Journal of Yiddish Research  

No. 5 Winter 1998

Editors: Shalom Luria, Haya Bar-Ytzhak

Abstracts edited and/or translated by Leonard Prager

Shmuel Werses

How Maskilic Writers Viewed Yiddish

The author surveys the openly hostile attitudes toward Yiddish held by writers of the Haskala ['Enlightenment'] and their efforts to convince their readers, especially in Germany, that Yiddish must be eliminated from all pedagogic spheres and that efforts to translate the Scriptures into Yiddish must be discouraged. These were the views of Moses Mendelssohn and his disciples, and of Naphtali Herz Weisel as expressed in his Divrei shalom ve'emet ('Words of Peace and Truth').

The author discusses the analogous situation in Eastern Europe, where the most militant maskilim (Joseph Perl in Galicia, Ayzik Meir Dik in Lithuania, and Avraham Ber Gotlober in Russia) wrote in both Hebrew and Yiddish -- though they were by no means exponents of Yiddish. Ambivalence towards Yiddish can be found in the great Hebrew poet and opponent of Yiddish, Yehuda-Leib Gordon, who published a booklet of his own Yiddish verse, Sikhes kholin ['Weekday Talk']. The author surveys the career of Shalom-Ya'akov Abramowicz [Mendele Moykher-Sforim], who began with typical maskilic hostility to Yiddish but cane to write in both Hebrew and Yiddish and grew into a classic figure, the "grandfather" of modern Yiddish literature.

Avraham Greenbaum

Mikhl Gordon and his History of Russia

Mikhl Gordon (1823-1890) was a well known maskil and a Yiddish popular poet many of whose Yiddish poems became songs. He undertook to write a History of Russia with the aim of teaching Yiddish-readers "in plain Yiddish" the history of a country and people among whom Jews had been living for generations. The first volume appeared in Zhitomir in 1869, in the halcyon years of Alexander the Second's reforms. The manuscript of the second volume (which was ready for publication) was apparently lost. The present essay succinctly discusses a work which was an innovation in its day.

Avraham Keren

The Conflict over Rabbinic Posts in Joseph Perl's Megale Tmirin ('Revealer of Secrets')

Joseph Perl (1773-1839), in his bilingual Megale Tmirin, illuminates all kinds of dark corners of society in early nineteenth-century Jewish communities. The subject here is a vicious clash between the hasidim of two different rebes over filling a vacancy for a rabbinical post. The Hebrew and Yiddish texts illustrate the actions and the intrigues as though they were actual historical documents.

David Assaf

"My Beloved Friend, The Magid of Dubno": Satirical Letters in the Style of Megale Tmirin ('Revealer of Secrets') Exchanged between Shalom Aleichem and Simon Dubnov

In the 1890s Shalom Aleichem and the historian Simon Dubnov both lived in the great Jewish literary center, Odessa, but in different parts of the city. Since Dubnov's home was outside the postal boundary, Shalom Aleichem agreed to receive all of Dubnov's mail and forward it to him by special courier. Taking advantage of this arrangement, the two authors corresponded with each other frequently. These unique short letters from the summer of 1891 are composed in the ridiculing style of Megale Temirin ('Revealer of Secrets'), Joseph Perl's famous anti-hasidic satire (1819).

The humoristic correspondence contains rich historical, biographical and literary material that reveals the dynamics of everyday life among an important group of writers which included Shalom Aleichem, Dubnov, S.Y. Abramowitsh (Mendele Moykher-Sforim), Y.Ch. Rawnitzki and M. Ben-Ami, most of whom (with the exception of Mendele) were in their thirties. The article describes the social context of the letters (unpublished, though Dubnov tried to issue them), analyzes their content and style, and reviews their history. The twenty-five extant letters in the Shalom Aleichem Archive are critically edited from the original manuscripts (twenty of Shalom Aleichem and five of Dubnov).

Sophie Grace-Pollak

Shomer in the Light of Shomers mishpet ('Shomer's Judgement')

Shm"r [= Shomer], the acronymic pseudonym of Nokhem-Meyer Shaykevitsh (1846-1905), was famous in his day as the author of hundreds of novels and stories, mainly in Yiddish. While beloved by his numerous readers, critics and writers attacked his work as harmful and stamped it as "shund" ('trash'). The principal attacks on Shomer appeared in the Yiddish press between the years 1887-1888, but their culmination point was Sholem-Aleykhem's pamphlet Shomers mishpet. Sholem-Aleykhem not only criticized Shomer's artistic taste, he called for banishing him from Yiddish literature totally. Sholem-Aleykhem's influence was enormous and Shomer's name was gradually forgotten. What has remained is the impression of a mass-circulation pulp fiction by Shomer and his imitators.

The present essay discusses the debate surrounding Shomer's writings, analyzing in detail Sholem-Aleykhem's Shomers mishpet, which is today little known. A retrospective-historical overview must acknowledge the cultural-historical value of Shomer's work, which in its time created thousands of new readers for Yiddish literature. The sharp criticism of Shomer is based on a limited body of his work and intentionally ignores its positive qualities. A just approach must redraw the crooked picture presented by Shomers mishpet, restoring to Shomer the position owed him in the annals of Yiddish literature.

David G. Roskies

The Shtetl in Jewish Collective Memory

Whether viewing the shtetl through the lens of emancipation, which exaggerated all the ills of traditional Jewish life, or viewing it through the lens of nationalism, which focused on the Jewish collective ethos, Yiddish and Hebrew writers did not experience a "crisis of representation" vis-a-vis the Jewish market towns of Eastern Europe. By the 1860's, they had developed a "metonymic" (in Miron's formulation) or symbolic landscape, which was then tested and refined in the light of subsequent upheavals: the Revolutions of 1905 and 1917, the World War and Civil War, the emergence of Poland as an exclusive nation state, the Holocaust. Every piece of that landscape -- the besmedresh, the bathhouse, the marketplace, the kohol-shtibl, the tavern-teashop, and especially, the cemetery -- was recycled from one decade to the next, and then traveled from the native realm to the Americas and the Palestinian Yishuv. The ultimate vindication of this complex and many-layered literary construct was the grass roots phenomenon of the yisker-bikher, in which the deconstructed shtetl landscape was reconfigured into an archetypal narrative: from obscure birth, to full flowering, to suffering and mass martyrdom, to rebirth in the Promised Land. Most recently, this paradigm has resurfaced in the writings of third- and fourth-generation American Jews.

Ziva Shamir

Bialik's Comic Dramatic Monologue "Mayn Gortn" ('My Garden')

Despite its comic facade, Bialik's pseudo-folkloristic poem "Mayn gortn" ('My Garden') is a serious debate on the precarious situation of East European Jewry at the turn of the century. Its speaker, an arrogant provincial nouveau riche (a kinsman of Arye Ba'al Guf, the protagonist of Bialik's first short story) brags about his fruitful garden which he claims is unique in the shtetl for its beauty and yield. The reader gradually senses contradictions in his monologue and is able to see 1) that the proud estate owner is a self-made man afraid of a future financial crisis; 2) that he is not an authentic countryman, but an old-fashioned Jewish merchant; 3) that he belongs to a half-assimilated materialistic society caught up in making money and playing cards; 4) that the idyllic picture of the owner who takes pride in his garden is a short-term illusion about to end in personal and national catastrophe.

The picture of the impoverished garden standing naked with the symbolic staff and haversack of the Wandering Jew is a premonition of future crises. This 1903 poem resembles Bialik's well known "In the City of Slaughter" ("In shkhite shtot" in the author's own Yiddish translation). A comic dramatic monologue rich in luxurious pleasures, it turns out to be a bitterly ironic tragic prophecy. The complacent Jew who is so sure of his real estate is totally unaware that an earthquake is imminent, and that his own fate will not differ from the collective fate of his smug brethren, old-fashioned Jews who own no garden, symbol of earthly delights.

Avner Holtzman

Hillel Zeitlin, M.Y. Berdyczewski and Dos idishes vokhnblat

The article surveys the personal and literary relationship between the writers Hillel Zeitlin and Micha Yosef Berdyczewski between 1900 and 1921. The focus of this long relationship is 1907, when Berdyczewski participated regularly in Dos idishes vokhnblat , a weekly Warsaw Yiddish magazine edited by Zeitlin. Ten of Zeitlin's letters to Berdyczewski from that period are published here for the first time together with explanatory notes.

The letters reveal the complex, tense nature of Berdyczewski and Zeitlin's attitudes toward each other. While Zeitlin was eager to develop a deep, spiritual lasting contact with Berdyczewski, the latter kept a formal distance from him. Berdyczewski's essays on Zeitlin (written in 1909 and in 1920) expose the reason for his suspicious reactions. He saw Zeitlin's writings as noisy, hysterical public utterances lacking a private voice and quiet reflection, vital signs to Berdyczewski of a sincere spiritual message.

Bilhah Rubinstein:

The Messiah Has Not Arrived and Satan Dances in the Streets: On I. Bashevis Singer's Satan in Goray

Satan in Goray is a modern metaphysical allegory based on a poetic pattern of the traditional "Dybbuk-Tale". The novel represents a model of a recurrent phenomenon in history: intense yearning for salvation follows a traumatic experience and swells to a monstrous false messianism. The article discusses the novel's poetic frame, its symbolic substructure and the ways in which it absorbs and employs kabbalistic and folkloristic source-materials. The novel leaves the reader asking: Is it possible to exorcise the Dybbuk of evil and destruction from human nature? Is it possible to prevent the recurrence of false messianism?

Jacob Steinberg

"In a shlitn" ('In a Sled' [source and translation])

Nirit Mitrani

The Dialectic Basis of Jacob Steinberg's "A yidishe tokhter" ('A Jewish Daughter')

This analysis of the story "Bat yisrael" ('Daughter of Israel') presents the protagonist Tsipora in a light different from that of previous critical inquiries. The author claims that the conventional perception of Tsipora as the "Innocent Daughter of Israel" ignores the complexity of her character. While the story does open with light radiating from Tsipora's eyes, she behaves in a morally suspect manner. An unequivocal denuciation of her actions does not follow. The story makes possible two interpretations of the protagonist which, when combined, reveal a character of great mental intricacy who is compelled to repress her individuality because of social pressure.

Yechiel Szeintuch [alef.daled/mem.ayin] -- A Symbolic Concept in the Works of K. Tsetnik

The known corpus of K. Tsetnik's works includes six books, each of which deals with the experiences of Jews in and after the Shoa: Salamandra , Dos hoyz fun di lyalkes , Pipls , Der zeyger vos ibern kop , Kakhol me'efer and Tsofen: adme . K. Tsetnik began his bilingual writing career at the end of his twenties, yet to this day no serious attempt has been made to study and uncover the secrets of his art.

One generally reads him without looking for connections among his books, even though they are all artistic explorations of Shoa experiences, analyses of their nature. One can imagine that the author has divided a single work into multiple parts for both aesthetic, compositional reasons as well as for the practical reason of avoiding inordinate book length. The author has himself discussed this question in the introduction to his Salamandra (1947). This introduction was deleted from all subsequent editions.

Few of K. Tsetnik's Hebrew-readers know that he is a bilingual writer who composed all of his Shoa novels originally in Yiddish. His principal theme is life and death in the Jewish towns of Eastern Upper Silesia in the years 1939-1945.

His last book Tsofen: adme (1987) is in some sense a summing-up and a commentary on his works. The unraveling of the symbolical abbreviation "" [alef.daled/mem.ayin] is the main theme of this essay. These four letters serve as a motto for all of K. Tsetnik's works, from 1946 to today, in Yiddish, Hebrew, and in all the fifteen languages into which he has been translated. * Known in Yiddish as "Katsetnik," he was born Yisroel Fayner and in Israel changed his name to Yekhiel Di-Nur. His general pseudonym is K. Tsetnik.

Nathan Cohen

The Contribution of the "Bund" to Jewish Cultural Life in Poland between the Two World Wars

Alongside its diversified political activity, and sometimes as a part of it, the Jewish Workers' Party (the Bund) paid much attention to secular Jewish culture and education. To provide an education imbued with class-consciousness, the Bund was the first to establish a modern Yiddish secular school-system. During the interwar period the Bund's impressive TSISHO school-network included kindergartens, elementary schools, high-schools (gymnasia) and evening schools for adults. In spite of great difficulties TSISHO became the second largest Jewish secular school-system in Poland.

Initially under the Russian Empire and later in independent Poland, the Bund published a large number of periodicals, legal and illegal, in Warsaw and the provinces, mainly in Yiddish but also in Russian and Polish, which were literary as well as political. The Bund encouraged talented young Yiddish writers (not necessarily Bundists) by providing them with platforms for their works. The Bund's daily newspaper, the Folkstsaytung (Warsaw), included a weekly literature and art supplement edited by the well known poet Meylekh Ravitsh. As the Bund's political power grew, it reached a central position in Jewish cultural life. It controlled the Kultur-lige organization and its publishing house, turning it into one of the most active Yiddish cultural institutions in Poland. The Bund also promoted libraries, dramatic studios, popular university courses, lectures and symposia, summer-camps for children and adults. In the early 193Os the Bund also tried -- with a degree of success -- to dominate the Association of Jewish Writers and Journalists in Warsaw. Even under the Nazi occupation of Poland the Bund maintained its cultural and educational activities and contributed significantly to Jewish spiritual resistance.

Dov Sadan

Fragments: A Letter; On Israel Tsinberg; On Tse'ena ure'ena ["the Yiddish pentateuch"]

Here we present a letter by Dov Sadan to Shalom Luria together with two interesting fragments: one about the genial literary historian Israel Tsinberg and the other on Tse'ena ure'ena (also known as "the Yiddish pentateuch") much beloved (but not exclusively) by women.

Shalom Luria

On Two Poetic Gems (by Avraham Sutskever and Itsik Fefer)

Here are presented two Yiddish poems and their Hebrew translations, one by Itsik Fefer and the other the first of Avraham Sutskever's "koymenlider ('Chimney Poems') cycle, written in the first days of the Nazi occupation of Vilna. A brief interpretation of each poem is also given.

Sh. An-ski

-On Jewish Folk-Creativity [Hebrew translation]

Haya Bar-Yitzchak

An-ski's Essay on Jewish Ethnopoetics

This article deals with An-ski's seminal 1908 Russian essay on Jewish ethnopoetics which appeared in Perezhitoye (here translated for the first time into Hebrew; cf. Zalmen Reyzn's Yiddish translation in Sh. An-ski, Gezamlte shriftn , Vilna/Warsaw/New York: Ferlag "An-ski", 1928, vol. 15, pp. 29-95). An-ski's own dramatic life experiences help explain his credo regarding the centrality of folklore in understanding Judaism. An-ski saw Jewish folklore as the spiritual expression of the Jewish people and urged that its particulars be collected from respondents in their natural settings.

Max Weinreich

What Would Yiddish Be Without Hebrew?

This essay, which appeared in Di tsukunft (New York) in 1931 (pp. 194-205) is a polemical response to Nokhem Shtif's "Social Differentiation in Yiddish: The Hebrew Elements in the Language," published in Shtif's journal Di yidishe shprakh (Kiev) 17-18 (1929). Shtif was highly learned and an expert on Yiddish. His effort to conform the Yiddish language to Soviet ideological doctrines was strongly opposed by Yiddish scholars abroad. Max Weinreich analyzes the Hebrew elements in Yiddish and clearly shows the weakness of Shtif's ideological position.


Velvl Tshernin [Chernin]

The Kneeling Rebel: National History in Soviet Yiddish Prose (1960-1990)

This article surveys Yiddish prose works written in the Soviet Union after the Stalin period on themes of Jewish national history. Soviet ideology made it impossible to write about the Palestine roots of Soviet Jewry and there were limitations with regard to presenting Judaism as an integral part of Jewish national life. An exception is Nosn Zabara's unfinished tetralogy Galgl hakhoyzer ("The Revolving Wheel'), which was later published in Sovetish heymland , and in book form after the author's death. This novel about medieval Jewry in western Europe called forth opposing responses: the readers were enthusiatic but the critics strongly disapproved of the novel's sympathetic treatment of the Jewish religion. The Haskala ('Enlightenment') theme has a special place in Soviet Yiddish literature. It deals with events in Jewish life at the end of the eighteenth and in the nineteenth centuries on the territory of the Russian Empire. After Stalin's death several prose works on the Haskala theme were published in the Soviet Union. Irma Druker and Ber Halpern are two notable authors of such works. One should also mention the bilingual (Russian and Yiddish) Birobidzhan writer Roman Shoykhet, author of Khuzarim ('Khazars'), two fragments of which appeared in the periodical Birobidzhaner shtern .

Adina Bar-el

Mordecai Halter's Novel of a Pioneer Training Commune ["hakhshara-kibuts"] in Poland

Mordechai Halter's Yiddish novel Mir greytn zikh: roman fun hakhshore-lebn ['We Are Preparing Ourselves -- A Novel of Communal Life'] was published in Warsaw in 1937. It describes a group of Halutsim in a training commune in a small town in Poland who suffer from unemployment, cold and hunger, but do not give up their dream of Aliya to the Land of Israel while creating a communal social and cultural life. Halter (Poland 1906 - Israel 1976) edited and translated the book into Hebrew three times: From 1937 to 1939 he published a version for youth in the "Tarbut" educational network's periodical Olami , with the chapters bearing the title: "Lekhayim khadashim" ('Towards a New Life'). In 1939 a book with the latter title was published in Warsaw by "Avoda". In 1942, after Halter's aliya, he published a book titled Khalutsim ba'u ha'ira ('Halutsim Came to the City'). Comparing the various translations into Hebrew shows in both Warsaw translations the desire to spread the Hebrew language and propagate the ideas of the communal life and of aliya to the Land of Israel. The version published in Erets-Yisrael is more faithful to the Yiddish original; it memorializes and preserves a picture of the life of the Jews in interwar Poland for the Hebrew readers in Erets-Yisrael.

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