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March 10: Lamed Shapiro’s Fiction of Violence

Lawrence Bush
March 10, 2017
Yiddish writer L. Shapiro (Levi Yehoshua “Lamed” Shapiro), who wrote a series of Yiddish stories about pogrom violence that broke with traditional Yiddish satirical stories by presenting dark themes and psychological nuance, was born in the Ukraine on this date in 1878. He was brought to literary attention with the help of Y. L. Peretz, the Yiddish master writer who helped numerous Yiddish writers. Shapiro came to America in 1906, lived in New York and Los Angeles, was active in the Communist Party, and was employed in 1937 by the WPA Federal Writers’ Project. His work, writes Leah Garrett, “describes the chaos of modern Jewish life . . . expressing the basest elements of human behavior -- rape, sadism, murder -- through the medium of high art.” Shapiro also translated into Yiddish novels by Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, Sir Walter Scott, and Rudyard Kipling. He died of alcoholism in 1948. Sixteen of his stories are collected in The Cross, and Other Jewish Stories, from the Yale University Press. Jewdayo thanks Dr. Rob Peckerar, executive director of Yiddishkayt, for use of the image, created from an old photograph. “In ‘White Challah,’ Shapiro does something unique and subversive. He tells the tale of the pogrom not from the point of view of the victim but from that of the attacker, the enemy of the Jews. Vasil, the peasant, was a sensitive youth who pitied and cried for a wounded dog. But war, brutality and hatred of the killers of Christ transform him into a brute. He only admires the Jews for their ‘white challah.’ Shapiro traces Vasil’s barbarizing that eventually results in an act of cannibalism, with Vasil actually sinking his teeth into the body of a Jewish victim to taste the real ‘white challah.’ ”--Eli Kavon, The Jerusalem Post

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.