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VCU Menorah Review Summer/Fall 2008
Number 69
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

The Aesthetic Grit of a Yiddish Prose Master Finds Translation

The Cross and Other Jewish Stories by Lamed Shapiro, edited and with an introduction by Leah Garrett.
New Haven: Yale University Press.

A review essay by Philip Hollander

With the dying out of the Eastern European Jewish immigrants who brought Yiddish literature to America and the successful acculturation of their children to English language culture, Yiddish literature’s role in American Jewish life diminished. Those still connected to it became increasingly aware that it would need to be brought to American Jews through the mediation of translation to maintain continued relevance. Among the first to act was Irving Howe, whose 1953 anthology A Treasury of Yiddish Stories brought the strong taste of European and American Yiddish culture to an English speaking audience. Over the course of the last 50 years subsequent anthologies and volumes dedicated to individual authors’ work have helped to make translated works of Yiddish literature an increasingly important component of American Jewish culture. Due to its ability to combine aesthetic beauty with serious explorations of modern Jewish life, Yiddish literature has attracted American Jews increasingly distant from faith-based Judaism and the form of secular Jewish culture promoted in the State of Israel. Therefore one can’t but view the New Yiddish Library project cosponsored by the Fund for the Translation of Jewish Literature and the National Yiddish Book Center as an important contribution to American Jewish cultural life. After re-releasing a number of important collections and putting out improved translations of others key works, the New Yiddish Library series, under the capable editorship of David Roskies, has begun to put out high quality collections by prominent Yiddish authors whose work has yet to effectively penetrate into the consciousness of English language audiences.

The Cross and other Jewish stories, the latest published volume, provides a broad sampling of the work of Lamed Shapiro. Born in the Ukrainian town of Rzhishchev in 1878, Shapiro came of age simultaneous with a blossoming of Yiddish secular culture in Eastern Europe. S. Y. Abramovitsh, Shalom Aleichem, and I. L. Peretz, published widely and brought inspiration to thousands of aspiring Yiddish writers throughout the Pale of Settlement. Despite his affiliation to this earlier generation of Yiddish writers, Shapiro quickly began taking Yiddish literature in a new direction when he began publishing in 1903. Considering himself first and foremost a writer, Shapiro struggled to give aesthetic expression to Jewish life in the midst of what critic Benjamin Harshav has referred to as the Modern Jewish Revolution. While the classic Yiddish writers lamented the gradual disintegration of the organic Jewish community of the shtetl, Shapiro perceived traditional Eastern European society as something that had already rotted from within leaving Jews alone to face the challenges of modernity a view poignantly voiced in “Eating Days.” As a result, one of the key issues animating Shapiros writing is the possibility of stabilizing Jewish life through the creation of a secular Jewish society and culture on the ruins of the past.

Shapiro saw little hope of bringing about a radical transformation of Eastern European Jewish life. This pessimism finds expression in stories such as The Cross, The Kiss, and The Jewish Regime. Jewish characters reveal vital life forces teeming within them that allow them to avenge acts of persecution perpetrated against them by their non-Jewish neighbors. But they prove incapable of harnessing these heretofore hidden energies for constructive aims. In addition, “The Jewish Regime” denies the ability of an impotent Jewish intelligentsia to effectively lead the people in new directions and foresees little substantive change in the lives of Eastern European Jews.

Despite his seeming pessimism, however, Shapiro’s dedication to his writing and his belief in its ability to enrich the lives of his readers through its artistry show him to be a true disciple of Peretz, the high priest of Jewish cultural renewal. With naturalism and lyrical impressionism occupying the poles of early twentieth century Yiddish prose, Shapiro proved to be one of the leading representatives of the pole of lyrical impressionism. As Marshal McLuhan asserted, “the medium is the message,” and even when Shapiro narrates a Russian soldiers cannibalistic murder and rape of a Jewish woman in White Challah, the reader cant help but be overwhelmed by the beauty of the narrative. Similar artistry can be noted in “In the Dead Town.” Through the filtering of experience through the limited consciousness of the young orphan Beylke, both nature and the Jewish cemetery where the story is set are defamiliarized. Through the act of reading, one experiences things anew as Beylkes impressions are deciphered and gains the opportunity to look at the world with fresh eyes attune to its inherent beauty. The need to embrace the beauty that comes with the pain and suffering of the world is also promoted in the idyllic short story “Smoke,” which displays a more lyrical and less impressionistic style. Here, the protagonist Menasha’s ability to recognize the duality of existence, derived from the revelation of the profound pleasure that accompanies the discomfort of tobacco smoking, helps guide him through a long successful business career after a childhood of poverty.

Shapiro’s dedication to style and his arrival in America in 1905 make it natural to group him together with the emergent Yiddish literary group Di Yunge, who rose to prominence in America at the beginning of the twentieth century, but efforts to promote him as an American master, as well as the division of the current collection into three parts Progrom Tales, The Old World, and The New World overstate America’s place in Shapiro’s work and his perception of himself as an American. Regardless of decades spent in America and the absence of visceral European anti-Semitism in America, Shapiros fundamental worldview remained unchanged following his immigration. His long lyrical tale “At Sea” rejects the idea of a promised land and asserts that every individual is fundamentally at sea attempting to survive in a world without firm ground upon which to stand. Pogroms appear frequently in Shapiro’s writing not because they were the cause of this instability, but rather because they were a symptom and effective symbol of it. Shapiro would have denied the premise of American exceptionalism upon which this collection is organized, and it would have proved more true to his legacy to have organized the whole collection chronologically, since this would have allowed readers to more effectively track his stylistic development. Nonetheless this collection gives English readers access to one of the great Yiddish writers and those interested in finding out what came between Shalom Aleichem and Isaac Bashevis Singer would be well served by picking up this volume.

Philip Hollander is Sizeler Professor of Jewish Studies at Tulane University.

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