornographic,” even by critics familiar with his work. But Sacher-Masoch’s stories have much more to impart to us than simple masochistic fetish. Gilles Deleuze in his article, “Coldness and Cruelty,” says that in Sacher-Masoch’s folklore “history, politics, mysticism, eroticism, nationalism and perversion are closely intermingled, forming a nebula around the scenes of flagellation.”
There is no question that Sacher-Masoch himself had interesting tastes in love. “He enjoyed pretending to be a bear or a bandit or having himself pursued, tied up and subjected to punishments, humiliations and even acute physical pain by an opulent fur-clad woman with a whip; he was given to dressing up as a servant, making all kinds of fetishes and disguises, placing advertisements in newspapers, signing contracts with the women in his life,” and using all of his personal experiences as material for his stories. He includes references to many biblical characters in his work. But he also had something much deeper to say about pain, pleasure, love, the rights of women, and equality for all humanity.
In one of Sacher-Masoch’s Jewish tales, “Hasara Raba,” we find that Penina, a beautiful woman, becomes cruel as a result of an arranged marriage to a Talmud scholar who is indifferent to her charms and beauty. She becomes so enraged with his constant studying that she learns Talmud in order to play at his game. She learns that in order to bring the Messiah the entire world needs to either be filled with virtue or with vice. She then goes out and sleeps with another man. When her husband confronts her about this act, she claims that she was attempting to bring the Messiah through vice.
Penina tells Jehuda, “I want you to take my shoes off for me.” Penina then laughs and says “you don’t seem to know the old belief that says that the person, husband or wife, who has his shoes taken off by the other on the wedding night, will rule the marriage.”
One of Sacher-Masoch’s most common biblical characters is Judith. “Venus in Furs,” one of his most famous erotic works, begins with a quotation from the Book of Judith 16:7, “The Lord hath smitten him by the hand of a woman.” The Book of Judith is one of the books of the apocrypha, and it tells the story of a the daughter of one of the Jewish high priests. On the day before her wedding, as was the custom of the country, Holofernes was to sleep with her. Judith went to Holofernes, seduced him, served him wine and cheese pastries and when he fell asleep she cut off his head.
Later on in “Venus in Furs” we find Severin breakfasting “under the arbor, reading the Book of Judith.” He says, “I could not help envying the heathen Holofernes who came to such a bloody end, beheaded by a regal lady.” He then quotes once again “’The Lord Hath smitten him by the hand of a woman.’. . .What must I do for him to smite me?”
In “Hasara Raba” we also see Penina on her wedding day standing among everyone like “Judith who slew Holofernes.” There is apparently another Jewish tale written by Sacher-Masoch called “Judith von Bialipol” that takes place during the Turkish invasion of Ukraine in the 1670s. In the story, a brave and powerful Jewish woman saves her people by a combined use of eroticism and masochism.
Another popular biblical reference Sacher-Masoch uses is that of Esther and Ahasuerus.. Esther uses a combination of eroticism, the sway she holds over her husband, and masochism to save the Jewish people. We find the reference to Esther in “Hasara Raba.” Chaike throws herself at Penina’s feet to beg for mercy and for food to feed her children “just like Haman embraced the knees of the beautiful Esther at Ahasuerus’ feast, and she begged in vain for bread as Haman begged Esther in vain for his life.” The tailor’s wife in “My Tailor Abrahamek” is described as “a full figured brunette of medium height with the finely chiseled, delightful features of King Ahasuerus’ consort, whose magic was powerful enough to bring the evil Haman to the gallows.”
Yet another biblical reference, also in “Hasara Raba,” is that of Lilith, Adam’s first wife. In a fit of rage Jehuda tells his wife, Penina, that she is not a woman, she is “one of the four female devils. You’re Lilith; you are as beautiful as she is and just as evil, and like her, you command 480 bands of corrupting angels.” Penina retorts, wise in the ways of the Bible and Talmud, “Wasn’t this Lilith Adam’s first wife, whom God created at the same time as him from the earth’s filth? And didn’t He divorce her from him because she was sullen and unbearable? And isn’t that why he then created Eve from Adam’s rib? Are you saying you want a divorce from me?” Penina uses her wit, not just her erotic beauty to bring Jehuda to his knees.
Despite the similarities that Sacher-Masoch’s Jewish tales share with his erotic tales, what is most striking about them is the profound knowledge of Judaism Sacher-Masoch displays. He is well-steeped in Jewish history and folklore, and a stunning familiarity with Jewish texts such as the Talmud, the Zohar, the Sepher Hamidot, and the Yad Hachazaka. Sacher-Masoch not only quotes many Jewish prayers and sayings, but he knows the customs of the Jews inside-out and has an uncanny familiarity with Yiddish and Hebrew.