A Beggar in Jerusalem Summary
A Beggar in Jerusalem by Elie Wiesel looks at the impact of the Six-Day War. The book is narrated by David, who reveals the challenges that the Jewish survivors experienced. David visits Jerusalem after the war. When he reaches the Western Wall, he finds madmen and vagrants. They encourage him to confront his past and connect it to the present. Therefore, Wiesel constantly shifts between the past and present when telling the story, primarily focusing on Jerusalem. The narrator explains the significance of the Old City to the Jewish people. The story focuses on the Jewish people and their experiences post-World War II.
David gives descriptions of the battle scenes during the Six-Day War. The narrator describes how he went to battle with the united Arab armies. He constantly thought about his death and wished that he could die because he believed that God had forsaken the Jewish people during the Holocaust. Israel won the Six-Day War, which was followed by celebrations by the Jewish people.
Before the fighting began, David had a friend, Katriel. They had agreed that if one of them came back from the war, he would tell the story of the other person and what happened. To honor his friend, David also tells the story of Katriel.
A Beggar in Jerusalem is told in the first person by David, heir to a bloody history of anti-Semitic persecutions. It is a novel in which Jewish survivors of destruction must confront their miraculous escape. In the process, although they suffer from guilt and anger, they ultimately forge an identity based on hope.
In June, 1967, the forty-year-old David goes to fight against the united Arab armies. He wishes to die in order to finally overcome the despair caused by God’s abandonment of the Jews during World War II and by his own pointless survival. At the front, he meets Katriel, and both soon agree that whoever comes back will tell the other’s story. Israel wins a resounding victory in what comes to be called the Six-Day War, and as the narrative opens, there are celebrations all over the land, especially in Jerusalem. Katriel, however, does not come back.
David not only tells his comrade’s story—much as King David told of Absalom—but also wonders whether he ought to live it as well. This he does, at the end, by marrying Katriel’s widow, not out of love, which would imply a total gift of self and of which he does not feel himself capable, but rather out of affection and sympathy, perhaps out of friendship. The hero has realized that, beyond suffering and bitterness, he can arrive at self-discovery.
Whereas Albert Camus favored revolt in the face of the absurd, Wiesel advocates laughter. By laughing one succeeds in conquering oneself, and by dominating one’s fear one learns to laugh: “Let our laughter drown all the noises of the earth, all the regrets of mankind.” There is no longer a need to search for an antidote against distress, but simply to abandon oneself to the joy of an event without precedent—the reunion of Israel with Jerusalem, uniting those absent and present, the fighters and mad beggars, in similar euphoria and similar ecstasy: “I want to laugh and it is my laughter I wish to offer to Jerusalem, my laughter and not my tears.”
In his tireless attempt to understand the awesome and terrifying mystery of Jewish suffering, the once-tormented David is resolutely optimistic, for the recaptured Jerusalem means the end of despair for Jews in Israel and abroad. The victory celebrations are a memorial to the dead, a song to and of life, and an appeal in behalf of history’s wandering outcasts—the allegorical beggars who, after the annihilation of European Jewry, have come to Jerusalem to give God the last chance to save his people.
The year is 1967. The Six-Day War has Israel under threat, but the Jews win. The ancient western temple wall in Jerusalem is recovered. As David, the novel’s narrator, tells the story of this struggle, the Jewish triumph reverberates with recollections and...
(The entire section is 1,834 words.)