Wednesday, January 7, 2009

A 19th century Yiddish reading list, pt. 3 - Dybbuks, postcards, and King Lear

More early Yiddish writers, on stage and in America.

S. Ansky (1863-1920), a scholar and ethnographer, wrote The Dybbuk (1914), a landmark in the Yiddish theater. The Dybbuk and Other Writings is the book I'll look at first, but his account of the Russian Army's devastation of the shtetls during World War I, The Enemy at His Pleasure: A Journey Through the Jewish Pale of Settlement During World War I, sounds fascinating.

The Yiddish theater seems to have been most active in the United States. For example, Jacob Gordin's The Jewish King Lear (1892), which is not quite just what it sounds like, but pretty close. This play was only recently translated - Stephen Greenblatt's review of it in The New Republic several months ago is one of the spurs to this project. God, Man, and Devil: Yiddish Plays in Translation includes another Gordin play, and who knows what else. An older collection, Six Plays of the Yiddish Theater, may also be worth a look.

The short story writer Lamed Shapiro (1878-1948) may push too far out of the 19th century. On the other hand, he seems to be amazing. Last year's The Cross and Other Jewish Stories is the place to go. Wyatt Mason posted an entire story in July.

I'd like to read Abraham Cahan (1860-1951) someday - The Rise of David Levinsky, or Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto - but I think he wrote in English. We'll see. I have to draw a line somewhere.

How about poetry? The earliest Yiddish-American poets I know of, Mani Leib and Moyshe Halpern, start their careers just a little too late, I think. If I change my mind, Ruth Wisse's study A Little Love in Big Manhattan will fill me in.

Wisse also edited a collection called A Shtetl and Other Yiddish Novellas. No idea what's in it. Or in No Star Too Beautiful: Yiddish Stories from 1382 to the Present. Or in Great Works of Jewish Fantasy. I could go on.

Two books of photos look interesting. Roman Vishniac's A Vanished World (1947) contains photos of ghetto life in the 1930s, mostly in Poland. As one might guess, the book was published as an act of remembrance. But what Yiddish-related book is not an act of remembrance now. For example, Yiddishland, which collects actual shtetl postcards. See left. Amazing.

Please fill me in on your favorites - literature, history, art, criticism. I've told you everything I know, almost. I've listed more books than I will actually read. Point me in the right direction.

Update: David Bergelson was a major omission from the original post.


  1. I started out thinking, I don't know anything about this, but I realise I do, a bit. The Yiddish literature I have is mostly later, Singer etc., but from earlier years I do have Ansky's The Dybbuk and other writings, because it is edited by David G. Roskies, who is the great expert on Yiddish oral literature. His book A Bridge of Longing: The Lost Art of Yiddish Storytelling is an absolute must for you - not original literature in itself, but a brilliantly insightful and authoritative bridge to an otherwise unknown world. And at the centre of A Bridge of Longing is the gigantic figure in world literature of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav. At the same time as the Grimm brothers were collecting their German folktales, Rabbi Nahman was taking the Yiddish folktale apart and putting it back together in a post-modern way. He is probably the greatest single storyteller ever. There's a good biography by Arthur Green, Tormented Master: The Life and Spiritual Quest of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav. The best translation of the tales is Nahman of Bratslav: The Tales, by Arnold J. Band. The stories are very complex, especially the longest and best, The Seven Beggars, but they are utterly fantastic. Otherwise: Have a look at Yiddish Folktales by Beatrice Silverman Weinreich, (and if you like this, there are a number of books by Howard Schwartz well worth investigating), and I would also particularly recommend Voices of a People: The Story of Yiddish Folksong, by Ruth Rubin; this is an academic work, but is much less dry than it sounds, with very lively translations on almost every page.

  2. This is so helpful. I left Rabbi Nahman off my list ignorantly, but deliberately, unsure of his "literariness". Now you've got me excited to read him, and the Roskies book, too.

    Yiddish Folktales is on its way from the library now; more of these will follow, I'm sure. Thanks a lot.

  3. Rabbi Nahman is one of the world's great thinkers and great imaginers. Not a writer, really. Something else. I think, though, that the oral tradition lies at the root of Yiddish literature, in a way it perhaps doesn't in any other culture. This explains the humour, the fantasy, the element of the macabre, and the strange spiritual thread that weaves through it all. Anyway, I look forward to hearing what you think of Nahman.

  4. I've had another look at Roskies, A Bridge of Longing, and realise my memory had suggested it was more concerned with oral storyelling that it actually is, though the fictional universe of the writers he covers has roots in folk tradition. It's rare to find a work of literary criticism that is as readable and exciting as a work of literature, but A Bridge of Longing is one of them.

  5. I've now read a bit about the Roskies book - it's a must, a great recommendation. I just want to read some more of the primary literature before I pick it up.

  6. I just read his short story, "The Tavern", a great ultra realistic work worthy of Zola at his darkest.

  7. "ultra-realistic" - S. Ansky was unsparing. It is as if he just wrote what he saw.

  8. Since your post Yale University Press has published a very good set of nine books of Yiddish literature. This might be the easiest way for most be to access this reading area.

  9. Actually, I read several of those Yale UP books. I believe the word "since: applies to their publication as e-books. But they have also added some tempting new titles, like The Glatstein Chronicles.

  10. Yes, I only became aware of them since they came out as E books