Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Yiddish and West African literatures - a topic for a Comparative Literature dissertation

Meaning, not for me. For someone else. One thing I've noticed reading Yiddish literature is its similarity to Senegalese literature, to West African literature. Saving the difference, as they say.

My little insight sometime last winter was that 19th century Yiddish literature was a colonial literature. The colonized people were the Jews of the Pale of Settlement; the colonized lands are, now, Byelorussia, Ukraine, and part of Poland. The colonizer, the empire, was Russia. The rule of the imperial power was heavy (the draft, especially), inefficient, bizarre, and at times murderous.

Just as an example, the reason that Yiddish stories concentrate so much on town life is that almost no Jews were allowed to be farmers.* Tevye the Dairyman was unusual in that he worked in agriculture, but if he wanted to buy a field and grow some wheat, he would have had to apply for a special permit, for which there were strict quotas.

The cultural similarities are so striking. In Senegal and in the shtetl, boys went to religious schools and spent hours memorizing ancient passages of Arabic or Hebrew. The pious life of study and prayer was or is a male ideal. Underemployment is rampant - hence the number of middlemen, peddlers, and matchmakers. Beggars are treated with surprising respect, since charity is a pious act. Some of these similarities go back, I presume, to common roots in the Near East.

Someone has to make dinner, though. That's for the women, who have to earn a living while their husbands and sons pray in the study house. The abandoned wife is a central theme of both literatures. The social details differ - in Senegal, the mechanism is not just divorce but polygamy - but the underlying problems are so similar.

Another similarity, of central importance to readers - both literatures, at least in their earlier stages , consist almost entirely of short books, because of the constraints of publishing and the low literacy level of the population. I would hypothesize that this pattern would repeat itself in many "early" literatures. Pushkin and Gogol and Lermontov wrote short books, too, come to think of it.

So I asked ma femme, I asked her "Why hasn't anyone done this?" to which she replied "Who needs the grief?" A good point. But look, here's one Professor Marc Caplan, a Johns Hopkins professor who specializes in both Yiddish and West African literatures. What do you know? Here we see him in action, running a conference panel titled "Deterritorialization After Deleuze." Um. His own paper is “The ‘Minor’ as Methodology: Deterritorialization in Yiddish and African Narrative.” This is not exactly what I had in mind, but I guess that's the way things are done now.

* One of the Yiddish plays I read, Peretz Hirschbein's "Green Fields," was about a little cluster of Jewish farmers. It was written for people living in Lower East Side tenements who had immigrated from the shtetl, and had never set foot on a farm.


  1. Your specific comparison is fascinating. I wonder whether 19th century Yiddish literature (without the comparison) has been approached as a colonial literature? There's surely a large body of work which looks at it from that perspective (and when I say large, I say maybe a few scholars have taken the time...)

  2. Thanks for the good wishes! Hopefully the combination of atoms will emerge soon!

  3. SpSq, I thought you would enjoy that. I don't actually agree with it, but that's hardly the point.

    verbivore, I've come across a bit of work on this topic. But the whole field of Yiddish studies is so small. That's the limit - the scholar has to be (or should be) not just versed in rhizomes and territoriality and all of that post-colonial gibberish, I mean terminology, but comfortable reading Yiddish. Minimal overlap there.

  4. I can see where this would be a daunting task. I read an article this morning in the London Rev of Books about a particular Jewish culture in Spain in the 1300's but the book being reviewed (The Other Within, The Marranos) is focusing on culture (and a schizophrenic one since the Jews were either killed or forced to convert) and the review doesn't mention whether any literature came out of the situation...I kept thinking of your question and hope someone will eventually look at it.

  5. Of course, hardly anything we call literature came out of the 1300s anywhere - Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio - who am I forgetting?

  6. On short books, William Trevor in his introduction to The Irish Book of Short Stories said the short story was so strong in Ireland because there was not a large class of people with enough non working time to read long works. In my reading of Australian short stories in the pre World War One era, you see the same pattern repeated, Australian literature began with so called Bush writers doing short stories in magazines. In comparing the literature of west Africa to that of Yiddish, per the Caine Prize committee short stories in Africa arise from a predominance of oral story telling in a pre literate culture with little time to read Middlemarch type works. Yiddish literature, as you said, arises first in the short story for similar reasons.