Monday, January 5, 2009

A 19th century Yiddish reading list, pt. 1 - Why?

Before I went to Senegal last year, I put together a little reading list, a reader's bibliography, of Senegalese literature. Making the list was highly educational for me. So was reading the books, sure.

I don't have any plans to go anywhere anytime soon, so I am going to repeat the experiment with some place that can now only be visited through books: the Pale of Settlement, the shtetl, the New York City tenements. I'm going to read some Yiddish literature.

Modern Yiddish literature was created in the late 19th century, specifically 1864, in the serialized short novel The Little Man by S. Y. Abramovitsh aka Mendele Mocher Sforim. Before Abramovitsh/Sforim, there were traditional tales in Yiddish, and some religious writing, but no novels, no short stories. The elite wrote in Hebrew, which could not be read by most Jews. Sforim wanted to popularize, and to preserve.

Preservation - that's the center of the study of Yiddish now. Yiddish is a dying language, despite the wealth of its literary tradition. Harold Bloom, a native Yiddish speaker, recently wrote about this in an uncharacteristically humble essay in The New York Review of Books, highly recommended. Bloom foresees the day when Yiddish survives only in its literature. I'm not much help here - I'll be reading translations.

The three great early Yiddish writers, Sforim, Sholom Aleichem, and I. L. Peretz, all wrote, extensively, about the Jewish villages, the shtetl, in what is now Russia, Ukraine, and Poland. And so did later writers - I. B. Singer, Chaim Grade, Lamed Shapiro. This world is gone, utterly gone, destroyed by the Nazis. Irving Howe's anthology A Treasury of Yiddish Stories is dedicated "To the Six Million." Can a reader of Yiddish literature get out from under the shadow of the Holocaust, and read these writers on their own terms? Should he?

The strange, wonderful thing is that all three of these authors are basically comic writers - the whole tradition is basically comic, in the face of pogroms and persecution and poverty. That's one good reason to read them - they're funny. Or so I'm led to believe.

Tomorrow, I'll put together my little reader's bibliography of Sforim, Aleichem, and Peretz. Then on Wednesday, I'll move on to everyone else. I'm sticking to the 19th century, so no Singer brothers, for example. But there's plenty to read, and I don't think I ever mentioned that the Wuthering Expectations 19th century is longer than one might think, ending on November 11, 1918.

I'm going to create a sidebar for these posts as an invitation to help me fill out my list of books. What should I read? The mysterious, vanishing obooki says that 2009 is his year for Yiddish literature, too. So that's two of us.


  1. Hi,

    It will be maybe outside your scope, but Rabbi Yaacov ben Itshaq Ashkenazi wrote during the sixteenth Tseno Ureno, a beautiful set of commentaries on the Torah (sometimes dubbed "The women bible") that is definitly worth the read. The thing is, religious matters were mainly discussed in hebrew by that time, while Ashkenazi chose to instruct lower classes jews in polish shtetls by speaking their own language (thus, the women bible thing, because regarded as an sweetned, vulgar version the usual, more erudite commentaries). The result is really folkish (in a good way), highly poetical, and as yiddish as can be.

  2. Thanks, this is a really interesting suggestion. I had not heard of it.

  3. I don't know ifyou have this on your list, but Rokl Faygenberg wrote the only known novel by a woman in Yiddish, _Strange Ways_. Might be worth checking out. I love that you're doing this and I'm going to poke around your blog to find more entries.

  4. I'd like to tell you that I ruled out Rokl Faygenberg because Strange Ways falls too far outside of th 19th century. But in fact, I'd never heard of her. I'm definitely interested - thanks a lot for the recommendation.

  5. It may be too late, but anyway, perhaps you might find quite interesting the following novel written sometime in 1835 (or a bit later) by Yisroel (Israel) Aksenfeld (or Axenfeld). The only novel that survived from a whole lot of manuscripts that included quite a number of other novels by him. Also one of his plays survived too. The novel is called "The Headband". It ain't Mendele, but, hey for a first known modern Yiddish novel it's not too shabby either. It is included in Neugroschel's Anthology "The Shtetl". You may find more details here: and here: or here

  6. Not at all too late, and a valuable suggestion. I've been reading excerpts of early Yiddish writing in another of Neugroschel's anthologies (e.g., The Revealer of Secrets and Aizik-Meyer Dik). I'll try to find the Shtetl anthology as well.

    You're right, I haven't come across another Mendele, but they've all been pretty interesting.

  7. I am a great fan of contemporary Jewish writer Richard Zimler and his "Zarco" series (starting with The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon". Not within your scope exactly, but related I think, and definitely worth a look.

  8. I'd not heard of Richard Zimler - those do look interesting. Maybe I'll save him for a possibly, who's to say, forthcoming Portuguese literature project. They'll make a good transition.