Canonizing Yiddish

Scribes of an unfinished canon. Yiddish writers gathered in Vilna, Lithuania, 1919.

Scribes of an unfinished canon. Yiddish writers gathered in Vilna, Lithuania, 1919.

There are few literary enterprises as deceptively innocent — yet as influential — as the anthology. It creates canons and shapes public perceptions, obscuring some important issues while highlighting others. When the anthology is devoted to Yiddish literature, however, the stakes include representing a culture on the brink of extinction. As if sensing the urgency of their projects, two new compilations strive to define Yiddish literature in strikingly divergent ways — one allows for the discovery of the unexpected, while the other strives to reassure us with the familiar.

The former is Joachim Neugroschel’s extensive No Star Too Beautiful: An Anthology of Yiddish Stories from 1382 to the Present (W. W. Norton & Company). Neugroschel, one of the world’s foremost translators of Yiddish literature, has compiled and translated more than 70 stories and excerpts — sorely needed as an update to Irving Howe’s landmark anthology A Treasury of Yiddish Stories (Penguin), which is now 50 years old. While most anthologies date the beginnings of Yiddish literature to the Haskalah period (Jewish Enlightenment, beginning approximately in the mid-19th century), Neugroschel opts to reach back much further.

His selection includes the earliest extant Yiddish literary manuscript, “Virtuous Joseph” (1382), a fascinating, ribald verse in which Potiphar’s wife boasts of her slave Joseph’s physical virtues. Another highlight of the early period is an excerpt from the 1691-1719 diaries of Glikl bas Yuda Leib, one of the earliest female writers (also known as Glikl of Hamelin), which frames a folk tale as a self-help tool. Reading these early songs and fables is essential for understanding the folk underpinnings of much Yiddish literature.

Neugroschel allows the writing to speak for itself, intruding editorially only in his selections and their placement within literary movements specific to this literature. As Yiddish literature resists categorizations based on Western traditions, Neugroschel allows the achievements of Haskalah-era innovators such as Aizik-Meyer Dik and Mendele Moykher-Sforim to be seen within their proper context. Guided by spare historical commentary, the individual auctorial voice begins to emerge in stories such as Dik’s 1868 “The Panic, or the Town of Hérres,” a biting satire on the insularity of Jewish shtetl life. Reading the excerpt of Mendele’s “The Little Man” (1864-66), we can admire the artistry that established his position as the “grandfather” of Yiddish literature. This famous story, illustrating the trials of a Jew gone astray through ignorance and greed prior to his repentance before death, exhibits a sophisticated understanding of human psychology combined with an acute social critique.

Works by both well-known and unsung writers lead us toward the Modernism/Twentieth Century chapter. Again, Neugroschel’s unusual choices allow us to sample many unexpected pleasures. Highlights include the Dostoevsky-inspired S. Ansky story “The Starveling” (1892) about an impoverished student’s moral crisis when confronted with the choice of feeding either himself or a family in even worse shape. Two unforgettably harrowing stories, one by Alexander Kapel (“How Long Does a Pogrom Last?”, 1911) and the other by Lamed Shapiro (“The Cross,” 1909), depict the vicious violence of pogroms. Hersh Nomberg’s “In the Mountains” (1922) and David Bergelson’s “Two Roads” (early twentieth century) are both beguiling twists on the love story, the former unique for portraying the world of bohemian artists (a society later portrayed from a female perspective in Sarah Hamer-Jacklyn’s vibrant “She’s Found an Audience,” 1954). One of the more unnerving stories is Yoyne Rosenfeld’s “Miss Bertha” (1924), about a do-gooder spinster whose feelings for her rapist are unexpectedly tender.

Not surprisingly, the most tragic stories either document the Holocaust or are written in ghettos by those would not survive. In “The End of the Road” (1957) by Rokhl Korn a family is given two hours to select one member to hand over to the Gestapo at the risk of the entire family’s execution. Who is to go? This story, like so many others in the collection, stuns the reader with its stark simplicity. No Star Too Beautiful is an important publication that will no doubt play a crucial role in the scholarship of Yiddish literature.

Miriam Weinstein’s collection Prophets and Dreamers: A Selection of Great Yiddish Literature (Steerforth Press) does not strive for the same unorthodox coverage. Instead, the anthology is a canonical selection of the giants of Yiddish literature — Mendele, Y.L. Peretz, Sholom Alecheim — along with brief biographies and summaries of their literary significance. Her introduction speaks to curious lay readers unacquainted with the Yiddish literary tradition, but emotionally attached to its role in their cultural background. Unfortunately, without a larger context beyond the canon, readers are given few coordinates by which they can fully comprehend the joy, resignation, and deep despair that is interwoven throughout each of these deservedly famous stories.

Still, it is difficult to resist this anthology, a labor of love in which Weinstein, who published last year’s Yiddish: A Nation of Words (Steerforth), strives to transmit the warm glow of a dying language and literary tradition: “Knit between poles of exile and belonging, it strengthened the heart and protected the spirit against the onslaughts of a world that had no secure place for Jews.” It is easy to see how Peretz’s classic “Bontshe Shvayg” (1894, however the editor does not provide dates in her collection) was a cherished lesson of salvation. Reading it today, its strengths rest less on its moral than on the tension between the bleakness of Jewish suffering and a fervent need for its justification. The story tells of a suffering Jew who endures all abuse — starvation, physical violence, and back-breaking labor — in silence. Upon death, however, this insignificant person on earth is greeted as a king by the angels. The didactic message is clear, yet the story’s lingering on the harrowing details of Bontshe’s life casts an ambiguous shadow on the redemptive message.

Yiddish literature is unique — it has been forged by proximity to much anguish, which makes us approach it with a different consciousness than one we might bring to other literatures. Readers for whom Fiddler on the Roof is the portal to Yiddish literature may be startled when encountering the dissonance between their expectations and the work itself. In Weinstein’s biographical sketch, Isaac Bashevis Singer is described as being “mordantly funny,” with “mystic, probing eyes.” Yet what would a reader anticipating a comforting folktale make of his deeply disturbing story “Growing Old,” translated in English here for the first time. Without a proper explanation of the ways in which Singer’s dark, surrealistic style deviates from established tradition, this story of an ailing Jew forced to move in with his prostitute daughters could be discomfiting for those accustomed to viewing Yiddish literature as a compendium of folksy tales of perseverance.

Prophets and Dreamers concludes with several popular folk songs translated into English, which is a wonderful resource. For someone removed from fluent Yiddish by two generations, I was thrilled to discover the meanings of songs I could only hum; but I yearned for the transliterated Yiddish text as well, which would have strengthened Weinstein’s noble desire to save the language and culture from obsolescence. “It was the tragedy of Yiddish literature that it came of age just in time to describe a world that was dying,” Weinstein writes. This paradox should not be the end of the story, however. Yiddish literature will remain relevant once it sheds its protective halo of rosy nostalgia to expose the complexity of the raw, haunting power beneath — a feat perhaps only the editor of an anthology can accomplish.

Irina Reyn is a contributing editor for Killing the Buddha. She lives in Brooklyn.