Masochism’s Jewish Roots

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Michael T. O’Pecko, the translator of the volume of Jewish tales A Light for Others has some insights in the afterword to his book on how Sacher-Masoch may have come to be so well versed in Judaism: “Anti-Semitic opponents of Sacher-Masoch regularly proclaimed him Jewish, hoping thereby to reduce the philo-Semitic program of his Jewish tales to pure self-interest.” However, Sacher-Masoch was not Jewish. In a conversation with Carl Spitteler, the author of the 1895 foreword to A Light for Others, Sacher-Masoch intentionally directs the conversation to the controversy surrounding his alleged Jewish ancestry: “He denied the point most determinedly and cited the following two proofs: ‘Do people seriously think…that arch-conservative Austria would ever have entrusted a Jew with a high administrative position such as my father held?’ And his second proof was: ‘How could I so openly have taken the side of the Jews in my works, how could I have described them with such loving tenderness if I were a Jew myself?’”

His detailed knowledge of the religion and the cultural practices of the Jews may have come about because his grandfather, as a professor of medicine and rector of the University of Lemberg, fought to improve the public health of the city through getting the authorities to open up the Lemberg ghetto. Sacher-Masoch’s grandfather “was seen by the Jews of Lemberg as a friend” and was therefore allowed “uncommon access for a Christian to Jewish households,” and he often allowed the young Leopold to accompany him. Sacher-Masoch apparently also visited the famous Zaddik Liebmann in Sadagora, the Hasid depicted in the tales “Jewish Sects in Galicia,” and “Hasara Raba.” Additionally, “Sacher-Masoch was said to frequently have told the story that he spent a year as the guest of a Jewish estate owner in Galicia, where he immersed himself in ‘Judischkeit’ as much as possible.”

Another way Sacher-Masoch may have become acquainted with Jewish culture, according to David Biale’s article “Masochism and Philosemetism: The Strange Case of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch,” was through his father. Sacher-Masoch’s father was the chief of police in Lemberg, and he “took an active role in the controversies between Hasidim and Maskilim. . .unlike his son, he was hostile to Hasidism and wrote a number of quite negative memoranda on the Hasidim.” Sacher-Masoch took a much more sympathetic view of Hasidism, evident in his stories “Jewish Sects in Galicia” and “Hasara Raba” – specifically in the positive light in which the Rabbi of Sadagora is portrayed.

The question still remains why Sacher-Masoch chose to write these Jewish tales, especially considering the fact that he must have known he would be criticized and ostracized as a result. O’Pecko claims he did so because for two reasons: Sacher-Masoch was against the rising anti-semitism of the time and was opposed to the founding of the new Prussian-dominated German Empire in 1871. He was devoted to the idea of a “United States of Europe” under the Hapsburgs where all of Austria-Hungary could achieve equality. These Jewish tales were a way he could counter this rising anti-semitism. O’Pecko’s second reason is a more plausible explanation, and it makes much more sense: he claims Sacher-Masoch wrote these Jewish tales simply because they were popular both among gentiles fascinated by the inhabitants of Galicia, and among a growing Jewish middle-class reading public. Perhaps he simply wrote these Jewish tales because they tapped a fruitful financial market for his work.

Yet most of his Jewish stories are obsessed with Jewish women to whom Sacher-Masoch attributes masochistic motifs such as furs, dark eyes, white skin and long beautiful hair, even though most Jewish women were not wealthy enough to own furs. Many of his stories feature powerful and domineering women who have weak husbands. Biale suggests that Sacher-Masoch “used his Jewish stories as a vehicle for his erotic fantasies, he also adopted eroticism as a cloak for a statement on the Jews.”
Furthermore, Biale posits that Sacher-Masoch’s Jewish tales contained three hidden agendas: that the eroticization of the women promoted “the emancipation of Jewish women,” that “to treat the Jews as subjects of eroticism means to treat them as normal human beings” and thereby promote Jews’ acceptance and emancipation as a whole. Biale also suggests that “given the nature of his erotic fantasies, it is possible that the only way he could express his philosemitism was by portraying the Jews – through their women – not as victims, but as powerful and victorious.”

Sacher-Masoch was also obsessed with the story of the false messiah, Sabbatai Zvi. He wrote a biography of the man entitled Sabbathai Zewy in 1874. Supposedly, this novelette is Sacher-Masoch’s most erotic Jewish tale. In his adaptation of the story, Miriam, Sabbatai’s third wife forbids him to touch her, unlike his first two wives who repeatedly attempt to seduce him, but he refuses to touch them. Miriam convinces him that he is not the Messiah and attempts to make a man out of him. She forces him to sin with her, binds a crown of thorns to his head and beats him with a thorn branch. When he recovers she tells him he is not the Messiah of Israel anymore and she gets him to convert to Islam.

While the above story has some relevance for Sacher-Masoch, the use of the name Sabbatai for the main character in his story “A Light for Others” is perhaps more illuminating. Sabbatai is an Iluy, a Talmud scholar of tremendous proportions. When a flower falls upon his desk and he dissects it, he becomes enlightened and escapes/rises out of his sheltered life. Sabbatai discovers nature and is grasped by an insatiable curiosity and desire to learn about the natural world. He stops studying Talmud, reads only secular books, and is eventually thrown out by the Jewish community and divorced by his wife. Sabbatai goes to Vienna where he gets a university degree, teaches at the university, converts to Christianity and marries Isabella. However, Sabbatai’s ideas are Darwinian in nature and he is held as a heretic and asked by the university to remit his ideas. He refuses and is put into an insane asylum. When he eventually gets let out by a student uprising, he is killed while fighting for the revolution in the streets.

Like Sabbatai, Sacher-Masoch’s ideas are too radical for the world to accept. When Sacher-Masoch hid his ideas under the cover of erotic tales, just as Sabbatai hid his ideas about natural history under the cloak of Talmud study, he was found out, just like Sabbatai’s heresy was discovered. When Sacher-Masoch tried a more direct approach, framing his ideas in the form of Jewish tales, he was ostracized, just as Sabbatai’s lectures were banned and he was forbidden to teach. Sabbatai is put into a mental asylum, just as Sacher-Masoch was committed for madness later in life.

Perhaps Sacher-Masoch saw himself as a latter-day Messiah, enlightening society to share his messianic dream of equality. Perhaps he also saw himself as an Iluy: brilliant, knowledgeable, and capable of freeing the world from prejudice – but only if he remains uncensored.

Saddened by the neglect his work had suffered, distraught by the persecution he underwent for his erotic, philo-semitic and political ideas, Sacher-Masoch went mad and gave up hope. He wanted to emancipate the world from old-fashioned ideas about love, pain and pleasure. He attempted to show Jews in a sympathetic light and women in dominant roles, thereby emancipating all minority groups – not just women and Jews. His ideal was that all of humanity should achieve equality, and his ideas were sadly way ahead of their time.

1. Biale, David. “Masochism and Philosemitism: The Strange Case of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch.” Journal of Contemporary History (SAGE, London and Beverly Hills), Vol. 17 (1982), 305-323.
2. Deleuze, Gilles. “Coldness and Cruelty” in Masochism. (New York: Zone Books, 1997)
3. Lo Duca, J.-M. intro. to The Countess in Red, by Georges Pichard and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. (New York: NBM, 1994)
4. O’Pecko, Michael T., afterword, A Light for Others and other Jewish Tales from Galicia, trans. Michael T. O’Pecko. (California: Ariadne Press, 1994)
5. Sacher-Masoch, Leopold von. A Light for Others and other Jewish Tales from Galicia, trans. Michael T. O’Pecko. (California: Ariadne Press, 1994)
6. Sacher-Masoch, Leopold von, and Georges Pichard. The Countess In Red. (New York: NBM, 1994)
7. Sacher-Masoch, Leopold von. The Master Masochist, trans. Eric Lemuel Randall. (London: Senate 1996)
8. Sacher-Masoch, Leopold von. “Venus in Furs” in Masochism. (New York: Zone Books, 1997)
9. Spitteler, Carl, foreword, A Light for Others and other Jewish Tales from Galicia, trans. Michael T. O’Pecko. (California: Ariadne Press, 1994)

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Staff writer and editor at Jewrotica, Karalyn Dane is a poet and a novelist with a penchant for beer and unusual vegetables. She may or may not live out the many fantasies that she writes about on this site.