Zalmen Reyzen, Poland, ca. 1930s. (YIVO)

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Literary Criticism and Scholarship

Yiddish Criticism and Scholarship

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The slow development of Yiddish literary criticism in Eastern Europe in the second half of the nineteenth century mirrored the limited role that modern Yiddish literature played in Jewish cultural life at that time. A telling example: when Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh began his career as a Yiddish writer in 1864, he had already written two significant treatises on literary criticism and cultural issues, in Hebrew. He did not deem it necessary, however, to develop this genre in Yiddish in any substantial way because he considered Yiddish primarily suited to belles lettres. Until the 1880s, the beginnings of Yiddish literary criticism were modest and sporadic.

Pioneering attempts in the second half of the 1880s express the accepted norms regarding the status and character of Yiddish literature and the endeavor to shape a form and style appropriate to writing Yiddish literary criticism. In 1888–1889, Sholem Aleichem wrote several critical works that complement each other: his brochure Shomers mishpet (Shomer’s Trial), written in a style that combines belles lettres with a sharply polemical tone, is a virulent attack on Shomer, author of popular shund (“trash”) novels; meanwhile, Sholem Aleichem’s article “A briv tsu a gutn fraynd” (A Letter to a Close Friend), formulated as an afterword to his novel Stempenyu, articulates his own affirmative artistic credo.

These compositions express a shared outlook: Yiddish literature is a folk literature and must therefore draw its main characters from the popular masses until it gradually develops and is able to portray characters of a higher status. These remarks also imply that the optimum medium for Yiddish literature is realist prose that describes contemporary Jewish life. During this period, modern Yiddish literature gained the attention of Simon Dubnow, who was writing regular literary reviews in the Russian Jewish magazine Voskhod. His positive response to Sholem Aleichem’s story “Dos meserl” (The Pen Knife; 1887) offered real encouragement to the young writer.

The modest scope of Yiddish literary activity in Eastern Europe in the 1890s hindered the development of Yiddish criticism. During that decade, America occupied a position of primacy in two different areas: in attempts to write popular works of literary criticism, and in the publication of Leo Wiener’s groundbreaking work, The History of Yiddish Literature in the Nineteenth Century (1899). The beginning of the twentieth century marks the actual beginning of sustained activity in Eastern European Yiddish literary criticism, with Bal-Makhshoves as its first significant figure. He was both a critic and a newspaper columnist, with the boundaries between the two literary domains often blurred. This is a trait that came to characterize the work of other Yiddish critics.

From Bal-Makhshoves in Kaunas, Lithuania, to Yoysef Opatoshu in New York, n.d. He thanks Opatoshu for sending him his novel In poylishe velder and the anthology of his some of his other works, and says that the novel is now being passed around. Dovid Bergelson is the first to have read it and talks every evening about what an impression it has made on him. Bergelson is going to review it for Bal-Makhshoves's Yudishe shtime. About Opatoshu's suggestion that they form a Peretz Society, he can't yet say anything. All the locals are still "too exhausted" to take on something like this, but he expects that in a few weeks they might be in better shape to consider it. A poet, Leyb Kvitko, is helping Bal-Makhshoves edit the "anthology." "I'm sure you have some idea how people, even literati, who come from the Soviet Union, throw themselves on books, all but ripping them out of your hands, and then tirelessly gulping them down." Yiddish. RG 436, Joseph Opatoshu Papers, F32. (YIVO)

In the introduction to Bal-Makhshoves’s collected articles (Geklibene shriftn; 1910)—the first noteworthy book of Yiddish literary criticism—he formulates the function of Yiddish literature in a manner different from his predecessors: “Today, Yiddish literature is not merely a means of educating the people; it is also a precious means of educating our intelligentsia.” This formulation denotes a substantial shift in the utilitarian and positivist function previously allotted to Yiddish literature. However, Bal-Makhshoves is essentially in agreement with the view that Yiddish literature is “folk literature.” In line with this approach, his primary gauge for evaluating the works of the classic Yiddish writers is the author’s intellectual and emotional relationship to the “folk masses” and to its characters.

Ideologically, Bal-Makhshoves was a committed Zionist, and this factor played a significant role in his emphasis on the intimate connection between Hebrew and Yiddish literature, and the formulation of his postulate: “Two languages, one single literature.” At the beginning of the century, in keeping with accepted norms, his articles were simultaneously published in Hebrew with no indication that they were translations from the Yiddish, and this permitted him to simultaneously be considered a Hebrew critic. In his essay “Dray shtetlekh” (Three Shtetls; 1911), Bal-Makhshoves laid the foundations for the comparative approach of this central theme in Yiddish literature. In his later papers about modern and modernistic Yiddish prose writers and poets Dovid Bergelson, H. Leyvik, Dovid Hofshteyn, Leyb Kvitko, and others, Bal-Makhshoves discloses a refined sensibility regarding the newest developments in Yiddish literature that far supersedes his past assertions about its character.

In the vein of Bal-Makhshoves, Shmuel Niger approached the field from a personal background of social and political engagement. However, in contrast to his predecessor, he soon abandoned outright ideological commitments and focused almost entirely on literary criticism and diverse editorial projects. His first critical work, Vegn der tragedye funem goles (On the Tragedy of the Exile; 1907), is devoted to Sholem Asch’s play Meshiekhs tsaytn, and although the drama deals with contemporary issues, Niger regards its characters as universal “symbols.” The wide use of this term heralds a new approach in Yiddish literary criticism, but in the process Niger does not lose sight of the concrete historic and social context of the literary work. His first works of criticism express his caution concerning the thematic and intellectual limitations of folk-oriented realism and the writers that he considers “old-fashioned” or “limited” such as Avrom Reyzen and Sholem Aleichem. At the time, Niger placed Y. L. Peretz at the center of the Yiddish literary canon. However, in later years he revised his opinion about Sholem Aleichem, and employed eclectic standards in his works of criticism.

The opposition to the prevalence of realism in Yiddish literature played a central role in determining Peretz’s critical thinking. His essay “Vos felt undzer literatur?” (What Our Literature Needs; 1910) became the most influential statement in the historical development of Yiddish criticism; it opens with the tag line: “First and foremost, tradition.” Peretz’s demand that Yiddish literature expand its thematic horizons and strive to depict the wide gamut of Jewish experience from the past and present struck a chord among the new generation of Yiddish writers. Peretz’s call also influenced Yiddish literary criticism, which often employed his criterion of thematic expansiveness to determine the value of a Yiddish literary work.

During the years before World War I, Shmuel Niger made a significant contribution to the institutionalization of Yiddish literary and cultural scholarship as editor of the collection Der pinkes (1913). It includes bibliography; memoirs; reviews of recent works relating to Yiddish literature and folklore; and Niger’s own important study, “Di yidishe literatur un di lezerin” (Yiddish Literature and the Female Reader). It also features Ber Borokhov’s groundbreaking bibliography, “Di bibliotek funem yidishn filolog” (The Library of the Yiddish Philologist), a sweeping attempt to systematize the sources for research of Yiddish language and literature with the goal of deepening its sense of historic consciousness.

Due to World War I, no further volumes of Der pinkes appeared. Borokhov’s programmatic opening article, “Di oyfgabn fun der yidishe filologye” (The Tasks of Yiddish Philology), begins with the assertion that philology plays “the greatest role in the national revival of oppressed peoples.” The concept of “Yiddish philology”—in Borokhov’s formulation—places Yiddish linguistic study at the center of the field. It had a powerful influence in determining Max Weinreich’s research goals as well as the mission of YIVO (est. 1925).

Post–World War I conditions had a decisive influence on the development of Yiddish literary criticism and scholarship. Niger’s immigration to America in 1919 and Bal-Makhshoves’s death in 1924 removed the accepted authorities from the field. On the other hand, changes in the literature itself went hand-in-hand with new forms in criticism. The emergence of Yiddish modernist poetry provoked a bitter polemic between its forceful opponents, with Hillel Zeitlin at the fore—and its enthusiastic proponents—especially the poets themselves, particularly Perets Markish and Melech Ravitch, whose critical stances were often expressed in literary manifestos. The fact that the opposing sides in these debates were not professional critics highlights the void in Yiddish literary criticism in Poland after World War I. In Russia, Yekhezkl Dobrushin and Moyshe Litvakov, in their pre-Marxist phase during the first years after the revolution, wrote sweeping critical pieces in the form of cultural manifestos that attempted to offer an overall picture of modern Yiddish literature and to chart its ideal future course.

Article by Hirsh Dovid Nomberg, “Tsum toyt fun Mikha Yosef Berditshevski” (On the Death of Mikhah Berdyczewski), ca. 1921. Yiddish. RG 108, Manuscripts Collection, F55.7. (YIVO)

Until the mid-1920s, the borders between the various centers of Yiddish creativity were loose, and the centers maintained close contact. However, by the end of that decade, Yiddish literary criticism and scholarship began to move along completely different ideological and methodological paths in Poland and the Soviet Union.

Despite difficult material circumstances, it was in Poland that the groundbreaking synthesis of Yiddish literary scholarship appeared: Zalmen Reyzen’s Leksikon fun der yidisher literatur, prese un filologye (4 vols., 1926–1929) remains an indispensable reference work for its detailed biographic information and its rich bibliographic data. Maks Erik’s Geshikhte fun der yidisher literatur: Fun di eltste tsaytn biz der haskole-tkufe (History of Yiddish Literature: From Earliest Times to the Haskalah Period; 1928) represents the first systematic work in the field of old Yiddish literature as well as the cornerstone for subsequent scholarly developments in the field, although the ensuing scholarship did challenge his basic concepts and many elements of his structural model. That same year marked the publication of Max Weinreich’s Bilder fun der yidisher literaturgeshikhte: Fun di onheybn biz Mendele Moykher-Sforim (Sketches from the History of Yiddish Literature: From the Beginnings to Mendele Moykher-Sforim). Both works reflect the desire to deepen the historic consciousness of Yiddish literature.

The growth of a Yiddish readership increased the need for informative works of criticism about different aspects of Yiddish literature, a field in which Nakhmen Mayzel was particularly productive. The primary format of Yiddish literary criticism in Poland was the review in a newspaper or journal, a form that did not permit in-depth study of the subject under discussion. Very few monographs about Yiddish writers appeared in Poland, with the notable exception of Yekhiel Yeshaye Trunk’s books. His Idealizm un naturalizm in der yidisher literatur (Idealism and Naturalism in Jewish Literature; 1927) presents the primary trends in Yiddish prose as a struggle between two opposing powers that are in essence expansions on the concepts of “Romanticism” and “Realism.” In his books on Sholem Aleichem (1937) and Tevye der milkhiker (1939; expanded edition, Tevye un Menakhem-Mendl in yidishn velt-goyrl; 1944), Trunk analyzes Sholem Aleichem’s main characters as manifestations of the “collective Jewish psyche.”

Yiddish literary critics in Poland maintained an intense ongoing dialogue with their counterparts in other countries, especially in North America. For example, the first books of poetry by female poets and the publication of the anthology Yidishe dikhterins (1928), edited by Ezra Korman, prompted a discussion about the phenomenon of Yiddish women’s poetry. The participants in this conversation included writers and critics in both America and Eastern Europe.

Whereas Yiddish critics in Poland were quite eclectic in their approaches and diverse in their scholarly objectives, in the Soviet Union Marxism was the only legitimate methodology in the second half of the 1920s and thereafter. The consolidation of a Soviet Yiddish center and the development of its cultural institutions paved the way for intense activity in the field of Yiddish literary criticism and scholarship. Among the key questions under discussion at that time were which aspects of the Yiddish literary corpus to emphasize, and which of its elements could be useful in the building of a new Soviet Yiddish culture.

From Yisroel Tsinberg in Saint Petersburg, to (?), n.d., asking for help in obtaining two early Jewish socialist newspapers that he cannot find in Russia for research for his Russian-language Geshikhte der nay hebreyishn un yidishn (zhargon) literatur (History of Modern Hebrew and Yiddish [Zhargon] Literature). Yiddish. RG 107, Letters Collection. (YIVO)

In the first half of the 1920s, Yiddish critics in Russia regarded contemporary Jewish literature in its various centers as a single entity, as shown, for instance, in Nokhem Oyslender’s book of essays Veg ayn veg oys (1924). From the second half of the 1920s on, however, the leading figures in Soviet Yiddish culture subscribed to the necessity of separating Yiddish literature both from Hebrew literature and from Yiddish literature outside of the Soviet Union that lacked a Communist or procommunist character. Scholars who did not toe the party line were rejected from the camp. For example, while residing in Leningrad in the 1920s and 1930s, Yisroel Tsinberg worked on his monumental synthesis, Di geshikhte fun der literatur bay yidn, in virtual isolation from the Soviet Yiddish cultural institutions. This work, a comprehensive study of Jewish writing in Europe in its main languages and genres, was being published in Poland up to his arrest in 1938 (translated into English as A History of Jewish Literature, 12 vols., 1972–1978).

The Yiddish cultural institutions erected primarily in Minsk and Kiev enabled scholarly activity of a broader quantitative scope than YIVO in Vilna, but the scholars associated with these institutions suffered from powerful pressure that demanded orthodox Marxist consistency in their research. This pressure became increasingly manifest at the beginning of the 1930s. Soviet Yiddish literary scholarship thus avoided dealing with “problematic” fields such as old Yiddish literature. With very few exceptions, among them Maks Erik’s monograph on Sholem Asch (1931), the only area of contemporary Yiddish literature produced outside the Soviet Union that elicited substantial scholarly interest was Yiddish proletarian literature in America.

Soviet Yiddish literary scholars studied the Haskalah because of the ideological affinity they felt for this era, as Shmuel Niger has demonstrated. The primary goal of Soviet Yiddish criticism and literary scholarship entailed highlighting the work of the Haskalah writers and classic Yiddish writers within their social and historical contexts. They also determined what elements of their oeuvres could be considered “legitimate” within the confines of Soviet Yiddish culture. These questions occupied the most important Soviet Yiddish scholars and critics, including Dobrushin, Erik, Aron Gurshteyn, Yitskhok Nusinov, Oyslender, and Wiener. They also produced detailed monographs on the linguistic aspects of these literary works such as Elye Spivak’s Sholem-Aleykhems shprakh un stil (Sholem Aleichem’s Language and Style; 1940).

Meir Wiener’s monographs on Sholem Aleichem serve as a paradigm for grasping the different perspectives in Soviet Yiddish literary scholarship. In his study Di sotsyale vortslen fun Sholem Aleykhems humor (1932), Sholem Aleichem is presented in the category of a “petit-bourgeois writer,” and the “social function” of his humor is “to ‘console’ the class that he serves.” This sociological phraseology vanishes almost entirely in his later work, Vegn Sholem Aleykhems humor (1940), produced at a time when ideological constraints had been loosened temporarily, where the same theme of humor is presented from the vantage point of its multifaceted manifestations in world literature and in Jewish tradition, beginning with the Bible.

Soviet Yiddish literary scholarship reached significant achievements in the area of critical editions. These include the publication of German-Yiddish comedies from the Berlin Haskalah, and the works of Shloyme Ettinger and Yisroel Aksenfeld. However, ambitious plans to publish critical editions of Mendele and Sholem Aleichem were realized only in part: from the extensive plans to publish an academic edition of Sholem Aleichem’s work, only three invaluable volumes appeared in 1948 (an early attempt in the 1930s resulted in two volumes). The publication of further volumes of this project was truncated during the liquidation of Yiddish culture in the Soviet Union. Peretz’s work presented difficult ideological problems for Soviet Yiddish culture—in particular his series of stories Khsidish and Folkstimlekhe geshikhtn, as well as his symbolic dramas, which did not permit any extensive publications of his work.

The numerous articles and monographs that deal with Soviet Yiddish literature reveal limited intellectual and scholarly zest; many are burdened by ideological phraseology and a vulgar Marxist methodology. Despite the significant decline in the scope of Yiddish cultural activity in the Soviet Union in the 1940s, critics and scholars strove to maintain a wide thematic range: Yekhezkl Dobrushin’s Dovid Bergelson appeared in 1947, and his scholarly volume Di dramaturgye fun di klasiker (The Dramaturgy of the Classical Writers) followed in 1948.

The Holocaust and the liquidation of Yiddish culture in the Soviet Union did not entirely disrupt literary critical and scholarly activity in Eastern Europe. In the extraordinary circumstances of the Vilna ghetto, Naftole Vaynig wrote a monograph about Leyb Naydus, and Zelig Kalmanovitch dealt with Peretz’s outlook on Yiddish literature. This activity was revived in Poland after the Holocaust under the shadow of external censorship and pressure. Ber Mark published valuable collections of Yiddish literature rescued from the ghettos; however, these editions were censored and his monograph on the theme is not free from imposed tendentiousness. From its inception in 1961, the Moscow journal Sovetish heymland strove to publish studies in the field of Soviet Yiddish literature as well as previously unknown works of Soviet Yiddish authors who perished during the liquidation of Soviet Yiddish culture; some of these represent substantial contributions to the field.

Suggested Reading

Mikhail Krutikov, “Soviet Literary Theory in the Search for a Yiddish Canon: The Case of Moshe Litvakov,” in Yiddish and the Left, pp. 226–241 (Oxford, 2001); Mikhail Krutikov, “Soviet Yiddish Scholarship in the 1930s: From Class to Folk,Slavic Almanach 7.10 (2001): 223–251; Nokhem B. Minkoff, Zeks yidishe kritiker (Buenos Aires, 1954); Samuel Niger, Lezer, dikhter, kritiker, vols. 1–2 (New York, 1928); Chava Turniansky, ed., Di yidishe literatur in nayntsetn yorhundert: Zamlung fun yidisher literatur-forshung un kritik in Ratn-Farband (Jerusalem, 1993).



Translated from Yiddish by Rebecca Margolis