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

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Contents of Vol. 10.004 [Sequential No. 169]
Date: 12 April 2006 [Erev Peysekh]

NINTH ANNIVERSARY ISSUE

1) This issue of TMR  (ed.)
2) A bintl briv from the Forverts [1928] (Robert Goldenberg)
3) English translation of A bintl briv from 1928 (ed.)
4) Review of Nancy Sinkoff's Out of the Shtetl (Adam Teller)
5) Titular song of stageplay "Mayn yidishe mame" (ed.)
6) Men meynt nit di hagode nor di kneydlekh
7) 100th anniversary of poet Menke Katz (1906-2006)
8) Letter to the Editor re "Mit ale zibn finger" (Joseph Sherman)

Click here to enter:  http://yiddish.haifa.ac.il/tmr/tmr10/tmr10004.htm

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

Date: 12 April 2006
From: ed.
Subject: This issue of TMR 

This Passover issue marks the ninth anniversary of The Mendele Review, now a fairly familiar and, it can (not immodestly) be said, respected name among lovers of Yiddish the world over. I hope that we continue to deserve this recognition and that it increasingly be acknowledgement of a highly cooperative effort. I thank all those who have helped these first nine years.

* This year marks, too, the 100th anniversary of the New York Forverts' Bintl Briv (1906), a highly popular feature of the leading Yiddish newspaper in North America. Its famous editor, Abe Cahan, initiated this column and in its earliest years answered letters as well. The selected letter from the year 1928 given in this issue of TMR Yiddish original and your editor's English translation -- illustrates one kind of personal problem immigrant readers hoped to solve with the help of their newspaper. The Forverts was much aware of women's rights, yet here counsels in a conventional vein against what it sees as naivete in the face of a socially ambiguous man-woman situation.

* Dr. Adam Teller, a specialist in Polish-Jewish history at the University of Haifa reviews Nancy Sinkoff's Out of the Shtetl, a book which deserves the attention of TMR readers, especially those interested in that remarkable pioneer of modern Yiddish, Mendl Lefin of Satinow. See his translation of Koyheles: http://yiddish.haifa.ac.il/texts/mendl/Koh_Reyz_2002-07-24.pdf.

* The last issue of TMR (TMR Vol. 10, No. 3) featured one of the most famous songs in the Jewish -American repertoire, "Mayn yidishe mame," numerous versions of which exist in Yiddish, English and other (e.g. Dutch) languages. The title is also variously spelled and the musical arrangements follow suit in their variety. The whole story surrounding this song and its most famous singer could fill a monograph. Donald Clarke in The Rise and Fall of Popular Music [see http://www.musicweb-international.com/RiseandFall/4.htm] writes: "Tucker recorded My Yiddishe Mama in 1928, in English on one side of the record and Yiddish on the other, and sold a million copies." It is this exemplar, rendered virtually scratchless by Jan Hovers, to which we linked. In the present issue of TMR we remind readers of another popular "Mame" a stageplay called "Mayn yidishe mame," with a central theme song that in many ways parallels the Sophie Tucker lyrics. Both Yiddish original and an English translation (by the editor), are given, as well as a reproduction of the back page of the sheet music of the song. This page gives the Yiddish lyrics and Yiddish and English lists of the play's dramatis personae.

* The editor reflects on the saying "Men meynt nit di hagode nor di kneydlekh" ['They don't mean the Haggadah, but the dumplings'].

* "Mit ale zibn finger" apparently is a Yiddish idiom see Joseph Sherman's letter below. While we are making progress in that we now have a concrete attestation, the history of the saying remains unknown. It does not seem to be recorded in any of our collections of proverbial or idiomatic sayings.

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

Date: 12 April 2006
From: Robert Goldenberg
Subject: A bintl briv from the Forverts (1928) [Americanisms marked in red ed.]

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

Date: 12 April 2006
From: ed.
Subject: English translation of A bintl briv from 1928

A Letter to the Editor, 12 August 1928

[A man who is faithful to his wife and lives happily with her tells how he felt about her going on automobile rides with a male friend. Though nothing disreputable was going on, he did not like it. He describes his feelings and his wife's behavior intelligently and sensitively.]

Worthy Editor:

I would like you to advise me since I am not sure I am right. My wife says I am wrong. Am I? I don't know whether I am or not.

I have been married to my wife for ten years. We are not rich but we live comfortably. We have two small children. I am a worker and don't earn much but I make a living. My wants are few and I don't envy those who have more. I feel that happiness means being satisfied, not being rich.

Lately my wife has become acquainted with a rich man who comes to give her rides in his car. She often takes the children along on these rides, which she does not try to hide from me -- I know all about them. She says that the man is honest and that she takes the rides because the children enjoy them so. I too am invited to come along, but I refuse -- I always find an excuse for saying No. There is something about these free rides that makes me uneasy. I don't know why this man wants to drive me around in his car. Why doesn't he drive others around?

My wife is mad at me for refusing to accept a ride. She says this is like insulting him, but I can't behave differently. I admit I am strongly against my wife taking these rides with him. Of course my wife is honest and is not deceiving me, but why does he offer her rides? What does he see in her?

My wife says he is a good person. He enjoys talking to her. And I answer, "New York is a big city, can't he find somebody else to talk to besides you?"

And her answer is that I am jealous. Common sense tells us that when a man takes a married woman out for a ride in his car he has something in mind. To which my wife says, "What, you suspect me of being in love with him?" I say, "I know you don't love anybody but me, but that man has some intention. He wants your love. He is working toward that, working slowly. He may have a tough job before him, but he keeps trying."

My wife continues to believe that her friend is an honest man who would never even let the idea of having an affair with a married woman cross his mind. She emphasizes how often she has told him how much she loves her husband and how it pleases him to hear that a wife loves her spouse.

And at times I think maybe I'm wrong. Maybe the man means nothing more than simple friendship and out of jealousy I exaggerate matters. Who can know what the truth is? That is why I am asking your opinion. What do you think, dear Editor? Are these rides based on simple friendship or does the man harbor evil intentions? If he means no harm, why should I make him feel bad and why shouldn't I accept a ride from him?

But if he has some scheme, why should I let my wife go along with him till the matter turns serious? I will do as you advise.

Respectfully,

A man who does not consider himself to be jealous.

 

[Editor's reply]

We cannot say whether or not the man has some intention in offering car rides since we have no way of knowing his mind. He may very well be a fine man who is offering friendship; he may be a not very upright person with an evil mind; and he may be a fine man yet with something in his mind other than friendship only.

The desire for love has nothing to do with whether one is honest or not honest. One can be virtuous and yet be in love with another man's wife. One can be a scoundrel and yet love his own wife.

Therefore we say we have no idea what is wrong with the man with the automobile. But we do know, and with absolute certainty, what is wrong with you and your wife.

We could conceivably be wrong of course, but we think your wife is honest in her acceptance of the rides. Nonetheless we fully agree with you and not with your wife.

Perhaps it would do no harm if you went along on a ride together with your wife, but we completely understand your reluctance to do so.

You are a person with sound and healthy feelings. Your heart tells you not to accept rides and that you would look foolish in your own eyes if you did. Thus you don't accept rides and are right not to.

Your resistance to accepting rides does not come from jealousy, but from the sound heart of a reasonable human being.

You are absolutely right.

Your wife, who guiltlessly accepted rides, should have understood how you felt and should not have accepted them. Doing so placed you in a ridiculous light and was most tactless. Even more tactless was her accusing you of being jealous. She enjoys thinking her husband is jealous and this indeed is the source of the pleasure she gets in accepting the rides.

We are totally opposed to your wife's tactless behavior and we fully understand you. You see the entire matter as a self-respecting and thinking person would. Your wife has been acting like a ten-year old girl. For a ten-year old girl a naive view of the offered automobile rides has its charm, but not for a grown woman.

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

Date: 12 April 2006
From: Adam Teller
Subject: Review of Nancy Sinkoff's Out of the Shtetl

 

Nancy Sinkoff, Out of the Shtetl: Making Jews Modern in the Polish Borderlands, Providence 2004 (Brown Judaic Studies 336). 320+xviii pp.

Nancy Sinkoff's study of the intellectual and cultural roots of the Haskalah the enlightenment movement of Eastern European Jewry furthers our understanding of the development of the world's largest Jewish center in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Shifting attention away from developments in the liberal societies of central and western Europe, it significantly adds to the debate surrounding the modernization of Jewish society. At the heart of the book's thesis is the understanding that since pre-partition Polish Jewry largely made up the demographic and social basis of modern European Jewry, any history of the latter group must take into account the experiences of the former. A significant result of this new focus is the abandonment of the traditional idea that in the 18th and 19th centuries change traveled across European Jewish society from west to east. Instead, the author prefers to talk of "'national' or 'regional' paths to becoming a modern European Jew" a formulation which does not privilege the German Jewish experience over the Polish.

The basic paradigm of this study is, therefore, one of modernization, viewed mostly in the liberal terms of legal emancipation, educational reform, and resistance to religious fanaticism (i.e. Hasidism). The author borrows the term "moderate Haskalah" better known from the internal struggles of the Russian Haskalah in the 1860s and 70s in order to describe the rather conservative ideology developed by the book's main protagonist, Mendel Lefin Satanover. His life (1749-1826) spanned many of the major changes undergone by Eastern European Jewry as it entered the modern age: born into the estate society of early modern Poland-Lithuania with its decentralized power structures which allowed the Jews significant room for maneuver, Lefin died in the rigid, centralized environment of Austrian Galicia, where Jewish life was increasingly circumscribed by the state. Sinkoff argues convincingly that Lefin's cultural program was not only a result of this situation but also aimed to give the Jews of eastern Europe the tools to deal with the very particular changes they were experiencing. In her final chapter, some of the results of Lefin's work are examined in a discussion of one of his most important followers, Joseph Perl.

The first four chapters of the book discuss Lefin's program in some detail. A crucial point for Sinkoff, discussed in the first chapter, is the importance of his Polish-Lithuanian or more precisely, Podolian background in formulating his world view. The author argues that the influence of eighteenth century developments, such as the Frankist movement and the emergence of Hasidism, which were felt particularly in that region, colored Lefin's attitude towards the Berlin Jewish Enlightenment during his short residence in Prussia during the early 1780s. As a Jew brought up in a very different environment, Lefin felt little sympathy for the radical trends he observed in Berlin. In order to answer the needs of eastern European Jewry, argues Sinkoff, his haskalah had to be moderate, conservative and take into account the different forms of social and cultural relations regnant in Poland-Lithuania, home to the vast majority of Ashkenazic Jewry.

The importance of this approach is that it transforms the haskalah of Eastern Europe from a pale reflection of developments in Berlin to a vibrant social and cultural movement of reform suited to the condition of eastern Europe. Nonetheless, the Berlin connection is clearly felt both in Lefin's biography (he lived there for part of his life) and in the ideology of the later Haskalah (which portrayed itself as an offshoot of the Mendelssohnian enlightenment). Thus, in order to evaluate the development of the Haskalah on its own terms, it is not sufficient simply to shift the focus from Berlin to Poland-Lithuania. The role played by the ideas of the Berlin circle in the development of Lefin's thought and that of the Haskalah in general also needs to be re-assessed.

The linguistic aspect of Lefin's cultural program, discussed in chapter four, provides some clues as to how Sinkoff views this role. In discussing Lefin's project to translate the Bible into Yiddish, she eschews the idea that his use of Yiddish expressed some kind of proto-nationalist ideology or sentiment, arguing that his use of Yiddish, alongside his more numerous Hebrew publications, sprang from the desire of a typical enlightened intellectual to educate the masses. (It is noteworthy that he translated the "philosophical" books of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes, adding a Hebrew commentary in enlightenment spirit). In fact, by espousing Yiddish, Lefin was providing an alternative to the German language orientation of the Berlin Jewish enlightenment.

By examining some of Lefin's lesser known writings still in manuscript, Sinkoff shows that he viewed Yiddish as the legitimate language of Polish-Lithuanian Jewry, rather than as the inherently corrupt language of the uneducated Jews, who could only reach a decent cultural level by adopting German. Moreover, Lefin felt that once the Jews themselves produced literary works of a high standard, their language would take its place among the respected languages of the world. However, in her examination of the bitter debate around his Bible translations, Sinkoff argues that his use of Yiddish represented an attempt to rework the Berlin enlightenment in a form more suitable for eastern European Jewry. There is a difference of nuance here, since arguing that Lefin was providing an alternative form of Haskalah suggests a more independent stance on his part than claiming that he was simply reworking Mendelssohn's ideas. Sinkoff does not choose between these formulations, even though in doing so she might perhaps have shed light on the important question Lefin's eminently sensible strategy of approaching Eastern European Jewry in their own language failed to make headway for so many decades to come.

Lefin's political activity is discussed in detail in the second chapter and once again allows Sinkoff to examine her subject against his Eastern European background in this case the debates in Poland-Lithuania and Tsarist Russia concerning Jewish reform at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries. Some time during the early 1790s, Lefin began to enjoy the patronage of the great magnate, Adam Czartoryski, a leading figure in Polish social and political high society and a passionate proponent of enlightenment ideology. It was this connection which turned Lefin into a major player in the Jewish politics of the period. He developed a critique of Polish Jewry, focusing on the sources of authority within their society, and suggested a reform of the rabbinate under state supervision. His goals were twofold: to rationalize the functioning of Jewish life, so cutting the ground from under the irrational (as he perceived it) Hasidic movement and to deepen Jewish society's integration into the apparatus of the modern state. In his view, however, the Jews were not simply an object of reform, but were to be active in reforming their own society. Unfortunately, the great optimism of the enlightenment era came to nothing for Lefin and the other maskilim of his generation, since neither the Four Year Sejm (1788-1792) nor Derzhavin's "Committee for the Amelioration of the Jews" (1804) brought the desired reforms.

Lefin's failure to effect any significant reform of Eastern European Jewish society along enlightenment lines had an enormous effect on the development of the later Haskalah. Understanding that the Jews' ability to make their mark on political developments was highly limited (his own influence on Derzhavin's committee could only have been indirect), Lefin decided to turn his attention away from politics to cultural work amongst the Jews with the particular goal of combating the rigid conservatism of the Hasidic movement. The abandonment of the political arena by Lefin and following him, by the Haskalah generally - though not total, meant that the Haskalah could never be anything but impotent in its attempts to modernize Eastern European Jewish Society.[1]

This becomes clear in Sinkoff's fascinating exposition of Lefin's philosophy in her third chapter. She shows how Lefin, who was deeply influenced by trends in 18th century psychology, epistemology, and natural philosophy (including Benjamin Franklin's "Rules of Conduct"), used this knowledge in his polemics against Hasidism. Though his success in integrating the new ideas into a traditional rabbinic theology in order to create a new array of arguments against the hated movement was remarkable, his inability to halt its spread was no less significant. Sinkoff does not devote much attention to the reasons for this failure, which is a shame because without some analysis of the phenomenon, it is much harder to evaluate Lefin's life and work.

In place of such a discussion, Sinkoff devotes her last chapter to a discussion of one of Lefin's pupils, the famous Galician maskil, Joseph Perl. This is an excellent treatment of one of the most important figures of the early Haskalah in fact, he was arguably more significant than Lefin himself. In addition, the discussion here provides a valuable counterbalance to the very hostile approach to Perl adopted by Raphael Mahler in his study of the Galician Haskalah.[2] Sinkoff provides a balanced and detailed account of Perl's work in the fields of education and religious reform, discussing not only the modern Jewish school he established in Tarnopol, but also his approach to the modernization of Jewish law as expounded in his unpublished tract, Ueber die Modification der mosaischen Gesetze (Regarding the Modification of the Mosaic Laws). Interestingly, Perl's stance is a combination of the reform Jewish ideology concerning the historical development of halakha with a social conservatism which allowed him to propose only a limited range of changes within halakha and minhag. In fact, Perl's radicalism was not focused so much on the Jewish texts as on the rabbis who interpreted them. Like his mentor, Lefin, he proposed a far-reaching reform of the Polish rabbinate aimed at presenting Jewish society with an attractive alternative to what he viewed as the obscurantism of the Hasidic movement. Though Sinkoff shies away from explaining the reasons for Perl's failure, this chapter will be of great value for teachers and students of the Galician haskalah.

This is an important and interesting study of the roots of the haskalah in Eastern Europe. By focusing on two of the key figures in the early Haskalah, and particularly on Mendel Lefin, whose life overlapped the period of the Berlin Jewish enlightenment, Sinkoff is able to present the Haskalah in Eastern Europe not simply as a late development of a Central European phenomenon, but as a genuine, local variant of Enlightenment ideology. By emphasizing the Eastern European background, she reminds us that modernization affected different societies in different ways in the transition from the 18th to the 20th centuries. Her work contributes to our understanding of both the modernization of Jewish society and the history of the Jews in Eastern Europe.

 

University of Haifa

Adam Teller



[1] On the political work of the maskilim, such as it was, see: E. Lederhandler, The Road to Modern Jewish Politics: Political Tradition and Political Reconstruction in the Jewish Community of Tsarist Russia, New York 1989.

[2] R. Mahler, Hasidism and the Jewish Enlightenment: Their Confrontation in Galicia and Poland in the First Half of the Nineteenth Century, Philadelphia 1985.

 

 

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

Date: 12 April 2006
From: ed.
Subject: Mayn yidishe mame

Mayn idishe [yidishe] mame

[verter un muzik fun Izidor Lilyen un Heri Lubin]

(Click here for larger resolution)

 

Getraye mames zaynen ale glaykh
Nu dos veysn ale shoyn atsind
Un ken a mame den zayn shlekht tsu aykh
Ayede mame iz getray ihr [ir] kind.
Fun ale mames eyne mir gefelt.
In tsertlechkeyt [tsertlekhkeyt] bakant iz shoyn fun friher frier]
Nor vi di zun basheynt zi unzer [undzer] velt
Keyn tsveyte ken zikh tsugleykhn tsu ihr [ir]

[khor]

Mayn idishe [yidishe] mame vi heylig [heylik] du bist
Mayn idishe mame dayn blut du fargist
Un ven ir kind iz krank
Vakht zi baym betl un zi shloft nit, neyn,
Zi iz greyt ir blut tsu geben [gebn]
Zogar [un vos iz mer] in fayer geyn.
Mayn idishe [yidishe] mame ven zi vert shoyn alt
Mayn idishe [yidishe] mame fargest men zi bald
Un ven zi ligt shoyn in der erd
Dan [demolt] begrayft [bagrayft = banemt] men ersht ir vert.
Mayn idishe mame vi heylig [heylik] biztu.

 

[English translation ed]
My Jewish Mama

Mothers are all devoted
As everybody knows,
For how could a mother
Not adore her child?
One mother of storied tenderness
Especially pleases me;
She beautifies the world like the sun
And no one compares to her.

Chorus

My Jewish mama, how holy you are,
My Jewish mama, you spill your blood,
And when a child is ill
You never leave their side,
Ready to give your very blood
Or even walk in fire.
When a Jewish mama grows old,
She is soon forgotten,
And only when she is in her grave
Is her full worth grasped.
My Jewish mama, how holy you are.

 

6)-----------------------------------------

Date: 12 April 2006
From: ed.
Subject: Men meynt nit di hagode nor di kneydlekh

The Passover Seder-inspired folk expression "Men meynt nit di hagode nor di kneydlekh" ('They don't mean the Haggadah, but the dumplings') is the realist's (or cynics?) year-round stiletto to puncture disingenuous altruism of all sorts. As Max Weinreich pointed out, it was a handy saying among secular Yiddishists (see TMR Vol. 3, No. 4) for whom (as for most people) "kneydlekh" meant some material, tangible desideratum as opposed to the merely verbal substance of the Haggadah. In Shirley Kumove's translation -- "It's not the Passover story he's interested in but the dumplings" (in Words Like Arrows) -- the literal level of this saying is clearly elicited and "kneydlekh" points to a dish which (certainly today) is intimately associated with the holiday of Passover (even though the dish itself may be eaten all year round).

The matter, however, is not so simple. It is complicated because Jews are complicated and not only do all observant Jews not eat kneydlekh at the Seyder, for a significant number of them the kneydl is virtually treyf ('ritually forbidden')! For the great majority that do eat kneydlekh at the Seyder, there is a raging debate as to how to prepare and serve them. This difference is not small and it ranges from the sublime and symbolic to the grossly gastronomic. To understand why some Jews will not consume a kneydl at the Seyder, one must know about gebrokts and non-gebrokts. An excellent recent exposition of this matter can be found in Rabbi Berel Wein's "Kneidlach [kneydlekh]," Jerusalem Post 17 December 2004 (updated 12 January 2006) and accessible on the internet by clicking: http://rabbiwein.com/modules.php?name=News&file=article&sid=854. Unlike the terms kosher and (less so) treyf which have made great headway from Jewish to general English, gebrokts and non-gebrokts [from Yiddish brokn 'to crumble'] are mainly understood in Hasidic circles. I have not found the term gebrokts in any Yiddish dictionary.

As we learn from several websites devoted to "Jewish cooking", there are some cooks with strong feelings against the use of any fat in the preparation of kneydlekh, whereas in a litvish ("Lithuanian") tradition fried fat, grivn (fried goose skin ), raspberry jam or fried onions are placed in the heart of the kneydl and these become "neshomelekh," 'little souls' that "spiritualize" the dish. One Mendele participant a few years back suggested some relationship with the "neshome yeseyre" [second soul which the Jew possesses on the Sabbath]; if we understand the term "neshome yeseyre" as meaning 'elevating element' then this reading becomes credible.

It is of linguistic interest to watch the competition between the spellings kneidlach [i.e. dialectal, very widespread among English-speakers] and this writer's preferred kneydlekh [following the rule-guiding Standard Yiddish Romanization]. Extremely popular synonyms are "matzo-balls" [also spelled "matso-balls" and almost always pronounced in the Yiddish manner "ma'tse-balls"] and the fully "assimilated" dumplings. For many people the term "matse-balls" has an inherently comical ring, at least partly because of the punning potential of the second element. Clearly, kneydlekh by any other name would not be kneydlekh. . . .

7)-------------------------------

Date: 12 April 2006
From: Dovid Katz
Subject: 100th anniversary of poet Menke Katz (1906-2006)

A posting of a small selection of poems to mark Menke Katz's 100th anniversary may be found at: http://www.dovidkatz.net/menke/menke_19poems.htm

8)-----------------------------------------------

Date: 12 April 2006
From: Joseph Sherman
Subject: Letter to the Editor re "Mit ale zibn finger"

Dear Editor,

I recall that in translating Dovid Bergelson's Opgang I ran across the idiom "mit ale zibn finger" or a cognate version of the idiom.  I wrote to the distinguished folklore specialist Professor Dov Noy about it, and he was generous enough to send me a detailed answer in which he gave me several sources and explanations, attesting to the fact that this is indeed a Yiddish idiom which has a Biblical source in the various connotations (sacred and mystical) of "seven". There is no question that the idiom is genuinely Yiddish and that Bergelson uses it in the very sense in which Chagall illustrates it.

 

Sincerely yours,

Joseph Sherman
Oriental Institute
Pusey Lane
OXFORD OX1 2LE
England (UK)

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End of The Mendele Review Vol. 10.004

Editor, Leonard Prager

 

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