Friday, July 31, 2009

Wrapping up the 19th century Yiddish literature project

I read most of the Yiddish books I meant to read, almost as many more that I found along the way, and now have an even longer list of books I want to read. A successful project, then. All right.

What am I likely to read next, when I am ready for more? I'll make a list.

1. More Mendele Mocher Sforim / S. Y. Abramovitch. The forefather of Sholem Aleichem and I. L. Peretz is, compared to them, second rate. But I just finished his 1888 version of Fishke the Lame, in which Abramovitch extended an earlier story to novel length. He adds a little bit of plot filler, which is mostly useless, and a lot of, of, of everything - two hundred pages of digressions and descriptions about bath houses and piles of garbage and confidence schemes and country inns and horses and sunsets over the woods. Life, the book is packed with so much life. I'll read more.

2. Yiddish poetry. The poets considered to be the best - Jacob Glatstein, Mani Leib, Moishe Halpern - are all a little too late for the project. Ruth Wisse's Little Love in Big Manhattan, though, about Mani Leib and Halpern, is very tempting.

3. Hebrew. My impression is that "literary" Hebrew literature is rarer than Yiddish during the 19th century. But it exists. H. Bialik is a writer whose name kept showing up. I want to try him, at least.

4. The genuine Hasidic tradition: In Praise of the Baal Shem Tov, and the strange, strange oral tales of Rabbi Nahman. I. L. Peretz knew these inside and out. I've read a bit of this in anthologies. It's wild, not what I expected.

5. More names: Itzik Manger, Y. Y. Trunk, Rakhel Feygenberg, I. J. Singer, (more) I. B. Singer, Chaim Grade, all too late for the project. Isaac Meier Dik and more S. Ansky, in the right period but insufficiently translated. Abraham Cahan and Isaac Babel, contemporaries who chose languages other than Yiddish for their literary works. While I'm at it, why not Cynthia Ozick, Steve Stern, Max Apple, on and on into the 20th century.

Along these lines, the National Yiddish Book Center has an annotated list of 100 great Jewish books that I recommend to anyone wanting to pursue this idea into the 20th century, or away from Yiddish (the list includes Kafka, H. Roth and P. Roth, Isaac Babel and Anne Frank). When I was doing my research, I found only their irritating non-annotated list. Why do they have both on their site? Never mind. It's a good resource. I read and read, and I've still read only twenty of those books.

Thanks to everyone who offered suggestions, criticism, and comments. I learned so much. A sheynem dank.


  1. I'm a bit sad this is over, as I enjoyed just about everything that was part of this project. It was a good one. And I totally agree with your metric for "success."

  2. Good place to start with Hasidism. Norman Lamm’s anthology The Religious Thought of Hasidism (New York: Yeshiva University Press, 1999).

  3. Hebrew literature pretty much only started fairly late, so you're right to think that there isn't very much of it. Bialik is interesting - I'd actually really like to see what you think of his poetry.

  4. Prof. Myers - thanks for the recommendation.

    AcCh - Bialik is pretty high on my wish list now. He crossed paths with most of the writers I read.

    Nicole - There's another on its way, I know that. Just not sure when or what.