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A Cornucopia of Yiddish Stories

Bennett Muraskin
November 20, 2016

by Bennett Muraskin

Discussed in this essay: Have I Got a Story For You: More than a Century of Fiction from the Forward, edited by Ezra Glinter. W.W. Norton, 2017, 433 pages.

IT IS A TRIBUTE to the Jewish love of the written word that the Yiddish Forward newspaper regularly published Yiddish literature. More than a century of its selected fiction in translation has now been edited by Ezra Glinter, who writes for the Forward. Novelist Dara Horn provides the Introduction. One of the translators is our own editorial board’s Barnett Zumoff, may he live to 120.

The collection consists of forty-one stories by twenty-six authors, sixteen men and ten women. The stories were published over many decades, the first in 1900, the last in 2015 (the only decade unrepresented is the 1980s), in lengths varying from two to forty-two pages. The longest stories are by four of the best known Yiddish literary figures: Abraham Cahan (founding editor of the Forward itself), Sholem Asch, I.J. Singer and Chaim Grade. Other celebrated authors include Morris Rosenfeld (best known as a poet), Avrom Reyzen, Kadya Molodowsky, I.B. Singer, and Dovid Bergelson, the Soviet Yiddish writer.

The biggest surprise is the appearance of Lyala Kaufman, the daughter of Sholem Aleichem, who eventually settled in Newark, NJ. Her daughter, Bel, became famous for Up the Down Staircase, a novel written in English (and made into a movie of the same title) based on her experience as a New York City public school teacher. Lyala was a prolific contributor to the Forward over thirty years, writing about family life in America: how an immigrant woman cannot understand her Americanized children; how a traditional grandmother gets no respect; how a mother’s insistence on a dowry for her daughter outweighs consideration of compatibility; how, in a humorous vein, a mother misinterprets her teenage son’s lovesickness. These may be familiar themes, Lyala treats them with compassion.

Contrast these with the sketches of B. Kovner, pen name for Jacob Adler. He wrote for the Forward for over sixty years and invented the comic characters Moyshe Kapoyer, who does everything ass backwards, and Yente Telebende, an annoying gossip. The stories here depict Jewish women as foolish, rude, flirts and neglectful wives and mothers. But apparently both male and female readers back in the day (1913-14) thought they were hilarious.

THERE ARE THREE other authors with more than one story, although I am not sure why -- Yente Serdatsky with three, Miriam Raskin and Roshelle Weprinsky with two each. Whether the women in Serdartsky and Rankin’s stories are married, widowed or single, all are unhappy and unwilling to do anything about it, or do not realize that they are leading empty lives. Raskin, in particular, appears to have it in for single working women.

Roshelle Weprinsky, the wife of the famous poet Mani Leib, shows more empathy. In “Annie,” a mother is forced to go back to work in a shop, leaving her children with her husband who is unemployed. The factory has no work and tells its employees to come back in the afternoon when an order may arrive. Meanwhile, the woman kills time in a fancy department store, admiring the clothes and furnishings she cannot afford. Exhausted, she falls asleep in a cushy chair. When she wakes up, it may be too late for her to get back to the shop. In “By A Far Shore,” Weprinsky commiserates about south Florida female retirees who feel abandoned by their children but find comfort in each other.

Old age also receives a sympathetic treatment in “Compatriots” by Sarah Hamer-Jacklyn, described by Glinter as “one of the Forward’s most popular writers.” An old-timer who devoted himself to his landsmenshaft feels out of place at a society reunion taken over by younger members who no longer speak Yiddish. A stroll with another old timer through parts of the Lower East Side does not cheer him up, either, because it, too, has changed it character. The story gets a bit shmaltzy when they hear a Yiddish song waft from the basement of an old tenement, but it still satisfies.

Sexuality is explored in a four stories. In the unimpressive story “Friends,” by Hersh Dovid Nomberg, published in 1912, a happily married husband brings home a bohemian poet whom he suspects of having an affair with his wife. The suspicion becomes his obsession. After she mysteriously dies, the poet confesses. He and the poet eventually reconcile and become friends. The volume’s very last story “Studies in Solfege,” written by Boris Sandler, editor of the Forward from 1998 to 2016, is grotesque. It appears to be a story of sexual awakening in which a music tutor seduces her young student, but it ends with the woman masturbating her retarded brother while having sex with the student. Really?

In “Journey Back in Time,” by Blume Lempel, a woman who loves the outdoors has an affair with a forest ranger who rescues her from danger. (Glinter appears unaware that a new collection of Lempel’s short stories in English translation, Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories, appeared in 2016.) In “Hallo,” by Mikhoel Felsenbaum, a journalist from Israel falls in love with a beautiful gentile woman he meets on business in Germany. A few months after he returns home, she calls to tell him that she is pregnant.

There are no stories that directly address the Holocaust, but there are two strong stories that address its side-effects and after-effects. “The Edge of Death,” by David Zaritski, who was an Orthodox rabbi, depicts a gravedigger busy digging graves for typhus victims in Soviet Central Asia, where Jews took refuge during World War II. The gravedigger is so famished that he collapses at his work and has to be rescued by the family of the deceased, for whom the grave was intended. “After Liberation,” by Wolf Karmiol, a Holocaust survivor, is based on his own experience in post-war Poland. Jews trying to return to their homes face antisemitic violence from their Polish neighbors while a courageous Jewish journalist seeks justice.

It should not be surprising that many of the best stories come from the pens of the most acclaimed Yiddish writers. Sholem Asch, for example, was the master of historical fiction. In his story, “The Jewish Soldier,” set during World War I in Czarist Russia, Jewish soldiers show mixed emotions about fighting for the tsar. The protagonist proves himself in battle by getting his legs blown off and receives a medal for heroism in the shape of a cross. He returns home to find his town in ruins and his father viciously murdered by Cossacks. His mother is inconsolable.

I.J. Singer, the older brother of Nobel Prize laureate I.B. Singer, writes in “Bakhmatsch Station” about the mayhem that accompanied the civil war in the Ukraine during the Bolshevik revolution and the ambiguous role played by a Jewish officer in the Red Army in suppressing smuggling. I.B. Singer, on the other hand, eschews realism in “The Hotel” to create a story reminiscent of Hasidic folklore in which an honest Jewish innkeeper wins the friendship of the provincial governor by informing on a corrupt gentile innkeeper and introducing him to his wonder working rebbe. Even the corrupt innkeeper reforms and comes to love the Jews. A good read, but utter fantasy.

Chaim Grade, a contemporary of I.B. Singer, has the longest story, “Grandfathers and Grandchildren.” Set in pre-war World War II Vilna, its old men, congregating to pray and study in an ancient shul, find novel ways to attract young people. Their own sons and grandsons remain aloof, but there are the poor children who need a place to stay warm in the winter and yeshiva students who need a place to study while on vacation. It is Grade at his best, as a secular Jew who nevertheless cherished the Jewish tradition of learning.

Kadya Molodovsky is the best known female Yiddish writer in Have I Got a Story For You. Her “A House on a Hill” is a warm-hearted tale about an old mother who insists on remaining in her poor dwelling even as her hardworking children rise up in the world.

STORIES BY Morris Rosenfeld, Abraham Cahan, Avrom Reyzen and Dovid Bergelson are disappointing. Rosenfeld, known not for his short stories but rather as the preeminent “sweatshop poet,” writes in “Collecting Rent” about a failing landlord who nevertheless stays in business for the sheer joy of collecting rent. His gentile tenants are depicted in an ugly light. Cahan’s “Schneur Zadobnik and Motke the Hatter” is intended to show how coming to America could transform the lives of immigrant Jews. Cahan makes a good case for the Zadobnik character, a well-respected benefactor in Europe who takes advantage of corrupt business and political opportunities available in New York City to degenerate into an absolute scoundrel, but not for the Motke character, who played the fool in Europe but inexplicably becomes a mentsh in America. The Reyzen story, “Who Will Prevail?” is weaker: Two boarders, a young student and a workingman, compete for the affections of their landlady’s daughter. The latter wins the girl’s affections only because he has saved enough money to buy her an expensive gift. Reyzen wrote written many exceptional short stories, and if, as the editor notes, Reyzen “contributed a new short story each week” to the Forward, why chose this one? Finally, I found Dovid Bergelson’s “On the Eve of Battle,” set during the civil war that followed the Bolshevik Revolution, hard to follow, because, I think, it was part of a longer narrative.

Like any collection of stories from diverse authors, Have I Got A Story For You is a mixed bag, but it is nevertheless a unique achievement that deserves a wide audience.

Our contributing writer Bennett Muraskin’s books include The Association of Jewish Libraries Guide to Yiddish Short Stories.

Bennett Muraskin, a contributing writer for Jewish Currents, is author of The Association of Jewish Libraries Guide to Yiddish Short Stories, Let Justice Well Up Like Water: Progressive Jews from Hillel to Helen Suzman,and Humanist Readings in Jewish Folklore, among other books.