Thursday, March 13, 2008

Yiddish Literary History is not the thing to argue with me about

I feel bad for spoiling one of Holy Hyrax's first posts with a mini-flame war in the comments section. HH had a great point about how the Haredi world now, just like then, fails to understand that it is its inability to react to innovation or perceived threats with anything other than retreat and regression that causes (and caused) it to lose adherents. I added that this is particularly striking when you look at the history of secular Yiddish (and Hebrew) writers and artists in the 19th and 20th centuries, so many of whom (especially the writers) tended to come from educated (read: Orthodox) backgrounds. Sholem Aleichem and Nachman Bialik, for instance, were both child prodigies in Talmudic studies, and Aleichem even served as a government rabbi for a few years in the Ukraine.

Then a serial commenter named Daganev writes back:

The only [artist or writer] I've heard of who was "great" was Marc Chagal.

Jews didn't become "great" in the arts until hollywood.

As someone who's done a lot of research on Yiddish modernism, this pained me a little.

That's a really sad commentary on how white-washed modern Jewish history has become (and I've encountered the same views from non-Orthodox people, too). There were many famous Jewish artists, poets and writers, especially in Yiddish.

You should read more. Modern Yiddish literature was blossoming in Eastern Europe before the Nazis killed everyone or scattered them around the world. A few names to get you started.

The masters: Peretz, Aleichem, Mendele Moykher Sforim

2nd generation: Markish, Grinberg, Kulbak, Asch, Shapiro, Leivick, Halpern, Fefer, Kvitko, Grade, Sutzkever. And of course, the Singer brothers. (You've never heard of I.B. Singer? Really?)

Dag ain't impressed. Or, apparently, convinced I know what I'm talking about.

Yeah.... In your small isolated world those were great people.

Nobody else thought so though.

In the Isolated world of Cheredi Judaism those were "great writers"

Which was my point that you missed.

Ow. Yes, apparently knowing about a subject makes you live in a "small, isolated world." This despite the fact that all of the above were household names for decades in Poland, Ukraine, the Lower-East Side, London, the USSR, and Israel.

If I could offer a suggestion- it may not be the best idea to argue about the popularity (much less existence) of modern Yiddish literature to someone who came *this* close to going to grad school for 20th century Jewish history.

Actually, friend, the Haredim didn't think any of those guys were great writers- they thought they were horrible heretics, especially since so many came from "respectable" backgrounds. It was everybody else- the millions of secular Yiddish-speakers around the world- who loved and read them. Aleichem is still remembered as the Jewish Mark Twain. I.L. Peretz and his students, including Sholem Asch, had major literary tours across Eastern Europe and were mobbed by crowds wherever they went. And I.B. Singer won a freaking Nobel Prize. I'm sorry your knowledge of modern Jewish history is so lacking (yes, Virginia, there were people in the old country that weren't religious AND didn't feel guilty about it!) But I actually do know what I'm talking about on this one, and the fact that you don't isn't proof that I'm making the shit up.

The sad truth is that people don't know about the Yiddish modernists today, not because modern Yiddish literature wasn't important or popular, because Yiddish as a language and literature was exterminated during the Shoah. Any of the writers lucky enough to survive found that their audiences hadn't. People are throwing away thousands of Yiddish books every day because no one can read them.

But at the time, they were famous- and in a highly literate and "cultured" society, no less, which put a lot more emphasis on art and literature as both ideology and entertainment than we might think today. These guys were the rock stars of their time. That's not a myopic look in my presonal fishbowl; it's the objective truth.

Anyone interested should really try to read some of their books, or some of the history. Sniping, backbiting, sabotaging, all with a lot of artistic talent and pretension mixed in. I prefer the autobiographical stuff, myself (this ain't your grandpa's shtetl).


Tzipporah said...

interesting. Bad Cohen's great-grandfather did a bit of the same kind of writing, in Hungarian.

Is there any movement to get this stuff translated, and make it relevant for current generations?

Sholom said...

A while back, I read a memoir by Yaffa Eliach, which impressed me mostly because it didn't paint a super-cozy picture, didn't portray the Shtetl as a fictional place. Personal favorite: the anecdote about the Melamed who molested Talmidim and raped the village idiot, and what the townspeople did about it when the village idiot publicly declaimed him in Shul on Shabbos. (And no, they didn't put him in Cherem or summon him to a Zabla for spreading Loshon Horoh.)

Daganev said...

My apologies for those comments.

I was being snarky, not serious.

Friar Yid (not Shlita) said...

Dag- Good to hear from you. Is this part of your New Year's Teshuvah? ;)

Thanks for clearing it up. For my part, I apologize for not being able to read between the lines-- I find it a drag that there are so many Jews today who either don't know or just don't care about the accomplishments of our European cousins because of political or ideological revisionism. A personal sore point.

Have a good new year and an easy fast.