The Mendele Review: Yiddish Literature and Language
(A Companion to MENDELE)

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Contents of Vol. 10.002 [Sequential No. 167]
Date:
5 February 2006

1) This issue of TMR (ed).
2) Artists' Portraits of Yiddish Writers, 1st Series (David Mazower)
3) Yitskhak Laor calls Biblical Hebrew a foreign language to Israeli Youth (ed.)
4) Is "Mit ale zibn finger" a Yiddish idiom? (ed.)
5) Adina Bar-El's Grininke beymelekh (ed.)

Click here to enter: http://yiddish.haifa.ac.il/tmr/tmr10/tmr10002.htm

 

1)----------------------------------------

Date: 5 February 2006   
From: ed.
Subject: This issue of TMR.

*The iconography of Yiddish writers generally remains to be studied. David Mazower here launches a study of portraiture of Yiddish authors by recognized artists. He does not deny that the members of the classic trinity Mendele/Sholem-Aleykhem/Perets were much photographed and drawn, but that these graphic efforts were not part of a self-conscious recording-in-plastic-form the face or head of a literary artist by a brother artist in another medium.

*Linguists differ as to the nature and scope of Yiddish influence on Modern Israeli Hebrew. An echo of Ghil'ad Zuckermann's recent TMR article was heard in the leading serious Israeli daily, HaAretz, a paper incidentally -- that is peppered with Yiddish more than its editors may think. Yitskhak Laor, a prominent intellectual, writes that high school students cannot read Biblical Hebrew without a crutch. This past week an article in HaAretz announced that English had surpassed Yiddish in the number of slang terms it had loaned to Hebrew. The headline somehow implied that Yiddish had lost in a competition. But Yiddish permeates spoken Hebrew not only in lexicon, but in phonology and syntax. Almost nobody says Petakh tikVA and "Nu" is repeated by countless individuals countlessly.

*In an informal note, Seth Wolitz writes: "Mit ale zibn finger" is an idiom, because Dina Halpern [of The Dybbuk film etc] when I showed her the Chagall piece broke out into laughter and said, 'Of course: Mit ale zibn finger!' So it is an idiom!" However, I am still not satisfied (and not because the argument of an idiom-source lacks cogency and reason). I simply want evidence! From the folklorists and linguists rather than the art historians but anything substantial is welcome. Dina Halpern was a famous Yiddish actress and Seth Wolitz, a professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Texas, is very knowledgeable. But where is the documentary evidence that there existed such a Yiddish idiom, presumably at least current in the Vitebsk region, that it meant "with all my energy, with all my drive" and that it is the source for the literal representation of a seven-fingered hand in the famous Chagall self-portrait? And if there is such an idiom, how does one explain it aside from general references to the magical/mystical powers of the number seven? Is the genesis anecdotal? Who else has used it?

*Adina Bar-El has centered her life around the writing, study and teaching of literature for children, specializing in research on children's periodicals. She has written over a dozen books for children, has taught education students how to best use stories in their teaching and has brought together in periodic symposia and seminars the authors of children's writing from all over Israel. Her latest book is the last in a trilogy that examines periodicals for children in Yiddish and Hebrew. She also has done preliminary work on Polish-Jewish juvenile serials and is deep into a project to describe the ample field of Argentinian Yiddish children's periodicals.

2)----------------------------------------

Date: 5 February 2006   
From: David Mazower
Subject: Artists' Portraits of Yiddish Writers, 1st Series

 

Artists' Portraits of Yiddish Writers

By David Mazower

My interest in this subject began with a casual inquiry. A journalist friend asked me to suggest a painting of Sholem Aleykhem [Shalom Aleichem] to illustrate a magazine feature. I could think of plenty of photos but not a single painting done while the great Yiddish writer was still alive. Nor could I recall ever having seen such a portrait of Perets or Mendele, or Goldfadn. Its as though we had no paintings by artist contemporaries of Tolstoy, Dickens, Zola or Mark Twain. There will almost certainly be one or two such portraits of Yiddish literatures founding fathers -- the exceptions that prove the rule -- but the comparison with other world literatures is striking, as is the contrast with the interest shown in later generations of Yiddish writers by their artist friends and peers.

Throughout my own childhood, Sundays usually meant going to visit my grandparents at their flat in St Johns Wood in north London. Their large bright living-room was lined with books and filled with mementos of my grandmothers father, the Yiddish writer Sholem Ash [Shalom Asch]. A large oil painting by the Polish Jewish artist Zygmunt Menkes showed him deep in thought at his writing desk, his eyes heavy with tiredness. It was probably painted in the USA during the early 1940s, when both Ash and Menkes were preoccupied with events in their homeland. Across the room from the Menkes portrait, a later bronze bust by Jacob Epstein vividly captured Ashs brooding craggy features, his creative energy dimmed by illness and exhaustion.

There were at least a dozen other paintings, drawings and sculptures made of Ash during his lifetime, and several more of his wife Madzhe (Matilda). Many of the artists were close friends of the writer, and others were no doubt attracted by his celebrity and dramatic personality. But Ash was by no means alone among contemporaries in being portrayed by some of the leading Jewish artists of his day. Opatoshu, Sutskever, Manger, Bashevis and many other lesser writers were captured for posterity in a wide assortment of cartoons, sketches, silhouettes, paintings and sculptures.

These artists portraits of the second and third generation of modern Yiddish writers were produced for a variety of reasons and served various functions. One of their primary uses was as frontispiece or cover illustrations in books, commissioned by major publishers of Yiddish literature such as Israel London in New York (Der kval), L M Shteyn in Chicago, or the Perets publishing house in Israel. Others were probably commissioned by private collectors, galleries, public institutions, or, in rare instances, the writers themselves. Some artists (Chagall, Artur Kolnik, Henryk Berlewi, Yankl Adler [Jankel Adler], Zuni Maud and others) painted and drew their own close friends, often presenting their works as gifts. In at least one case, that of the Yiddish Writers Club in interwar Warsaw, the walls were hung with portraits of celebrated members in just the same way as in the traditional gentlemens clubs or elite professional institutions of the non-Jewish world.

The production of such portraits, and their multiple uses, raises some interesting questions about the changing status of Yiddish literature, and its changing image within the Jewish world and beyond. It seems to me that the absence of such portraits of the first generation of Yiddish writers is a reflection of two things mainly: the ambivalence and snobbery that greeted the emergence of the new literature even within the Jewish community, and presumably helped to persuade artists that the early Yiddish masters were not profitable or fitting subjects for them to paint; and secondly, a reflection of the fledging literatures precarious economy - the absence of networks of patronage, of proper means of support for writers, established publishers and journals, and its own literary institutions.

Within twenty or thirty years much had changed, not least the emergence of a generation of artists who admired and respected the Yiddish writers of their acquaintance, shared a common language with them, and were only too happy to paint their portraits and illustrate their works. In coming editions of The Mendele Review, I hope to present some of the most striking of these Yiddish writers portraits, and in the process to examine what their production and use tell us about the emerging relationship between artist and writer in the Yiddish world.

One further point worth mentioning: many artists portraits of Yiddish writers have disappeared from public view, some have survived only as reproductions in obscure publications, while others have vanished entirely without trace except perhaps for a passing mention in an autobiography or

memoir. It would be nice to think that the combined sleuthing skills of the Mendele community could unearth some of these precious artefacts of our Yiddish cultural heritage, allowing them to be reproduced in future installments of this series.

Gallery:

 

Jakob Eisenscher / Yankev Ayznsher (1896 - 1980)

Eisenscher was born in Bukovina, studied art in Vienna and saw service in the Austrian army during the First World War. In the 1920s he settled in Czernowitz, where he was part of the towns remarkable circle of Yiddish-speaking literary and artistic modernists. The poet Itsik Manger was a close friend and Eisenschers woodcut captures the youthful Mangers devil-may-care defiance and prickly individuality. Manger was at the heart of the short-lived Czernowitz Jewish renaissance, along with the fable-writer Elyezer Shteynbarg and artists Bernard Reder, Artur Kolnik and Ruvn Rubin. Eisenscher lived in Paris for a few years before moving to Israel in 1935. He joined the teaching staff of the Betsalel art school in Jerusalem and became known for his landscapes and views of old Jerusalem.

 

 

Portrait of Itsik Manger

By Jakob Eisenscher

Woodcut, 19 x 14 cm

signed and inscribed A.P. [nd, c.1926]

Private Collection, UK

 

 

Chana Orloff (1888 - 1968)

Orloff was born in a small Ukrainian village. Her family settled in Palestine when she was seventeen. She was working as a seamstress when she travelled to Paris in 1910 and decided to train as a sculptor. Within a few years her work was featured in major exhibitions and she was a prominent figure in the circle of émigré artists in Montparnasse. By the early 1920s Orloff enjoyed considerable success with her portrait sculptures of personalities from the Paris art world and the world of Jewish culture.

Among her sitters were the Hebrew writer Bialik, the Habimah actress Khana Rovina, and Sholem Ash. The Yiddish dramatist Perets Hirshbeyn and his wife, the poet Ester Shumyatsher, commissioned Orloff to make a pair of matching busts. And in 1921 Orloff exhibited this bust of the popular short story writer Avrom Reyzn at the Salon des Independants. Its an exceptional piece, full of sensuous curves offset by the occasional touch of Art Deco angularity, and it captures both the pathos of the author and of his work. (Frequently exhibited and reproduced, for some reason its always wrongly labelled as the Jewish painter Reisen even in major exhibitions, such as Lecole de Paris 1904-1929 at the Musee dart Moderne in Paris in 2000-01.) Orloff remained in occupied Paris until 1942, then managed to escape into Switzerland. She died on a visit to Israel in 1968 for a retrospective exhibition to mark her 80th birthday. See http://www.chana-orloff.com

 

 

 

 

Bust of Avrom Reyzn

By Chana Orloff

Bronze, 38.2 x 21.3 x 26.2 cm

1920

Jewish Museum, Paris

 

 

Maurice Minkovski [Maurycy Minkowski] (1881 - 1931)

Born in Warsaw, Minkovski was deaf and dumb from the age of five. He studied at the Academy of Art in Cracow and specialised in realistic depictions of religious scenes, and soulful portraits of Jewish refugees and poverty-stricken Jews in his native Poland.

Moyshe Oyved was a well-known figure in Londons Jewish community. An immigrant watchmaker with a passion for sculpture and Yiddish poetry, he became the owner of the antique jewellery emporium Cameo Corner close to the British Museum. He was also a lifelong member and benefactor of Londons Ben Uri Jewish art society. This portrait, almost certainly commissioned by Oyved himself, was presented by him to the Ben Uri in 1929.

More on Minkowski, see http://muse.jhu.edu/demo/shofar/v019/19.3baker.html

 

 

 

Portrait of Moyshe Oved [Edward Good]

(click here for higher resolution)

By Maurice Minkovski

Watercolour, 30 x 37.5 cm

signed and dated 1924

Ben Uri Gallery - The London Jewish Museum of Art.

(See Zachary M. Baker's excellent essay at
http://www.benuri.org.uk/Index-1.htm)

 

 

 Artur Kolnik (1890 - 1972)

Kolniks lyrical paintings and finely-detailed expressionist woodcuts drew their inspiration from Jewish life in Eastern Europe and from Yiddish culture. He was born in Stanislav in Galicia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and studied art in Cracow. From 1919 Kolnik lived in Czernowitz, and was closely involved in the Yiddish literary circles in the town. In 1921, thanks to the photographer Alfred Stieglitz, he was given a one-man show in New York, but his artistic career was fitful. He moved with his family to Paris in 1931 and exhibited all over the world but didnt have another one-man show until the 1960s. Kolnik was a prolific illustrator of Yiddish books, producing some of his best work in this medium for friends such as Manger, Shteynbarg and the Paris-based author Moyshe Shulshteyn. He also issued several albums of woodcuts, notably a set of twenty illustrations for Perets Hasidic tale A gilgul fun a nigun (Migrations of a Melody); published by Kolnik himself in Paris in 1948 in a limited edition with separate Yiddish, Hebrew and French versions, this lavish folio is one of the finest of all illustrated Yiddish books.

 

Portrait of Avrom Sutskever

By Artur Kolnik

Woodcut, illustration for the frontispiece of Avrom Sutskever, Gaystike erd (Spiritual Earth)
New York, Der Kval, 1961

 

3)---------------------------------------------

Date: 5 February 2006
From: ed.
Subject: Yitskhak Laor calls Biblical Hebrew a foreign language to Israeli youth

The central issue raised by Ghilad Zuckermann in his recent essay "The Israeli Language" [see TMR vol 9, no 13 (29 December 2005)] is that of the origins of Modern Israeli Hebrew, which he insists on calling "Israeli". "Israeli", he maintains, is only very partially a direct descendant of Biblical Hebrew. In various of his books and essays, Zuckermann argues that the average Israeli youth cannot understand the Hebrew Bible without the help of commentaries, special dictionaries and, in fact, 11 years of training. It now looks as if other scholars agree with him. Such a view was recently clearly enunciated by one of Israel's leading literary intellectuals. In his review of Anita Shapiro's HaTanakh ve-haZehut haYehudit ['The Hebrew Bible and Jewish Identity'] (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 2005), Yitskhak Laor writes: "As I see it, one of the difficulties in teaching the Tanakh is not the contradiction between religion and secularism, but rather the inability to recognize that the Tanakh is written in a foreign language -- the Israeli High-School graduate cannot deal with a chapter of Tanakh that he has not studied beforehand without a Biblical Hebrew dictionary. The failure to recognize this is part of the denial called "the eternity of Israel."

, " , - " . , , -. - ' '.

. " ", (20 2006), 1.

 

4)---------------------------------------------------------

Date: 5 February 2006
From: ed.
Subject: Is "Mit ale zibn finger" a Yiddish idiom?

See Chagall painting at: http://www.mcs.csuhayward.edu/~malek/Chagal4.html

In an informal note, Seth Wolitz writes:
"Mit ale zibn finger"
is an idiom, because Dina Halpern [of The Dybbuk film etc] when I showed her the Chagall piece broke out into laughter and said, "Of course: Mit ale zibn finger!" So it is an idiom!

I am still not satisfied (and not because the argument of an idiom-source lacks cogency and reason). I simply want evidence! From the folklorists and linguists rather than the art historians but anything substantial is welcome. Dina Halpern was a famous Yiddish actress and Seth Wolitz, a professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Texas, is very knowledgeable. But where is the documentary evidence that there existed such a Yiddish idiom, presumably at least current in the Vitebsk region, that it meant "with all my energy, with all my drive" and that it is the source for the literal representation of a seven-fingered hand in the famous Chagall self-portrait? And if there is such an idiom, how does one explain it aside from general references to the magical/mystical powers of the number seven? Is the genesis anecdotal? Who else has used it?

There are apparently multiple interpretations of the seven fingers in the Chagall self-portrait. There is no end of explicatory possibilities in the number seven. The origin has been traced by at least one critic to a Yiddish expression "mit ale zibn finger" -- which I confess I do not know and which I have not found in any of the standard handbooks of idioms or of proverbial expressions or in dictionaries. 

Art historian Sandor Kuthy suggests that the Yiddish folk expression Mit alle [sic- lp] zibn finger, "used to indicate the entirety of energy expended in completion of a task, explains this strange physical anomaly in the painting." Kuthy is cited by a number of writers on this painting. Kuthy apparently was the curator of a Chagall exhibition and is a Chagall specialist. On Kuthy and the symbolism of the number 7, see: http://www.jhom.com/topics/trees/seven/index.html.

"In Study for Self Portrait with Seven Fingers 1911, Chagall presents us with the Jewish fascination with numbers. Mit alle [sic- lp] zibn finger, a Yiddish folk expression An enriched reading is gained in knowing that the number seven is heavy with mystical overtones in Jewish expression, figuring strongly with the concept of creation. G-d created the world in seven days. The Kabbalah states that G-d created seven parallel universes to our physical one. The three fathers and the four mothers in the Bible gave birth to the Jewish nation. With his seven fingers, Chagall creates new worlds with paint on canvas."

["Searching for the Second Soul: The Hasidic Etymology of the Early Visual Language of Marc Chagall" by Marleene Rubenstein]

Ellen McBreen tells us as do others that [Chagall's] 'Self-Portrait with Seven Fingers' (1912-13) is emblematic of [the] expatriate condition. (According to a Yiddish expression, to do something with seven fingers is to do it very well, and very fast). See: http://www.paris-expat.com/guide/4-03_alchemy.html.

 

5)--------------------------------------------------------

Date: 5 February 2006
From: ed.
Subject: Adina Bar-El's Grininke beymelekh

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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End of The Mendele Review Vol. 10.02

Editor, Leonard Prager

 

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