Journal of Yiddish Research
No. 9 Summer 2005
Editors: Shalom Luria, Haya Bar-Ytzhak
Abstracts edited and/or translated by Leonard Prager
'The tongs were made with tongs' [Avot 5, 6]: A Word from the Editors
'A Tale of a Sage and a Simple Man,' the ninth story in Rabbi Nakhman Braslaver's bilingual Sipurey Maasiyot (Tales), was first published in 1815. The author investigates Rabbi Nakhman's relation to Yiddish on the basis of this tale and of comments by his pupils, surveying the response of critics and common readers to the stories over the generations. 'A Tale of a Sage and a Simple Man' serves the author as a test-case of the meeting of two languages. Through numerous illustrations, he shows their influence on one another, illuminating particularly the Hebrew translations of Rabbi Nakhman's lively idiomatic Yiddish. The author finds the Yiddish version somewhat more "natural" and contextually more faithful than the shorter Hebrew one.
The Book of Ruth, always a beloved text in Jewish households, echoes throughout Yiddish verse. The author presents two kinds of Ruth-poems, one by Roze Yakubovitsh from her book Mayne gezangen (My Songs) and the other a series of poems from Itsik Manger's celebrated Medresh Itsik. Each renders the ancient love drama differently, incorporating folk-motifs from the Tsenerene and love legends from Slavic folklore.
[Yiddish version of his Hebrew poem "BeIr HaHarega"
(In the City of Slaughter)]
Bialik's "In shkhite shtot," the Yiddish adaptation of "In the City of Slaughter" , his most important poem, was composed in 1906 soon after Bialik's disappointment with Y.-L. Perets's Yiddish translation and under the trauma of Herzl's sudden death. Bialik wrote this poem for two kinds of readers: for the simple person who knew only Yiddish and who could be deeply moved by the horrendous descriptions of the Kishinev catastrophe, and for the sophisticated reader who chose Yiddish for ideological (mainly anti-Zionist) reasons. The latter could discern in this Yiddish adaptation of "In the City of Slaughter" a rich texture of allusions to the New Testament, to Shakespeare and Tolstoy. This is an excellent illustration of the dual nature of Yiddish: on the one hand the epitome of the Judaic, of modest Jewish life, and on the other a Germanic language, and thus ideally (in Nietzsche's terms) an epitome of Hellenism. Yiddish is full of Hebraisms and depicts the life of lower-class Eastern European Jews, but at the same time it is the language of the cosmopolitan avant-garde that is reluctant to join the Zionist movement and eschews Hebrew. Bialik's poem succeeded in convincing both lower and upper classes that Jewish existence in the Diaspora had come to its end. Many of his young readers joined organizations of self-defense, aiming at creating a new mode of life for contemporary Jewry.
The Subjectivity of Reality in The Letters of Menakhem-Mendl
Along with Mendele Moykher-Sforim and Y.-L. Perets, Sholem Aleykhem is considered one of the classic writers of Yiddish literature. In most of the Yiddish-language criticism of his works, he is treated as a realist whose stories offer a view of typical Jewish life in Eastern Europe. Many critics see his major characters such as Tevye the dairyman and Menakhem-Mendl as authentic representatives of a certain time and place. However, the correspondence between Menakhem-Mendl and his wife Sheyne-Sheyndl are an expression of the author's modernist tendencies. These letters, particularly in their fractured and limited understanding of the changing, modern industrialized world, reveal a stream of literary modernism in the works of an author widely believed to be a realistic writer.
Micha Yosef Berdichevsky's long 1892 essay "Reshut Ha-Yakhid Be'ad Ha-Rabim" (The Individual and the Community) astonished its readers with its extremist views and stormy, offensive style. It was an overall attack on every public and literary Jewish establishment in Eastern Europe, and especially against the mass immigration movement, the "Khibat-Tsion" associations, and contemporary Hebrew literature. At the same time it contained kernels of his revolutionary ideas on Hebrew culture and the fate of the Jewish people, ideas which were to produce his famous call for "changing all values". For Berdichevsky, a student in Germany cultivating hopes of finding a place in the world of western culture, this essay served as a hasty, dramatic farewell gesture toward the East European Jewish milieu he had left only a year before. But even he did not foresee the angry response his essay would arouse among its readers. This response is reflected in many articles published in the Hebrew press in Europe and in America, the most interesting being "A Writer's Burial," a sharp, ironic feuilleton in Hamelitz signed "Eldad and Meidad" -- pen-names of Sholem Aleichem and Y. H. Ravnitzky. The principal author was Sholem Aleichem, so that this composition belongs to his early period as a Hebrew writer. The full text of the feuilleton, never before reprinted, is given here together with explanatory footnotes and an accompanying discussion of its context, content, and style.
"In Shvartsvald" by Sholem Ash [Shalom Asch]
The story begins in a realistic vein: a vacation in the Schwarzwald on the east bank of the Rhine River. As always with Asch the romanticist, the plot moves quickly to the borderline between reality and dreams where time has stopped and everything happens in a legendary domain. The plot describes the narrator's journey in a valley hidden between mountains to the ruins of an old church built on the remnants of a temple to Venus. The legends enveloping the place and alive among the villagers enchanted the narrator who goes on a journey through needle-tree forests, mountains and valleys; as he walks a lyrical view is shaped, musical and poetic. In Asch's descriptions of nature, there is a sense of sanctity. This story is full of secrecy, mystery and myth. The climax of the story is in the meeting between the narrator and a German village-girl who makes him feel he is facing Venus, or Lorelei, the Rhine nymph. He is uncontrollably attracted to the girl, to her blue eyes and white skin. She lures him to come at midnight to a silver lake where Venus can be seen on bright nights. Dazed, he walks into the water, and if he hadn't grabbed a fir tree would have drifted down an abyss. Leaving the lake he refused to say whether the bathing creature was the mysterious village-girl or the goddess Venus. He chose to remain uncertain, perhaps out of a desire to protect a mysterious figure in his soul created by the imagination and making a legend real.
Kuni Leml's wife departs with her lover to Canada, to the new world, leaving their young son with her husband. Kuni Leml's quiet temperament and poverty make him a convenient target for the ridicule of society. The little people of the old world rejoice at belittling the lowest among them. Following his disaster, Kuni Leml is enveloped in darkness, but this does not hide the truth from him. With keen vision, the anti-hero reveals to his son at the end of the poem: "The bread that would quiet our hunger has not been found. The fire that would warm us has not been found."*
*"Di goldene pave" (The Golden Peacock), Song 9, p. 88.
The Jewish quarters of provincial towns and of the metropolis are the backdrop for Yasha the Magician's world, one that is reflected in his trips as ambiguous and dialectic, beautiful and ugly, tragic and comic, ironic and pathetic. The entire ramified plot is entwined in sharp contrasts. The hero vacillates between opposites: belief and atheism, virtue and deceit, innocence and guile, Jew and Christian. The novel belongs to a complex genre: narrative of an artist, adventure story, and moral history. The subject develops in two almost parallel lines: an external path that leads from Lublin to Warsaw and back, and an internal road that returns the hero from his libertine and fallen life to his authentic self. The essay could be entitled "A Vacillating Return to the Root of the Self."
Yasha is a careerist. He climbs higher and higher on a tight-rope, metaphor for the skilled acrobat's uncertain connection to life. He aspires to ascend as though on wings, but his fate is that of Icarus. The magician is expert at opening locks, but in attempting a robbery he falls and, fleeing, takes refuge in a synagogue. His relations with women also end disastrously. Bashevis-Singer employs the Ari's kabbalistic myth of fracture-and-healing to lead the hero out of his anguish to a search for and discovery of the roots of his authentic "I". The novel leaves the reader in a state of wonderment.
The popular fiction-writer Nokhem-Meyer Shaykevitsh (Shomer) began his literary career in Vilna in 1876. Two years later he moved to Odessa, where he further developed his authorial skills. He wrote Yiddish stories, novels, and plays and became known as a publicist as well. In Odessa he edited and published the Yiddish Der litvak (1883) and Bilder fun'm lebn (1883-4) and was later to edit Der yidisher kalendar in Vilna. He wrote in a number of genres -- poems in Yiddish and Hebrew, short stories, articles on a wide range of subjects (mainly current matters) – that are all surveyed here. Shomer called for the resettlement of the Land of Israel and his cultural and social views had a maskilic cast. He opposed extreme positions, and was equally against assimilationism and religious fanaticism; he used satire to fight corruption. His literary physiognomy is quite different from that attributed to him by his critics, who saw him as a writer of shund, cheap escapist works.
In an attempt to historicize the metaphorical term of the (Yiddish) literary family, this article focuses on the interactions between Sholem Aleichem's fictional (literary) family (according to which Abramovitsh became grandfather and Sholem Aleichem himself grandson) and the group of young writers who surrounded Y.-L. Perets in a sons-to-father relationship. It stresses the interaction between literature and history, fiction and reality. The family structure expresses itself as an ideology, in the topographical pattern of the literary centers, in the way publications were edited, etc. In spite of its factualness, the literary family was accompanied with irony and ambiguity.
Yosl Cukier [Tsuker] (1912, Radzin, Poland - 1942, Auschwitz) lost both parents at a young age and, following in the footsteps of his older brother, emigrated to Paris where he dreamed of becoming a painter -- a "Jewish Bruegel," but earned his livelihood as a lamp manufacturer. Active in Yiddish literary circles and as one of the many largely working-class and impoverished East-European immigrant Jews who sought refuge in interwar Paris, Cukier was able to depict their life in his novels with the insight of an insider. His A fremd lebn: dertseylungen fun yidishn lebn in Pariz (An Estranged Life: Stories of Jewish Life in Paris [Warsaw, 1939]) consists of nine stories, one of which, "In eynem a hoyz" (In One of the Houses) is the subject of this article.
The "house" is actually a third-rate "Hotel moderne" in the immigrant quarter of Belleville. In contrast to its pretentious name, the hotel accommodates in each of its tiny, suffocating rooms an entire family or several single immigrant refugees. With Zola-like naturalism, Cukier depicts the inhabitants with bitter irony and meticulous precision: their daily struggle for survival, the tension between husband and wife, between older and younger generations, all aggravated by the economic crisis of the 1930s. He also shows the confrontation between refugees from Nazi Germany and Jewish welfare society employees, as well as the daily life of clandestine leftist militants who had no legal documents and lived in constant fear of expulsion. The stories take place mainly indoors, thereby creating an atmosphere of claustrophobia, similar to the protagonists' feeling of suffocation. Even when they leave their tiny rooms, they wander gloomily and aimlessly along the boulevards. Cukier depicts through the individual protagonists a collective portrait of a community torn between the "heym" (home) left behind and the "hoyz" (house) not yet established. This is a community with no feeling of constancy, people alienated from the world around them and from themselves. Cukier's heroes, or anti-heroes, examine their own lives mercilessly, provoking in the reader a physical sense of horror and despair.
Mordecai Strigler (1918-1998) is known in Yiddish and Hebrew literature as an author, publicist and Talmudic scholar whose varied writings include books on the Holocaust and novels of Jewish life in Poland before the Second World War. With minor exceptions his journalistic and public endeavors have not been investigated. This article surveys his activities, examines the character of his writing, and serves as a documented introduction to his works of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, works as significant today as when composed. This unique author's commitment to the revival of Yiddish literature and culture after the Holocaust stems from his early years as a student in the Lithuanian yeshivas. He did not cease to write in all twelve of the concentration camps in which he was incarcerated, and he intensified his creative activity after liberation from Buchenwald. Strigler is important for his intense reflections on the nature and fate of the contemporary Jew and contemporary humankind.
In 1934 the Soviet Union decided to create a Jewish Autonomous Region in the far-eastern territory of Biro-Bidzhan. The important Yiddish writer Dovid Bergelson was excited about this idea. He actually thought that a radical turn in the history of the Jewish people was about to transpire, and that he should personally be a part of it. But he quickly came to see that this was not such a good idea. Whoever wished to influence Soviet literary life had better live in Moscow rather than at the other end of the world. Nevertheless, Bergelson was a frequent guest in Biro-Bidzhan, remaining there for several months each visit. Received with open arms, he participated fully in cultural activities -- in Yiddish theater, schools, periodicals, and more. He contemplated calling a Language Conference where he would give a paper on Yiddish as a Literary Language. The conference never took place. Diplomatic events in the Soviet Union cancelled many constructive plans. In 1940 the thirtieth anniversary of Bergelson's literary activity was celebrated in Biro-Bidzhan, but the author himself was not present. Together with other distinguished writers and poets, he had been arrested and charged with hostile nationalism, a charge which carried the death penalty.
This article is the beginning of a comparative study of poetic texts of the Shoah period written in four of the main spoken languages of the Jewish victims -- Yiddish, Hebrew, Polish and German. Each of these languages is to be seen as representative of a particular cultural environment within the heterogeneous yet supposedly collective experience of the Shoah, and as representative of the individual points of departure of the various communities. Are the written documents also witnesses to a personal mental process, originating in the individual's experience but aiming at the creation of a collective identity resulting from the Shoah? Within the framework of this question, a selected corpus of Yiddish, German and Hebrew texts from the ghettoes of Lodz and Terezin will be presented that reflects the primary stage of the collective Shoah experience: life in the ghetto.
Rokhl Oyerbakh [Rachel Auerbach] (1903-1976) was a Yiddish, Hebrew and Polish author, historian, publicist, critic, editor and translator. This preliminary study sketches her life in pre-war Galicia and, from 1933 onwards, in Warsaw where she wrote for the major newspapers. During the Holocaust period she ran a soup kitchen in the Warsaw ghetto and contributed to "Oneg Shabat," the underground archives. In 1943 she escaped to the Aryan side of Warsaw and was active in the underground resistance movement, all this time setting down in a unique fashion her testimony of Jewish life under Nazi rule. In Israel from 1950 she was founder and director of the Department of Oral History at the Yad VaShem Memorial. She devoted her last years to recording Jewish cultural creativity in pre-war and Holocaust-period Poland.
From the Writings of Dov Sadan
The author endeavors to uncover the significance of Pinkhes Kahanovitsh's pseudonym "Der nister," 'the hidden one' .
[This essay was first published in Yiddish in A vort bashteyt, vol. 2 (1978), pp.139-149.]
Michael Astour Tshernikhov recounts the history of his family, and describes the personality of his father, the renown attorney, speaker, Territorialist and lover of Yiddish Yoysef Tshernikhov-Danieli. His father was drawn to politics at an early age and in 1904, the year the Territorialist-Socialist (SS) Party was founded, was already ideologically embattled against the Bund and the Palestinophile Zionists. He excelled as speaker and as party activist. In 1907 he moved to Vilna, where he gained fame as a defense attorney whose briefs were works of art. In addition to his professional life, he contributed to the community's cultural activities, to Yiddish theater, education and press. In a rich and precise Yiddish he wrote numerous articles and published memoirs, covering among other subjects his travels to Palestine. In 1931 he published In revtribunal (In a Revolutionary Court) where he discussed his experience in the law courts of Kharkov. One can well imagine how this book was used by his Soviet enemies when they occupied Vilna in 1939. In the 1930s he was active building the territorialist Frayland (Free Land) movement and press; he was also among the key founders of the Yiddish Scientific Organization (Yivo). He was known throughout Vilna, loved for his helpfulness and admired for his sharp mind. The Soviet regime arrested and executed him together with his friend and fellow Yiddish-lover Zalmen Reyzn.
The first Yiddish secular schools were founded at the beginning of the twentieth century and from 1921 belonged to the "Tsisho" educational network in which the Bund, Left-Poaley Tsion and other parties collaborated ("Tsisho" is a Yiddish anagram for 'Central School Organization'). Grininke beymelekh (Little Green Trees, Vilna 1914-1939), Der khaver (The Comrade, Vilna 1920-1939), and Kinderfraynt (Children's Friend, Warsaw 1936-1939) were edited by teachers in keeping with the values of the Yiddish secular school. As the Yiddish educational networks grew, so did awareness of the need for young children to learn to read Yiddish. The three Yiddish periodicals cited above published literary, informative, popular science, current events and general knowledge items. The major content was original and translated literature of various genres for different age groups: lyrical poems, lullabies, realistic stories, folk tales, humorous anecdotes, fables, plays, novels for the young in installments, travel stories, chapters from biographies, and rhyming riddles. For the four-to-six year olds, Grininke beymelekh offered finger-game songs, game and dance songs, nonsense and narrative poems. In somewhat fewer genres Kinderfraynt provided materials for the preschool age in its supplement "Grezele far kleynvarg" (Blade of Grass for Youngsters). Der khaver, intended for children eleven to twelve years old and older, contained stories, a broader range of verse, folk tales, excerpts from biographies and travel stories. The development of Der khaver, Grininke beymelekh and Kinderfraynt from the mid-1920s until the end of the 1930s paralleled that of the Yiddish secular schools in Poland and other countries (mainly America) and was instrumental in the development of Yiddish children's literature generally.
Levin Kipnis (1894-1990) was well known as a prolific author and one of the most important creators of Hebrew children's literature in Erets Yisrael, especially for small children. When he was 50 years old, he heard that one of his Hebrew stories had been translated into Yiddish and published in Kinder-zhurnal (Children's Journal, 1920-1978), a Yiddish children's periodical published in New York. He then decided to write in Yiddish, his first mother tongue. Later he edited three books of short stories in Yiddish, two of which were published in Israel after his death: Under the Fig Tree and Under the Carob Tree. These stories are about Jewish festivals and everyday life mainly in Israel and a few in the Diaspora. Kipnis used writing techniques suited to young children -- personification, picturesque description and dialogue. By these means he illustrated ways of life and explained Jewish manners and values. The article deals with his attitude to Hebrew and Yiddish, and includes an overview of the subjects, genres and techniques in his Yiddish stories for children.
Drama and Theatre
Yitskhok Eykhl [Isaak Euchel] (1756-1804)
We give here a Hebrew translation of the fifth act of a remarkable play by the important maskil and Hebraist Isaak Euchel. The language of this comedy is a linguistic farrago compounded of West Yiddish, Plattdeutsch, Standard German, French and English. The editors of a recent academic edition of the work (Hamburg, 2004), Marion Aptroot and Roland Gruszka, selected the Copenhagen three-act version. The text given here was first published by Zalmen Reyzn in 1935. It is unlikely to have been performed on the stage, but was read by small groups and underwent inevitable changes.
Arn Shteynberg [Aaron Steinberg]
Aaron Steinberg reminisces about his childhood in Dvinsk, the city in which the great Yiddish actor Shlomo Mikhoels was born in 1895 and murdered by Stalin's agents on the 13th of January 1948. He recalls common experiences in a Hebrew-language group and his meeting with Mikhoels years later in London where the great man represented Russian Jewry's Anti-Fascist Committee.
This essay first appeared in Yiddish in Di goldene keyt 43 (Tel Aviv, 1962), 142-152 and was reprinted in Gedanken un tsuzamenklang (Thoughts and Accord) [Haifa: University of Haifa Press, 1987, 9-31], a collection of Steinberg's writings edited by Shalom Luria. On Steinberg see "Arn Shteynbergs yidishe ksovim" (Aaron Steinberg's Yiddish Writings) by Shalom Luria in the above volume (pp. 9-31).
No more than drops in the ocean are the few fine Yiddish poems assembled here in Hebrew translation and with brief explication.
Rivka Basman Ben-Khayim is represented with three poems that have not been included in any of the volumes of her published verse. These poems are (1) "Ikh reyd tsu a nakhtikn blat" (I talk to a nocturnal leaf) [translated from manuscript]; (2) 'Farges dem amol oyb du kenst" (Forget the past if you can), published in Toplpunkt 7, p. 82; (3) 'Teg' (Days) which appeared in Forverts (New York) 5 March 2004.
Khayim Maltinski is a poet that is not very well known in the West, even though he has published several volumes of verse and memoirs. We introduce him with a brief account of his stormy history and two of his poems, "Nisht antoysh zikh, mayn toyb" (Don't despair, my dove) and "Oyf dayn midn profil" (On your weary profile).
Perets Markish's poem "HaGalil" (Galilee) brings together a Soviet-Yiddish poet and Land of Israel scenery, Galilee and the Jezreel Valley, Safed and Jerusalem, as well as tumultuous skies and an almost idyllic landscape. This poem introduces us to Markish's poetic world.
The editor of Yiddish After the Holocaust (Oxford: Boulevard Books, 2004) introduces 16 papers from among those delivered at a conference in August 2003 at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. Focusing on the condition of
Yiddish language and culture in the past 60 years, the volume surveys the globe (especially Israel and North America), examines the extensive publishing record, describes linguistic trends, notes the vitality of a new Yiddish among the world's haredim (ultra-orthodox), and studies in detail several distinguished post-Shoa authors.
In the period between the two world wars, Yoysef Albirt and his wife lived in the author's house. From the Leksikon fun der yidisher literatur, vol. 1 (New York, 1960, col. 87), we learn he was born in Vilna in 1904 and later lived in Lida where he edited a Yiddish newspaper. During and after World War Two he lived in Tashkent. He is the author of Bandazhn proletarishe (Proletarian Bandages) [Lida, 1934], a book of poems; Mantsbilim (Males) [Lida, 1935], a collection of stories; Gerangl gezangen (Songs of Struggle) [Vilna, 1936]; Mesholim (Fables) [Brestetshko, 1939]. His book on war themes, Royte banen (Red Railroads), was translated into Russian under the title Krasnye Poyezda. Yoysef Albirt is a poet of the poor and exploited, the sick, the orphaned, the lonely. His fate in a Soviet prison is unknown. He was cut down by Stalin's madness together with Soviet Yiddish culture as a whole.
Abstracts (Yiddish and English)