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Yiddish Literature in America 1870-2000.






Yiddish language and culture took root in the United States. in the late nineteenth century, primarily in the big cities where Yiddish-speaking immigrants settled and created new lives, far from their homes scattered across Eastern Europe. They brought with them the beginnings of the literature that was emerging in Yiddish back home, and from them fashioned a new and ultimately modern Yiddish literature that reflected and often wrestled with their American surrounds. American Yiddish literature moved from social realism to high modernism in fifty years or less, "with the speed of supernatural transport," as Abraham Tabatshnik comments in his essay "Tradition and Revolt in Yiddish Poetry," included in Yiddish Literature in America. Yet the drama of its development took place during a time of mass Jewish acculturation and eventual assimilation--resulting in relatively few contemporary readers for a vast treasure-house of books. Yiddish writing depends on translation to gain readers and recognition of its place in American literature. Emanuel S. Goldsmith's Yiddish Literature in America appeals to Jewish readers in particular, and his preface calls on them to embrace not just the literature but to actively support Yiddish culture. His anthology is clearly a significant effort and even a labor of love, and despite its weaknesses (which I will discuss below), it offers a good introduction to Yiddish literature in America.

A dozen or more anthologies of Yiddish literature have been published since the 1950s, and the majority have focused on poetry. Of these volumes, the ones published since 2000 have taken depth rather than breadth as their approach--for example, picking fifteen to twenty poets representing several developments or "generations" of Yiddish poetry in America, as in Benjamin Harshav's 2.006 anthology Sing, Stranger and Richard J. Fein's idiosyncratic With Everything We've Got (2009)--or focusing on a group of poets representing one trend, as in Proletpen: America's Rebel Yiddish Poets (edited by Amelia Glaser and David Weintraub, 2005). Careful attention is given in these "depth" anthologies to the literary and historical contexts for approaching the poets as well as to offering a generous representation of the writers' most compelling work. What is lacking in these anthologies, of course, is just what Goldsmith's volume attempts to redress: a sense of the broad sweep of Yiddish writing in America. And indeed, Yiddish Literature in America contains diverse examples of writers across genres, including critical essays by Shmuel Niger and N. B Minkov; excerpts of fiction by Sholem Ash, Ayzik Raboy, and Khayim Grade; memoir excerpts from Ruvn Ayzland's recounting of the early years of Di Yunge and Yiddish romanticism--and so on. There is even one excerpt from a well-known play, Mirele Efros by Yankev Gordin. Seventy-one writers in all are represented in Yiddish Literature in America (in translations by Dr. Barnett Zumoff), about two-thirds of whom are poets. And the volume is itself an abridgement of Goldsmith's prior, monumental effort, Yidisher Literatur in Amerike 1870-2000, a thirteen-hundred-page anthology of Yiddish originals, published in two volumes by CYCO Books (1999-2002). Goldsmith does not discuss the approach he took in making his selections from the earlier publication--only, as he states in the preface, that the current volume consists of "approximately one-fourth of the content." This content, now made available in English, is presented roughly chronologically. The poems include a number that appear elsewhere in translation. Perhaps most engaging are the essays, which take up such topics as the development of Yiddish literature in America, the problem of assimilation, and the inner workings of the literary group Di Yunge, and indirectly provide some of the context that is otherwise missing in the anthology.

The content of the anthology does not consist of what I would call "the best" of American Yiddish literature, in terms of its aesthetic appeal or even in terms of the leaps that writers took in taking Yiddish from a vernacular to a literary language. In his brief preface, Goldsmith makes clear that Yiddishism--the commitment to Yiddish language, literature, and culture often associated with Jewish secularism--drives the anthology. And yet his Yiddishism is by no means secular. While the introduction briefly addresses the accomplishments of Di Yunge, "the young rebels who after 1905 brought new sophistication and refinement to Yiddish writing in America," Goldsmsith's main concern is that "[c]reative writing in Yiddish in America was always a social act fraught with both nationalistic and spiritual overtones, no matter how vocally such links were denied' (my emphasis). It seems that Goldsmith is arguing over the heads of the newcomer to Yiddish literature, making his case to those already familiar with old tensions within the Yiddish community aroused by politically engaged Yiddish writers on the left, as well as the modernists who dared to conceive of their poems as having an international appeal. To me, a relative outsider to the Yiddish community, it strikes me as strange that this tension should still be of concern to the editor. Most Yiddish writers made a general return to traditional and national themes in Yiddish literature after the Holocaust. However, Goldsmith is emphasizing both Yiddish language and literature as, in the words of his preface, "depositories and wellsprings of Jewish peoplehood and Jewish values in modern times." It is therefore not surprising that he tends to view the literature as an enterprise of the Jewish collective--which leaves him to characterize writers associated with Di Yunge and the modernists associated with the Inzikhist (Introspectivist) movement as exploring "individuality" while maintaining an ongoing "loyalty" to Jewish life.'

Goldsmith's fourteen-page introduction--in which he offers a framework of some kind for understanding the anthology--is titled "American Yiddish Literature and Jewish Continuity." Throughout, he takes the position that, beyond aesthetic development and change, what gives Yiddish literature in America its significance is the work it has done on behalf of Jewish identity and continuity as a people. For example, he describes Yankev Glatshteyn, who started out as a modernist with Inzikh, as "the twentieth century poet of Judaism par excellence" and a writer whose "scope of identity was defined by [his] Jewishness" (10). This may well be true--yet this omits any reference to Glatshteyn's refinements as a modernist writer, without which (as Benjamin Harshav points out in Sing, Stranger) "the achievements of his Holocaust [and later Jewish-themed] poetry would have been impossible." (2) Goldsmith's focus on the presence of "religion and religious motifs" in modern Yiddish literature, and his reference to its "so-called 'secularism,'" does not help a reader take the measure of a poet like Glatshteyn.

Goldsmith's ideological approach certainly has merit and cultural studies interest; further, I would be wrongheaded to deny that Yiddish literature in America is a Jewish expression, made by writers whose very choice to write in Yiddish signals devotion to their communal culture. However, I believe the editor's "nationalistic and spiritual" lenses have led to weaknesses in the content of this anthology. Yanker Glatshteyn, for example, is represented solely by three Holocaust-related poems. Certainly space was an issue in this wide-ranging volume, but when the majority of authors, regardless of their degree of influence, are represented by just one or two pieces of writing, it's impossible to get a sense of who they were as writers. And, of course, choices are still made: Avrom Reyzn, a poet who is more consistently associated with "the folk" and Jewish cultural themes has ten poems in this anthology. In addition, as is too often the case, women writers are underrepresented (only eleven are here). One ot them is Kadye Molodovsky, who is a major poet but came to the United States relatively late, in 1935, having already published a number of books in Poland.

Yiddish Literature in America has other oddities. The anthology does not include Anglicized versions of names side by side with the Yiddish transliterations, which could make it easier for readers to locate additional work in translation by those writers. For example, the longtime editor of the Yiddish Daily Forward newspaper, Abraham Cahan, who is probably best known outside the Yiddish world for his fiction in English (such as the novel The Rise of David Levinsky) is presented only as "Ab Kahan"--and his headnote makes no mention of his accomplishments in English. Indeed, headnotes are extremely brief and, at times, lacking in critical sophistication (especially in the case of women writers, whose work is characterized in most cases as "distinctively feminine" or "emotional" (3)). Finally, although the anthology is organized chronologically, there are no publication dates given for the vast majority of the work. It would have been helpful had the essays, at least, been dated, so one could better understand the context in which they had been written.

Yiddish Literature in America represents a massive project of translation on the part of Dr. Barnett Zumoff, who has published numerous well-received books of translation from the Yiddish, including Songs to a Moonstruck Lady: Women in Yiddish Poetry (2006). Overall, the translations at hand seem lucid and faithful to the originals, but many of the poems, to me, lack a sense of le motjuste. Perhaps the dependence upon a single translator (although the frontispiece indicates input from four others, including Goldsmith) contributes to a certain sameness and flatness of the diction, despite the wide variety of writers who are translated.

Yiddish Literature in America 1870-2000 attempts to open the gates to Yiddish literature to new readers--to give those who do not know Yiddish "the pleasure of sampling this great literature," as the book's jacket copy entices. As such, I would recommend it as a good introductory volume, to be read alongside other anthologies, such as the Sing, Stranger and The Penguin Book of Modern Yiddish Verse (edited by Irving Howe, Ruth R. Wisse, and Khone Shmeruk), which provide additional literary context and more nuanced versions of some of the poems.



(1.) See Goldsmith's comments on the Inzikh poet Leyeles in his introduction (9).

(2.) From "Jacob Glatshteyn" in Sing, Stranger." A Century of American Yiddish Poetry. A Historical Anthology, ed. Benjamin Harshav, trans, by Benjamin Harshav and Barbara Harshav (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2006), 413.

(3.) For example, see the headnotes on Aria Margolin, 152; Tsilye Drapkin, 166; and Rashel Veprinski, 275.
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Author:Bachman, Merle
Publication:Studies in American Jewish Literature
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2013
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