The Mendele Review: Yiddish Literature and Language
(A Companion to MENDELE)
Contents of Vol. 09.005 [Sequential No. 157]
TMR Eighth Anniversary Issue
1) In this issue (ed.)
2) On Henryk Berlewi (David Mazower)
3) Coming issue: Menke
4) Coming book reviews
5) Books and Journals Received
From: Leonard Prager
Subject: In This Issue
Starting with this issue of TMR, which
is an 8th anniversary issue, we are introducing a new regular column
on Yiddish and the Graphic Arts. It will be written by David Mazower, a journalist with BBC radio in
We will highlight in particular the visual
dimension in Yiddish book publishing, focussing on modern Yiddish illustrated
books. In all the leading centres of
Yiddish book production, from
It is hoped that this column will help stimulate wider interest in the field of Yiddish and the graphic arts. The subject remains relatively unexplored, although in recent years a growing number of scholarly publications and library exhibitions have added to our knowledge to some of the key figures.  However, much basic work remains to be done, especially in the fields of bibliography and attribution, essential building blocks for future scholarship. Our new feature in TMR will provide some of that basic scholarship, in particular by assembling a bibliography of Yiddish illustrated books, beginning with some of the major artists working in this field.
Our first article looks at the work of the
Polish Jewish artist Henryk Berlewi
[Berlevi], a leading illustrator of Yiddish books in
From: David Mazower
Subject: On Henryk Berlewi
A. HENRYK BERLEWI [ HENRIK BERLEVI ] (1894 – 1967) (2)
More than most artists, Henryk Berlewi resists easy categorisation. He was active for six decades as a painter, graphic designer and theorist of art and design, but above all he was a restless innovator, active in many fields, experimenting with radically different styles, and switching between Jewish and non-Jewish artistic circles with apparent ease. Today he is mostly remembered as an abstract artist, who paved the way for later trends like optical art. All but forgotten is his impressive contribution to Yiddish book design and Yiddish typography in the early 1920s. This work, although limited to a small number of items, is of outstanding quality and represents one of the high points of Polish Yiddish modernism.
Berlewi was born in
His flowing draughtsmanship is evident in the cover drawing for Sh. Londinski’s poetry collection Flamen (Flames) of 1920. A buxom Venus rises naked from the waves, her full-length tresses falling in shimmering ripples behind her against an Art Deco sunburst. With its wholesome eroticism and fluent curves, the effect is reminiscent of another draughtsman-typographer, the English artist Eric Gill.
But Berlewi reserved his most striking and avant-garde Yiddish graphics for his collaborations with the leading Khalyastre poets Markish and Grinberg in the early ‘20s. For the cover of Markish’s poem Di Kupe (The Heap), published in 1921, Berlewi devised a striking gold-on-black composition in which the massive stone-like blocks of the title letters rise organically and almost imperceptibly out of a stylised landscape of mountain peaks. Equally imaginative and even more abstract is Berlewi’s extraordinary design for the cover of Markish’s Radyo (Radio). Here the Yiddish letters of the title have mutated into radio waves, lightning flashes of jagged and fractured forms which are almost unrecognisable as individual letters. And in somewhat more figurative vein, for Grinberg’s Mefisto (Mephistopheles) Berlewi produced a cover illustration combining his trademark geometric Yiddish lettering and a portrait of Grinberg smoking a pipe.
1921 marked the beginning of Berlewi’s acquaintance with the pioneering avant-garde
artist, illustrator and typographer El Lissitsky, a
formative influence on the younger man. Berlewi moved to
From 1928 until the late 1930s, Berlewi spent most of his time in
B. BERLEWI’S DYBBUK CARTOON
A number of important paintings and drawings by Berlewi came to light recently at the auction of the personal collection of a good friend of the artist, the Yiddish writer and painter Mendel Mann. Among the sketches several portraits of Yiddish cultural figures stood out - the singer, writer, photographer and folklorist Menakhem Kipnis (1878 – 1942), the painter Maurycy Minkovski (1881 - 1930), and the writer Yosef Opatoshu (1886 – 1954). Also included was a cartoon by Berlewi which provides an insider’s satirical view of perhaps the defining moment in the cultural life of post-WW1 Yiddish Warsaw, the sensational success enjoyed by the Vilna Troupe’s production of Ansky’s mystical drama Tsvishn tsvey veltn, oder der dibek (Between Two Worlds, or The Dybbuk. (6)
Berlewi had been closely involved with the genesis of the Vilna Troupe’s
production. He was among a small group of actors, writers and theatre folk who
listened to Ansky giving one of his first readings of
the play in
In Berlewi’s cartoon, a large cow labelled Dybbuk stands with its legs wide apart. Underneath the cow are a group of actors in costume; four of them are drinking milk direct from the cow’s teats while the fifth directs a jet of milk into a bucket. Under the group is the caption Di vilner trupe (The Vilna Troupe), and several of the figures are clearly recognisable as characters from the play, particularly the young lovers Khonen and Leye. The cow has a crooked smile and a nasty glint in its eye and has turned its head to stare at the sixth figure in the picture. This downcast man sitting by himself in the corner is the only figure Berlewi identifies by name - the director of the Vilna Troupe’s 1920 premiere of Ansky’s play, Dovid Herman.
Let us note at this point that Berlewi’s design parodies and pays homage to one of the
great works of classical antiquity: the Etruscan bronze sculpture known as Lupa Capitolina, the she-wolf
that protected and suckled
Berlewi’s original sketch is undated and lacks a caption; fortunately however both are included in a reproduction of the cartoon in an obscure volume of memoirs published several decades later by the Polish Yiddish journalist Ber Kutsher. This gives a date of 1921, a title - A melkndike ku (A Milking Cow) - and a caption, as spoken by Dovid Herman: “Tsugegreyt zey a ku….s’rint in di piskes…..nu, un ikh?” (“I got them a cow….the milk’s pouring into their mouths…but what about me?”)
What is not yet clear is exactly what prompted Berlewi’s jaundiced reaction to the runaway success of the Dybbuk and also perhaps to the mania for mysticism and the Dybbuk craze which the production set off. That the production was a smash-hit is undeniable - according to one account, the company gave 390 performances of the play in its first year to an estimated 200,000 theatregoers and the play itself took Jewish Poland by storm. (9) Many observers believed that much of the premiere production’s extraordinary appeal was due to the conception of its director Dovid Herman, who was brought in to inject into the production some of the atmosphere of his own traditional Hasidic background.
It is more than likely that Berlewi produced his cartoon in response to a particular episode or set of circumstances. Perhaps the original contract was drawn up in such a way that Herman failed to reap his share of the profits from the play’s unforeseen success? It is also possible that the cartoon was itself a commission from one of the many Yiddish newspapers, cultural journals or satirical magazines of the time. Romulus and Remus fell out and the Vilna Troupe was also to suffer inner discord and undergo several metamorphoses. But even without knowing all the circumstances behind its creation, we can enjoy the sense of mischief and the artistic skill manifest in Berlewi’s Dybbuk milkcow, and feel thankful that this most ephemeral of sketches has resurfaced after so many years.
C. YIDDISH BOOKS ILLUSTRATED BY BERLEWI -- A PRELIMINARY CHECKLIST
This list is based on information from various sources, including library listings and booksellers’ catalogues. It is almost certainly far from being comprehensive. Further contributions to this and future bibliographic listings would be welcomed and acknowledged in any future published versions.
Akerman, Rivke, Poemen un lider fun payn. Paris, 1957, 96 pp.
Grinberg, Uri-Tsvi [Greenberg, Uri Zvi]. Mefisto, Warsaw: Literatur-fond baym fareyn fun yidishe literatn un zhurnalistn in varshe, 1922, 85 pp.
Hagay, Berele, A bisl rekhiles: vegn shrayber, kinstler, un shimi-tentser, Warsaw: 1926, 15 pp. (not seen).
Kope, Rivke, Toy fun shtilkeyt: lider, 1946-1950, Paris: Oyfsnay, 1951, 91 pp.
Kutsher, B., Geven amol varshe, zikhrones, Paris: Kultur-opteylung fun der dzhoynt in frankraykh, 1955, 331pp. (In addition to the cover graphic, this includes reproductions of Berlewi’s portrait sketches of Kutsher, Boez Karlinski, Alter Katsizne, Hilel Tseytlin, Shloyme-Leyb Kave, Dovid Herman, Zusman Segalovitsh, Yoysef Tunkel, Berlewi himself, Itshe-Meyer Vaysnberg, Efroym Kaganovitsh, Maurycy Minkovski (wrongly attributed to Feliks Frydman), and Aleksander Farbo. Berlewi’s ‘Dibek’ [Dybbuk] cartoon is reproduced on page 143.)
Londinski, Sh. Y., Flamen, Warsaw: Di tsayt, 1920, 115 pp.
Markish, Perets, Di kupe, Warsaw: Kultur-lige, 1921, 32 pp. Edition: 1500
Markish, Perets, Radyo,
Segalovitsh, Z, Kaprizen:
Segalovitsh, Z, Tsaytike troybn,
Zak, Avrom, In
onheyb fun a friling: kapitlekh zikhroynes,
Khalyastre, vol 1,
Ringen, Warsaw: Kultur-lige, 1921- 1922
The logo used by the
literary scholars who have featured the work of Yiddish book illustrators in
their own publications include David Roskies and
Recent exhibitions include the Spertus
Institute of Chicago display: Made in
2. Berlewi usually signed his name ‘H Berlewi’ or ‘Henryk Berlewi’using Latin letters. However in Yiddish, he uses ‘Henrik Berlevi’.
3. Biographical information about Berlewi is drawn from a number of sources, including : Nadine Nieszaver, “Peintres Juifs a Paris 1905 - 1939”, Paris, 2000; the Encyclopaedia Judaica; Meylekh Ravitsh, Mayn leksikon, vol 2, Montreal, 1947; and the exhibition catalogue ‘Berlewi - Retrospektive Austellung, Berlin, 1964’, for the loan of which I am indebted to Professor Chimen Abramsky.
4. The phrase is Sol Liptzin’s. See his A History of Yiddish Literature p. 251 ff. for a discussion of the Khalyastre poets.
5. See the article by Avidov Lipsker in the Israeli journal of Yiddish studies Khulyot, no1 (Winter 1993).
6. The auction was held at the Hotel Drouot, Paris, on 23 March 2005.
7. See Ber Kutsher, Geven amol varshe, Paris, 1955, p.136.
8. My thanks to Leonard Prager for pointing this out.
9. See Yidisher teater in eyrope / tsvishn beyde velt-milkhomes, edited by Itsik Manger, Yonas Turkov, and Moyshe Perenson, New York, 1968, p41.
Subject: Coming issue: Menke
A coming issue of TMR will be devoted to a compendious volume of Menke Katz's Yiddish verse translated into English by the celebrated translator-team Barbara and Benjamin Harshav. Menke. The Complete Yiddish Poems. Edited by Dovid Katz and Harry Smith. Maps by Giedre Beconyte. Published by The Smith: New York 2005, 914 pp. For ordering information: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Subject: Coming Book Reviews
Dovid Katz's Lithuanian Jewish Culture (Vilna: Baltos Lankos, 2004, 398 pp), will yet be reviewed in TMR, as will be Nancy Sinkoff' s Out of the Shtetl (
Subject: Books and Journals Received
Books and Journals Received
Itzik Manger, Dunkelgold; Gedichte. Jiddisch un deutsch. Herausgegeben, aus dem Jiddischen ueberzetst und mit einem Nachwort versehen von Efrat Gal-Ed. Mit Umscrift des Jiddischen, Abbildungen und mit CD. Frankfurt am Main: Juedischer Verlag im Suhrkamp Verlag, 2004. [ISBN 3-633-54198-5]. A tastefully produced book published by the distinguished century-old Juedischer Verlag, with felicitous translations and a cd that reproduces with outstanding fidelity the author reading a selection of his own work.
Na vaNad; Zikhronot shel Yekhezkel Kotik.
Kheylek sheyni. Mahadura meturgemet uMevueret beYedey David Assaf . Tel Aviv:
Bet Shalom-Aleykhem / HaMakhon lekheyker toldot Polin veYakhesey Yisrael-Polin
/ HaMerkaz lekheyker haTefutsot al shem Goldshteyn-Goren /
Universitat Tel-Aviv, 2005. [English title-page:
Wanderer; The Memoirs of Yechezkel Kotik. Volume Two. Edited and translated into Hebrew with
an Introduction by David Assaf. Tel Aviv: Beth Shalom
Aleichem / The Institute
for the History of Polish Jewry and Israel-Poland Relations / The
B. Yeushzon (Moyshe Yustman) Lezikhro,
Yiddish South of the
Anthology of Latin American Yiddish Writing. Edited by Alan Astro with
an Introduction by Ilan Stavans.
Volume 3, Number 1 (January 2005) of the prize-winning Partial Answers, "a semiannual journal sponsored by the School of Literatures of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem... devoted to the interdisciplinary study of literature and the history of ideas" includes Yechiel Szeintuch's exploration of a central motif in the works of Ka-Tzetnik: "The Myth of the Salamander in the Work of Ka-tzetnik," 101-132. This essay is part of the author's comprehensive study of Ka-Tzetnik. [ISSN 1565-3668]
The major essay in the latest Jiddistik Mitteilungen (Nr. 32, November 2004) is Roland Gruschka's preliminary study of the language of Mendel Lefin's bible translations: "Einige Beobachtungen zur Grammatik im Jiddisch von Mendel Lefin Satanovers Bibeluebersetzungen," 1-23. Interest in Lefin has been growing and we can look forward to further studies.
Lebns-fragn; sotsyalistishe khoydesh-shrift far politik, gezelshaft un
629-630 (55-ster yor) (merts-april 2005). David
Roskies has been reminding us that the Yiddish press
never stopped writing about the Shoa. This issue of
the veteran Bundist journal edited by the versatile Yitskhok Luden continues this
endless probe. [
End of The Mendele Review Vol. 9005
Editor, Leonard Prager
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