The Mendele Review: Yiddish Literature and Language
              (A Companion to MENDELE)
Contents of Vol. 07.001
1 January 2003

1)  Looking Back and Looking Forward with TMR (ed.)

2) A Reply to Joseph Sherman's review of _Shakespeare on the American
   Yiddish Stage_ (Joel Berkowitz)

3) Books Received:  a. _KATZETNIK 135633; a series of dialogues with
   Yechiel De-Nur_ by Yechiel Szeintuch; b. _Oyf a strune fun regn; lider_
   by Rivke Basman Ben-Khayim_ c. _Jewish Children's Periodicals in Poland_
   by Adina Bar-El. d. _Bloe vinklen:  Itsik Manger -- lebn, lid un
   balada_ by Aleksander Shpiglblat.

4)  Kotik's Memoirs in English: A Review (Joel Berkowitz)

Date: 1 January 2003
From: Leonard Prager 

Subject:  Looking Back and Looking Forward with TMR:  a) the Seventh
Volume of TMR; b) YTF will now be independent

a) With this issue, the 127th in somewhat less than six years (TMR was
founded by Noyekh Miller and Leonard Prager in April 1997), TMR begins
its seventh volume (a volume = "yorgang" 'year').  We hope to continue
to provide the Mendele community of Yiddish -lovers with engaging
essays, reviews, original texts and translations.

b) Several yeas ago at Oxford an international group of students of
Yiddish theater concluded that research in this field was insufficiently
supported and valued.  It needed to be studied broadly and in depth as
well as integrated with Jewish and theater studies generally.  A
journal was very much a desideratum, but in this age an electronic
bulletin possessed numerous advantages over the more traditional -- and
more expensive and more cumbersome -- hardprint publication.  A
representative group met and decided to create the Yiddish Theater

I suggested that the proposed publication begin its existence in joint
issues with The Mendele Review.  The three such issues that appeared in
2002 were hailed as a useful addition to the Mendele family.  With the
approval of Mendele's "balebatim" -- Noyekh Miller, Iosif Vaisman and
Victor Bers -- and under the editorship of Joel Berkowitz, the YTF
becomes a second "Companion to Mendele" -- appearing under its own
masthead and archived in the same manner as is TMR.

In the absence of a large audience of native Yiddish-speakers and in an
age drowning in mass media entertainment, Yiddish theater can never be
what it once was.  But it can endure in a minor mode for specialized
audiences for many more years.  Studying the rich century of Yiddish
theater life that preceded us -- the major aim of the YTF -- is an
intellectually challenging and eminently worthwhile task, one which
hopefully will be pursued with active ties to surviving avenues of
performance.  I am personally gratified for having been the YTF's
_accoucheur_ -- without claiming any prophetic powers as suggested by
the Yiddish saying:  "an akushor iz a khokhem" (vayl er iz a roye es
hanoyled) [ro'e et hanolad 'one who sees the future']."

Date: 1 January 2003
From:  Joel Berkowitz ()

Subject:  A reply to Joseph Sherman's review of _Shakespeare on the
American Yiddish Stage_(Iowa City:  University of Iowa Press, 2002), xvi
+ 283 pp, illus.)

Joel Berkowitz
                                       A reply to Joseph Sherman

It is gratifying to read the final words of Joseph Sherman's lengthy and
careful review of _Shakespeare on the American Yiddish Stage_ [_TMR_
6.10], in which he praises the book "both for the information it
generously provides, and for the avenues of furt her enquiry it opens
up."  I fear, however, that his own approach to Yiddish popular culture
threatens to limit our understanding of it, so a few words championing
both the "high" and the "low" in Yiddish theatre are in order.

It is only fair to acknowledge that some of Sherman's charges against
the Yiddish theatre are true, though I cannot accept the value judgments
he seems to attach to many of these accusations.  True, "at the heart of
the matter [i.e.  American Yiddish productions of Shakespeare] lay no
'literary' concern, but an energetic stage performance."  True, "Yiddish
actors thought nothing of forcibly shifting the focus of every play's
action favourably on to themselves."  True, "Commercial Yiddish theatre
in America . . . did little to contribute to the enrichment of the
Yiddish language."

Such statements would remain equally true, however, if we replaced
"Yiddish" with virtually any other theatrical culture.  "Elizabethan"
may be at least a partial exception, but Shakespeare's era does not
offer the most useful reference point in this regard. We would do
better to look closer to home.  If we examine the American, English,
French, German, and Italian theatre and drama of the late nineteenth and
early twentieth centuries, we will not find them by any means free of
bombast, of the star system, of language that reflected the street more
than the salon.  Indeed, non-Yiddish-speaking critics often found that
production values in the Yiddish theatre compared very favorably to
those found elsewhere in Europe and North America.

Just as we must constantly bear in mind similarities between the theatre
produced in Yiddish and in other languages, we should avoid tarring all
of Yiddish theatre with the same brush.  Sherman does so by declaring
that "the Yiddish theatre was *above all* concerned to gratify its
audiences' taste for sensationalism" [my emphasis].  The Yiddish theatre
was concerned with many different goals.  Certainly sensationalism
played a part, but so did moral instruction, engagement with Jewish
history and destiny, a deeper understanding of human nature, and such
simple pleasures as the enjoyment of a good melody.

What strikes me as the heart of Sherman's frustration with the American
Yiddish theatre is the judgement that "the Yiddish theatre achieved
almost nothing by way of what can, in terms of its lasting merit,
legitimately be termed 'art.'"  First, even if we agree that Yiddish
versions of Shakespeare's plays were artistically worthless, that does
not support the conclusion that the Yiddish theatre as a whole was
bereft of artistry.  While Shakespeare's plays, translated or adapted,
formed a significant part of the Yiddish repertoire, they were only a
small part quantitatively, and account for only a fraction of the output
of the greatest Yiddish playwrights:  Goldfaden, Gordin, Kobrin,
Hirshbein, Pinski, Leivick, et al.  (And incidentally, the Yiddish
dramas most admired today may ultimately be overshadowed by finer ones;
there are still unappreciated gems in the Yiddish repertoire).

Second, artistic achievements did abound in Yiddish productions of
Shakespeare's plays.  Sherman has much to say about the legendary
bombast of Yiddish acting, but while my book provides ample
documentation on that subject, it also examines at length a number of
landmark productions in which actors were lauded by the Yiddish and
English-language press for the quality of their performances.  These
included Bertha Kalish's 1901 production of _Hamlet_, which critics felt
held its own against Sarah Bernhardt' s interpretation; Jacob Adler's
brilliant portrayal of Shylock, first on the Bowery in 1901, and then on
Broadway, where Adler performed in Yiddish with an English-speaking
supporting cast, in 1903 and 1905; the Shylock of Rudolph Schildkraut,
who brought an impressive background in the Austrian and German theatre
to the Yiddish stage, and whose artistry may have eclipsed even Adler's;
and performers' creations of new roles based on Shakespeare, most
notably Adler's Dovid Moysheles (_Der yidisher kenig lir_) and Keni
Liptzin's Mirele Efros, both written expressly for those actors by Jacob

Perhaps Sherman considers stage acting by definition lacking any
"lasting merit," since it is an ephemeral art, and even the most patient
and deliberate theatre historian cannot fully recreate performances of
past eras.  If that is the case, then we might as well do away with
theatre history altogether, and narrow our sights to the study of drama
as text.  If we want to understand the conditions under which such
dramas were written, however -- conditions prevailing not just within
the walls of the theatre, but also in the society at large -- then it
behooves us to pay attention to all the ingredients that went into the
creation of such plays.

Yiddish theatre did not lack banal dialogue, bombastic acting, and
shoddy production values.  But even if that were all there was to the
Yiddish theatre, it would be worth our attention.  Here Sherman and I
part company most sharply.  He is unhappy that the Yiddish theatre, and
Yiddish letters more broadly, did not "learn" from Shakespeare in the
way, say, that German culture produced and learned from August Wilhelm
Schlegel's and Ludwig Tieck's landmark translation.  Shakespeare's plays
entered the Yiddish theatre under a particular set of conditions, widely
different from those of other cultures.  I set out to understand those
conditions rather than judge them.  While I have not withheld aesthetic
judgments of this body of material, much of it struck me as being
valuable for what it said about the social role of theatre for
Yiddish-speaking audiences.

Having initially come to Yiddish drama in the hope that I would unearth
the undiscovered Yiddish Ibsen or Moliere, I understand Sherman's
disappointment that the Yiddish theatre did not produce a playwright
with a substantial body of material of the highest artistic caliber.
Since, however, Yiddish translators and adaptors set out to use
Shakespeare rather than to become Shakespeare, we need to approach their
work on its own terms.  By faulting Yiddish popular culture for not
becoming high culture, we replicate the tunnel vision that kept most
contemporary Yiddish theatre critics from appreciating what made the
Yiddish theatre a vital instrument of expression.  We might as well
fault advertisements in the Yiddish press for not being the Sistine
Ceiling, or "Rumenye, Rumenye" for not being _Don Giovanni_.

Perhaps the best case I can make for studying the history of the Yiddish
theatre, warts and all, is to articulate in brief my own vision of what
shape the collective study of this subject should take.  I see signs of
robust health in the growing wave of new scholarship on Yiddish
theatre, drama, and performance, and hope that it will continue to
explore lacunae in our knowledge:  performances not only in major
centers like New York, Moscow, and Warsaw, but also in smaller cities
and towns; the various genres of Yiddish drama, not just those
privileged by critics adhering to Aristotelian notions of what is
appropriate to present on the stage; landmark productions, reconstructed
in detail; acting styles, as well as of every other element of
performance, such as music, scene design, costume, dance, etc.; analyses
of critical and audience response; and explorations of the mutual
influences between theatre performed in Yiddish and in other languages.
These subjects need to be investigated.  Yiddish culture, of which
theatre was such a fundamental component, deserves no less.

Date: 1 January 2003
From: Leonard Prager 
Subject:  Books Received:

a. Yekhiel Szeintuch.  _Kemasiakh lefi tomo; sikhot im yekhiel di-nur
KATZETNIK 1356333; belivui teudot veheorot_, arkha Kari Fridman-Kohen.
Yerushalayim:  Bet Lokhemey Hagetaot veMakhon Dov Sadan, 2003, 195 +xi

[English t.p.:  _KATZETNIK 135633; a series of dialogues with Yechiel
De-Nur_ by Yechiel Szeintuch, edited by Carrie Friedman-Cohen.
Jerusalem:  Ghetto Fighters' House & Dov Sadan Institute, 2003, 195 +xi
pp.] The book price is NIS 65 in Israel and $20.00 abroad.  Copies may
be ordered from Bet Lokhmey HaGetaot, Doar Na, Galil Maaravi, Israel
25220 (tel. 972-4-9958080) or Makhon Dov Sadan, P.O.  B. 24036,
Jerusalem 91240, Israel.  [note:  no ISBN no. is given]

In the very first sentence of this, his newest book, the Holocaust and
Yiddish scholar Yechiel Szeintuch cautions his readers that those
unfamiliar with the writings of its subject, the strange and almost
mysterious Polish-born Yiddish and Hebrew Israeli chronicler of the Shoa
who was born Yechiel Fajner, wrote as Katzetnik and lived his civic life
as Yechiel De-Nur, had perhaps better stay away.  In the second
sentence, he thoughtfully reconsiders and invites all those, including
neophytes, who wish to fathom the book's enigmatic protagonist to enter
its labyrinthine pages.

The role of Katzetnik in molding Israeli understanding of the Shoa
through his _Salamandra_ (composed in Yiddish and translated into
Hebrew) and other novels can hardly be exaggerated.  During his entire
lifetime, Katzetnik/De-Nur refused to be interviewed and a large gap
has remained in his biography.  In the course of seven years of research
in the Katzetnik archives, Szeintuch held approximately 40 telephone
conversations with De-Nur and simultaneously carried on an extended
correspondence with him.  _KATZETNIK 135633_ includes the resumes of
these discussions, the letters about which they centered and numerous
documents ("facsimiles and illustrations, testimonies of survivors from
among his family members, documents signed by De-Nur, photographs, rare
introductions to his books, fragments excerpted from his books, letters
from Yechiel De-Nur's private archives, and more" -- cited from
Szeintuch's English introduction, p. v).  Fortunately, there is a
copious multilingual index to names to assist the doughty reader who
will find materials here that are simply not available any place else.

Here is an excerpt from one of those particularly memorable telephone
resumes (called "protocols" by Szeintuch):

from Protokol No. 32 [28 March 1998]

De-Nur phoned me this evening, apparently for the second time.  He began
by saying, "I wanted to answer your letter.  I remember that our
conversation was interrupted in the middle.  If I wanted to answer you
in our earlier conversation, I am now even more certain of my reply.  I
don't know if I told you, but when I was being interrogated in the
cellar in Katowice [by the Gestapo], there was a [torture] chair there
for inflicting pain on the toes and thumbs, a drilling action which
penetrated to the bone.  The pain was overwhelming and to this day I do
not know how to describe it in words.  Since that time I have been
unable to answer questions.  They wanted to know about the Underground's
weapons in Sosnowiec and grabbed me of all persons.  I don't know how I
came out of there alive.  Maybe they let me go in order to follow me.
They had their agent in the ghetto for sure.  Why am I telling you all
this?  It has to do with my answer to your letter.  I am lucky that in
over fifty years from that time I have not suffered pain from the
torture I endured in Katowice.  But just now during the fortnight I
spent in the hospital, the old pains [in my hands and legs] returned.
Here is my answer to your letter:  I said to you that in all my books to
this day I have failed to express what took place.  My hospitalization
was bound up with feelings of guilt -- I have been writing continuously
and exerted myself excessively.  The feeling that it is my duty in the
time left me to tell what happened never leaves me...

b. _Oyf a strune fun regn; lider_ by Rivka Basman Ben-Haim_.
Tel-Oviv: Yisroel-Bukh, 2002, 112 zz., mit tseykhenungen fun
Mula Ben-Haim.  [ISBN 9654300494] [English title:  On a String of Rain]

In her eighth book of poems (all published in Israel), the veteran
Israeli Yiddish poet Rivka Basman Ben-Haim (a survivor of the Vilna
Ghetto) writes in a limpid, colloquial style, etching elegiac poems
on themes of loneliness, memories and time.  What endures, time-defying,
is human grief, likened to an imagined pearl preserved in the heart of
amber and no larger than a tear:

in harts fun burshtin
ruen farhonigte shpurn,
milyonen fun yorn vern nit alt.
in harts fun burshtin
bahalt zikh a blat un a bin
un a perl
di greys fun a trer.             ["in harts fun burshtin," p. 47]

Yet Basman can be playful as well as somber, as in "gefar," a poem with
a marked Israeli intonation:

yedn frimorgn
bin ikh in di hent fun shofern,
viln zey --
blayb ikh lebn,
viln zey nit --
iz keref-ayin,
vi dem shokhns hintl,
vos loyft oyf a rege tsum veg aroys --
hoyo -- ve'ayin.                  ["gefar," p. 17]

The homonymic pun on _ayin_  -- one with an alef and the other with
an ayin -- accentuates the comic element in this verse vision of an
untoward urban end..

In a kind of poetic dialogue with Israel's greatest Yiddish poet, Avrom
Sutskever, Basman meditates on the problem of evil in her own fashion:

es tut mir vey di velt,
a hefkerdik farshayte,
vi zikh aleyn farbrent
dem gang fun ire tsaytn.

es tut mir vey di velt,
on rakhmim, naked, hoyl.
in ir vister kelt
kinigt bloyz der groyl.

s'tut mir vey di velt
un kh'veys nit vi tsu heyln.
ikh vart -- di mame
zol a maysele dertseyln.

["es tut mir vey di velt" / Avrom Sutskever, p. 66]

Readers will understand this poem variously.  Its concluding lines
appear regressive on the surface, but what Basman may be saying
imagistically is that only the narrative of Good and Evil told
by one who loves you most can avail.

Basman's memorial poem on the tenth anniversary of her husband's
death plays on the single word which is said to be found in every
Jewish language, the Yiddish word _yortsayt_ 'anniversary of death'
(often spelled _Jahrzeit_ as though it were German).

                    [tsu mules tsentn yortsayt]


["yortsayt," p. 85]

Basman's Yiddish can contend with the contemporary world and she can
mock the internet where one lives "virtuel."

                         "lomir zogn"

lomir zogn
az beyde mir
trefn zikh in internet.
dortn lebn mir
lomir zogn,
az keyn mol vet far undz
nit vern shpet
zikh tsu trefn --
bloyz in internet.
on a glet,
on a rir,
on mir,
on dir.
keyn mol vet nit vern shpet.
lomir zikh ariberklaybn
in internet.

["lomir zogn", p. 98]

The poet chooses the life of the city, of movement, of physical places.
She has not lost her wish to be in the world; she will drain her
allotted cup without regrets, making a holiday of a weekday by visiting
a corner cafe and ordering wine:

                 "kh'vel geyn yonteven"

kh'vel geyn yonteven
in der vokhn a zunikn trot
oyf di gasn,
trinkn a gloz vayn
in kafe oyfn rog
un zen vi gelasn di tsayt
trinkt fun mayn vayn,
lozt iber a leydike gloz.
kh'vel nit fregn far vos,
nor zogn gut-yontef
a tog
in kafe
oyfn rog.

["kh'vel geyn yonteven", p. 105]

Yisroel-bukh, publisher of seven of Basman's books, should be
congratulated for the very tasteful design of _Oyf a strune fun regn_,
which has been enhanced by color reproductions of four paintings by the
poet's late husband, Mula Ben-Haim.

c. _Itoney yeladim yehudiim bepolin, sikum mekhkar_; kolel leksikon
_sofrim umeshorerim leyeladim beyidish_ by Adina Bar-El, Akhva --
hamikhlala ha'akademit lekhinukh, 2002, 118 pp.  [English title:
_Jewish Children's Periodicals in Poland_] [no ISBN no. given] [copies
may be ordered from the author at Moshav Nir-Yisrael 9, Israel 79505,
Tel/Fax 972-8-672-9354.  Price:  Israel -- 30 shekels; abroad -- 8
dollars (includes postage)]

Yechiel Szeintuch in his Introduction hails Bar-El's work as a pioneer
effort, for strangely enough children's Yiddish and Hebrew periodicals
in Poland have up until now not been investigated in any depth.  In the
booklet before us the author has summarized her doctoral dissertation,
presently being revised for book publication.  Bar-El describes the
Hebrew (Zionist) and Yiddish (Bundist/Yiddishist) children's press of
Poland in the larger contexts of Jewish education, children's journals
in general as well as Jewish periodicals for children and youth in
Yiddish, Hebrew and Polish.  A significant part of her study contrasts
the Yiddish _grininke beymelekh, _der khaver_ and _kinderfraynd_, with
the Hebrew _Shibalim_ , _Olami_ , _Olami hakatan_ and _Olami
haketantan_.  Bar-El sees the Yiddish and Hebrew journals in her purvey
as polarities and contrasts their contents and the ideologies behind
them.  Her analysis of the richest of these journals, _grininke
beymelekh_-- the name is from a poem by Bialik -- in its third period
(1926-1938) is especially valuable (and includes a lexicon of the
prominent writers such as Mani Leyb, Yehoyesh, Leyb Kvitko and others
who wrote in it).  She outlines the important role of its longtime
editor, Shloyme Bastomski, whose proper recognition has been assisted
by her research.

d. _Bloe vinklen:  Itsik Manger -- lebn, lid un balada_ by Aleksander
Shpiglblat.  Tel-Ovov:  Y.-L.  Perets Farlag, 2002, 445 zz.  [ISBN

This poet's study of a major Yiddish poet will be reviewed in a future
issue of The Mendele Review.

Date: 1 January 2003
From: Joel Berkowitz ()

Subject:  Kotik's Memoirs in English:  A Review (Joel Berkowitz>)

Kotik, Yekhezkel.  _Journey to a Nineteenth-Century Shtetl_, edited by
David Assaf, translated by Margaret Birstein (Wayne State University
Press, 2002), 540 pp., illus.

"Ikh hob genumen leyenen ayere 'zikhroynes,' un vos zol ikh zogn?  Ikh
gedenk shoyn nisht dos yor, vos ikh zol azoy fil hanoe hobn, azoy fil
tayneg -- emeser tayneg rukhoni!  -- dos iz nisht keyn bukh--dos iz an
oytser, a gortn, a gan-eydn ful mit blumen un mit foygl-gezang."

[I have taken to reading your _Memoirs_, so what should I say?  I cannot
recall a year when I've had so much pleasure, so much delight -- real
spiritual delight!  This is not just a book -- this is a treasure, a
garden, a paradise full of blossoming flowers and birdsong.] -- Sholem
Aleichem's letter to Yekhezkel Kotik, 10 January 1913

No wonder Sholem Aleichem derived such pleasure from Kotik's memoirs.
The master humorist, after all, had put his own inimitable stamp on
literary explorations of the shtetl, and had also toyed with writing his
own autobiography by the time Kotik's _Mayne zikhroynes_ appeared in
1912.  The editorial side of Sholem Aleichem, which had nurtured new
Yiddish writing, may also have found satisfaction that a new literary
voice had emerged like Venus out of the foam -- a distinctive voice, but
at times speaking in tones that would not be altogether out of place in
the work of Sholem Aleichem himself.

Take, for example, the panic Kotik describes over rumors of an imminent
decree prohibiting marriages before the age of twenty.  "Whoever had an
eight-year-old son or daughter," Kotik writes, "wasted no time in
marrying him or her off.  In order to keep the police in the dark, the
marriages took place in utter secrecy and without lavish ceremony."
(177) Kotik, not yet born when the decree was issued in 1835, serves at
this and many other moments throughout his memoirs not as eyewitness but
as scribe.  Here, he relates the account of Isaac the butcher, a fellow
denizen of the shtetl Kamenets, and one of the eight-year-old grooms.
His story is told with a Sholem Aleichem-like mixture of poignancy and
absurdity, juxtaposing the innocence and petulance of childhood with the
solemnity of marriage.  Isaac remembers being awakened by his father
late at night and summoned to the _khupe_ [wedding canopy], but then
having to delay the ceremony because the boy lost his hat.  When bride
and groom first see each ot her, they refuse to proceed with the wedding
since they recently got in a fight, but the ceremony finally begins:

"I was told [says Isaac] to take hold of Zisl's forefinger and place the
ring on it.  But I didn't want to touch her finger.  Father slapped me
across the face, and only when he threatened to beat me with the broom
did I take hold of Zisl's finger.  Full of rage at being forced to take
hold of her finger, I pinched it so hard that she started to squeal.
Then, in order to get us to make up, Zisl's father handed her two
gulden, and my father handed me two gulden.  After that I took hold of
her finger, slipped on the ring, repeated the blessing after
Grandfather, and said mazl tov.  Then everyone started dancing.
Afterward, they seated me and Zisl at the head of the table and we all
had cake with jam.

"Suddenly Zisl began crying.  'What's the matter?' her mother asked.
'I've got to p . . . ,' Zisl said.  She was led outside.  Then I said,
'I've also got to . . . ,' and was led outside.  Later on, seated next
to each other once again, we fell asleep.  My sister Haya took me home,
and Zisl, too, was put to bed straight afterward."  (180)

Kotik himself sought Sholem Aleichem's blessing -- and received it in
dramatic fashion -- and identified with his fellow _luftmentsh_, Sholem
Aleichem's Menachem-Mendl.  And in a case of life not exactly imitating
art, but rather interacting with it, Shol em Aleichem wrote
"Menachem-Mendl" episodes in which the invented _luftmentsh_ wrote of
meeting the real one (or at least Sholem Aleichem's version of the real

Sholem Aleichem was not the only important figure with high praise for
Kotik's achievement.  In his extensive introduction to _Journey to a
Nineteenth-Century Shtetl_, historian David Assaf assembles the
enthusiastic responses of other writers and critics , such as Bal
Makhshoves and Noah Prilutski.  Sholem Aleichem was far less excited
about Kotik's second volume of memoirs, and although Assaf considers the
second part "in no way inferior to its predecessor" (56), one wonders
whether Sholem Aleichem's negative verdict played a role in the shaping
of the volume at hand, which, although subtitled "The Memoirs of
Yekhezkel Kotik," in fact offers an English translation of only the
first volume.

In that "only," however, lies a world teeming with all manner of details
of Eastern European Jewish life in the nineteenth century.  Kotik begins
by presenting a panoramic view of his shtetl Kamenets, in present-day
Belarus.  He describes the local Jews' relationship with the Polish
nobility, and the noblemen's habits and hobbies, including hunting and
gambling.  In one episode, a nobleman loses all he owns at cards, and
then stakes his wife in a double-or-nothing bet which he also loses.  He
is offered the chance to have both the material and the human debts
forgiven if he kisses an unmentionable part of the winner's anatomy in
front of his peers.  Thomas Hardy, meet Alter Kacyzne.

Kotik's opening chapter introduces us to a cross-section of the citizens
of Kamenets:  the wealthy ones (most of them misers); the many learned
men; the Gentile doctor and Jewish healers; cantors; preachers; and
schoolteachers, or _melamdim_, who like their counterparts in much of
the literature of the shtetl, dish out beatings enthusiastically.
According to Kotik, one Kamenets _melamed_ even beat a student to death
-- an incident which, Assaf tells us in one of his copious and learned
endnotes, indeed ha ppened from time to time.  Readers familiar with
other accounts of shtetl life may find at such moments familiar
character types and situations made strange by extreme behavior.  One
example is the annual feast given by the burial society; here, one
"paunchy" member of the society gorges himself at the feast, leaves to
stick a finger down his throat, and returns to gorge some more.  (The
gastrointestinal tract will make another dramatic appearance later in
the book.  When a _melamed_ tries to resist arrest by pretending to
faint, he snaps out of it when threatened with an enema to be
administered in the marketplace for all to see.)

Having established some of the distinguishing characteristics of life in
Kamenets, Kotik proceeds to his main narrative, an episodic chronicle of
his family, dominated -- as both the shtetl and Kotik's memoirs are --
by his powerful grandfather, Aaron-Leyzer.  Aaron-Leyzer is a master of
shtetl diplomacy.  He manages the townspeople ruthlessly but fairly --
well, fairly if one doesn't cross him --and thus makes himself so
indispensible that he can bully visiting tax collectors and petty
officials with impunity.  An aspiring Rudy Giuliani type might want to
keep a copy of Kotik's memoirs next to his bed to flesh out tactics
gleaned from _The Art of War_.

Aaron-Leyzer often, though not always, manages to rule his family with
the same iron fist (though he hardly makes a move without the sage
advice of his wife, Beyle-Rashe).  Having chosen a wife for his son
Moyshe, but meeting resistance from the girl's father, Aaron-Leyzer
gives his would-be in-law two options:  give his consent or leave the
shtetl forever.  Moyshe is soon happily married, but ends up posing a
new and thornier challenge to his father's authority.  Aaron-Leyzer, a
staunch misnagid, hires a tutor for Moyshe who lures the boy to
Hasidism.  Only a month after the wedding, Moyshe goes on a pilgrimage
to his rebbe.  This time Aaron-Leyzer's threats and bribes do nothing.
The father is forced to make peace with his son's choice, and Moyshe
retur ns to Kamenets, where he ultimately turns out to be at least as
effective an administrator as his father, for he combines the old Kotik
efficiency with a gentle disposition.  Moyshe, however, will get his
comeuppance in the tug-of-war between _misnagdes_ and Hasidism.  All his
efforts to instill in his son Yekhezkel the spirit of Hasidism fail in
the end, for the boy sours on the movement after finding its writings
repellent.  In the Kotik family, the misnagdic gene seems to skip a

The battle between misnagdim and Hasidim, or between the rational and
the supernatural, often operates as a pivotal drama in Jewish memoir
literature.  We see it in Solomon Maimon's _Autobiography_ (a work
echoed by Kotik in more ways that one), whose aut hor briefly flirts
with Hasidism before rejecting it.  We see it in Bashevis's _In My
Father's Court_, where the marital bed of the writer's parents is split
down the middle, his mother occupying the rationalist side, his father
the mystical.  Kotik is born into a household infused with Hasidic
warmth, but comes to see a backwardness in Hasidism that drives him back
to his grandfather's camp.  Yet while Kotik ultimately sides with the
misnagdim, he continues to find a humaneness in Hasidism that he often
finds lacking in traditional Judaism.  Indeed, rather than end Part One
of his memoirs with the death of his grandmother Beyle-Rashe, which to
him represents the end of an era, Kotik adds a final chapter revisiting
the spiritual battle lines and elaborating on why, despite strong
Hasidic sympathies, he chose to be a misnagid rather than a Hasid.

Like the best Jewish memoirs, Kotik's offer life-and-death struggles as
well as more abstruse spiritual ones.  Polish noblemen maliciously sic
their dogs on Jews invited to their estates.  Jews are caught up in the
Polish rebellions of the 1860s and the liberation of the serfs.  And
Kotik paints a harrowing portrait of the dreaded _khapers_, who
kidnapped young boys to press them into brutal military service.  We
experience the threat of the _khapers_ at close hand, via the efforts of
Kotik's family to sh ield his classmate, eight-year-old Yosele, who has
narrowly missed being abducted.  When Yosele steals away from the
sanctuary provided for him in the Kotiks' home because he misses his
mother, the _khapers_ catch him.  The child's mother dies of grief, a nd
when Yosele's garrison is billeted near Kamenets a year later; Kotik is
shocked to find his friend in a near-catatonic state, his affect erased
by the traumas that have befallen him.

Such episodes give a taste of the many themes in Kotik's memoirs and
offer a distinctive vision of shtetl life.  David Assaf has done
students of Eastern European Jewish history and literature a service by
having them translated into English, supported by a formidable
introduction, notes, and bibliography.  Margaret Birstein's translation
is serviceable, though not always the equal of Assaf's scholarship.  One
need not know Yiddish to find the English awkward at times.  Within a
single paragraph, for example, we read that "My mother had been much
sought after by matchmakers as soon as she turned twelve, only that
Grandfather Leyzer . . . could never make up his mind" and "She held
that a rabbi who was unlucky would be of no good to his wife and
children."  (253) We are told of a Hasid who misses no opportunity to
taunt misnagdim; for example, he would "prick the nose of the Gaon of
Vilna in the picture hanging at our house."  (325) The latter wording is
particularly odd, since the Yiddish -- "hot er gegebn a pik in noz fun
bild" -- can be dropped almost wholesale into English without losing its
spice.  And anyone who shares this reader's chagrin at the ubiquity of
the word "literally" as a catchall intensifier will take no solace here.
Perhaps a case can be made for the word as a loose equivalent to the
Yiddish "mamesh."  There is no reasonable argument, however, for
rendering "Zey zaynen, nebekh, aropgeshleydert gevorn fun himl af der
erd" as "They had been, poor souls, literally hurled from heaven to e
arth."  (342) One has come to expect such abusage from CNN reporters,
but we would do well to avoid imposing it on our literary translations.

Given the many riches of this volume, however, such shortcomings -- as
well as other liberties that the translator has taken with the Yiddish
-- are minor.  Those who can read Kotik's memoirs in the original should
do so; the translation is not primarily intended for them.  What
Assaf's book does provides is a scholarly apparatus that illuminates
both the larger picture of the world in and around Kamenets, and
countless minutiae of historical incidents and daily life.  It is a
valuable tool for teaching stu dents about Jewish life in Eastern
Europe, a field whose teachers will surely find themselves asking, as
Sholem Aleichem did in his first letter to Kotik, "For heaven's sake,
where have you been until now?"
End of The Mendele Review 07.001

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