Toward the end of 1896, when I was almost still a child, I came to Warsaw3 with the explicit intention of conquering the city.
1 Levi Yehoshua Shapiro, (1878-1948) born in Rzhyshchiv, Ukraine, died in Los Angeles, California. One of my favorite writers on violence and antisemitism, author of the tense psychological thriller short stories “The Cross” and “White Challah.” What is presented here is the autobiographical sketch that begins his long essay, “Der Shrayber Geyt In Heyder” “The Writer Goes To School,” published in 1945 in a slim collection of literary criticism. The rest of the essay is a meandering exploration of Shapiro’s opinions on writing craft and art. I discovered it by asking a facebook group of Yiddish writers and scholars for Yiddish Writing on Writing. I have been translating it since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, when I filled the holes in my Yiddish grammatical education and the long days of lockdown with an obsession with Yiddish Duolingo. I still have much to learn, but can translate with a dictionary and some patience. ↩
2 I came to Yiddish for the ghosts. I have been convinced from a young age that I will one day encounter my great grandparents, dead decades before my birth. What will I say to them? What language to greet them in, to show I have spent my time honoring them and their memories? The problem with ghosts is that they’re people. The more I learn about my great grandparents, both specifically from family lore and in general conclusions about their generation, I wonder if they WOULD be proud if I spoke to them in Yiddish. Possibly more bemused than proud. Why did I waste time not being a nice American boy, like they had hoped for, like they had been so proud to see my father and his brothers becoming? Then again, my father and mother have so little insight into their own grandparents’ interiority. It was not a time for showing children what made your heart bleed. Bubbe sold sweaters in a little shopping cart around Brownsville. Zayde was a waiter in Crown Heights, though all he ever cooked was cucumber salad. Wispy little ghosts, remembered for wispy little gestures. Better, now that my Yiddish is coming along, to study literature. ↩
3 Here the city makes an appearance as the center of the Yiddish literary world, a position it held in no small part due to its prominent Yiddish literary citizen, Yitzhok Leybush Peretz, (1852-1915), who was a tireless mentor to younger generations of Yiddish writers, including Lamed Shapiro. And so we see “that a man in himself is a city” Is the author seeking to conquer the city, the literary scene, or his mentor’s mind? ↩
4 When I was eight I authored and illustrated my first book, whose title escapes me, but whose subject was a species of aliens that could mimic toilets, attacking a human population hopelessly enslaved to their bowel movements. The attack is fought off by a brave little Jewish authorial stand-in character, who saves the world on Hanukkah. Already my work’s preoccupation with explicit Jewish content, the body, and the alien are present. Some of these preoccupations are shared with Shapiro and other Yiddish writers. ↩
5 The nature of Shapiro’s heresy is vague. Perhaps he denied the very existence of the God of Israel. Or perhaps having witnessed pogrom after pogrom and keenly observed their devastating psychological effects, he denied that there is a Judge and Justice. My own heretical leanings are even more difficult for me to understand. I no longer trust God, and I believe God must answer for all suffering, including my own. I would like to know why, if God demanded that I learn Torah and obey the Law, why God has made it so difficult for me to do so without resulting in a deep melancholy and anxiety that does not allow me to function at all, let alone as an observant Jew. I am perhaps more of a believer than Shapiro. It is unclear. ↩
7 The word in Yiddish is the Hebrew word “הכשר,” meaning both generally a Rabbi’s declaration that a food stuff or religious article is “kosher” and the symbols used by a variety of Rabbinic organizations to show that they have supervised and approved the production of a food stuff or article for use by observant Jews. Shapiro uses it colloquially here, but there was a time I sought rabbinic approval for my whole life, desperate to please a cadre of musty historical figures whose writings and decisions in the framework of Jewish law I considered sacrosanct. I still love and value the writings of these rabbis, I still long for their embrace. But my madness, my pain, prevents me from keeping the law. What can I do? The rabbis in their wisdom might declare me a “שוטה”, a man too mentally unfit to keep the law. That is the best case scenario. They might condemn me as a simple sinner, too obstinate and boorish to know how to be Jewish correctly.↩
8 This contempt for Yiddish as a “jargon” is deeply felt to this day. My ancestors had almost no interest in passing the language to my parents’ generation of Americans, who they would whisper over, holding their secret parental and grandparental conversations in the old language. My father often chuckles indulgently when I tell him what I learn in my Yiddish classes, cracks old borscht belt jokes, wonders what I am doing on my phone all the time. I am telling a cartoon owl how many eggs he has in Yiddish. I am telling a cartoon bear that he forgot to close the store. I am playing my heritage as a game. ↩
9 Dmitry Ivanovich Pisarev (1840-1868), a literary critic and one of the foremost thinkers of Russian Nihilism. An influence on Lenin, his effect on Shapiro is humbler: the adoption of the language of himself and his neighbors for literature. ↩
10 This humility, this flippancy, this certainty that a detailed autobiography of his reading and writing life could shed no light that has not already been shed, where does it come from? Is there a vast literature of Yiddish writers on writing? Do we know this story already? Why don’t I know how to read as a Jew? What literature makes a Jewish writer? What makes me a Jewish writer? ↩
11 Shapiro describes a bizarre outfit, half formal wear, half costume of youth and immaturity, in which he goes to meet Peretz. In my bar mitzvah suit, with its crazy patterned tie to satisfy my still childish tastes, I receive check after check, and every now and then a book. Was it here that I first held a copy of Peretz’ stories in translation in my hand? ↩
12 So the great man enters our story. My own reading of Peretz started around the age that Shapiro met him in person. I gobbled up translations of his work, finding his slightly austere style more to my liking than the schmaltzy folkiness of Sholem-Aleichem (1859-1916) or Mendele Moykher Sforim (1835-1917) the other great pillars of Yiddish Literature. He was for a while, most of what I knew of Yiddish literature, besides the Isaac Bashevis Singer (1903-1991) children’s stories that I had grown up with, and the little Aleichem and Mendele I had read. I saw parallels between him and my adolescent favorite, Jorge Luis Borges (1899-1986). They both mixed magic and philosophy freely. Peretz tells stories of miracles and mud with a detached wondrousness. I was enchanted by his words as a young adult. I haven’t read him for ten years. Life gets in the way. To encounter him here, as a human being, a hero to Shapiro but still fallible, is to rediscover and reinvent my image of him, no longer a wizard behind an untouchable great book, but a writer. A great writer, but still, a writer, as Shapiro is a writer, as I am a writer. What separates me from YL Peretz? A language, a continent, an ocean, some words. ↩
13 Remember, Shapiro still intends to take the world by storm, by way of Yiddish literary greatness. Can a Jewish writer in a Jewish language conquer the world? If a Jewish writer in a non-Jewish language conquers the world, has he done anything for the Jewish people? What does all my writing in English amount to? ↩
16 Y. G. Munk, Warsaw based bookseller and publisher. I am still endeavoring to find precise dates for Munk’s birth and death and the operation of the press and shop, but there are extant Munk editions of Hebrew works dating from at least the 1870s. ↩
17 The earliest question my writing had to answer, literally written in the margins by friends and teachers serving as editors, was “Who is this for?” Spending my entire 20s without a bachelor’s degree, my tone was too academic. Trying to hand my work in at the schools I kept dropping in and out of, I was told I was too lyrical, too glancing in my analysis. As I turned to fiction and creative writing, the question persisted. Who is this for? Who is your audience? Where are the readers?
Isaac Bashevis Singer, when he received the Nobel prize for Literature, said that he continued to write in Yiddish after the Holocaust, because he is a believer in מחיה המתים, the Resurrection of the Dead. “I am sure that millions of Yiddish speaking corpses will rise from their graves one day and their first question will be: ‘Is there any new Yiddish book to read?’” In much the same way, I hope to write Jewish stories to continue conversations with the long dead rabbis who torment me, with the Jewish writers who delight me. When I read Grace Paley and Isaac Babel for the first time in 2019, I realized, this is my audience, this is who I write for. I do not write for readers. I write to be in conversation with other writers, many of them dead and gone. ↩
18 An allusion to Aleichem’s character, Menachem Mendl, notorious for his unending faith in his disastrous financial speculations, and Aleichem’s own attempts to remake the fortune he had lost in 1890 on the stock market. ↩
19 Yiddish writer Dovid Pinski (1872-1959), another mentee and collaborator of Peretz’. His move to Berlin in 1896 was the beginning of the end of his time in Europe. He moved to America in 1899, and then moved to the state of Israel in 1949. ↩
23 The terrain is surveyed and found wanting. I am less despairing than Shapiro; perhaps we might say, less arrogant. I do not believe myself to be a lone voice crying in a wilderness. There are others here too, some of whom tower above me, their names regularly appearing in both the Jewish and the wider press: Chabon, Krauss, Englander, Safran Foer. I have dozens of contemporaries I can turn to, talk with. But I read them all in English. Even those who write in Hebrew, which I speak, I read in English. Is there an intimacy we are denied? Has a Jewish writer ever reached out to me to speak, Jew to Jew, just us, no one watching. Then again, who would watch us? Who cares what a Jew has to say to a Jew but another Jew? ↩
24 A depressing decline from the golden days of the paper’s Yiddish supplement Kol Mevaser, the first Yiddish paper in Russia, published between 1862 and 1872. Under editor-in-chief and publisher Aleksander Zederbaum (1816-1893) the paper saw the publication of Mendele Moykher Sforim and Avrom Goldfadn, among other Yiddish luminaries. My own sense of the Jewish press is of decline. The Forward is consumed by listicles, Tablet by neo-conservatives. Jewish Currents and Haaretz have little to no interest in fiction or creative non-fiction. The Jewish Book Review champions Jewish writers . . . once they have books. Where can my stories go to find their cousins? In what anthology could I be beside other Jewish writers of my generation? Can I only talk to ghosts, or do I have a message for the living? ↩
25 These arguments persist, and I don’t see why Shapiro should complain about them. They are the foundation of all Jewish fiction, these clashes between Jews, these petty, quiet events in the midst of history. ↩
27 Peretz fell in esteem in the eyes of his student, for the simple crime of speaking the wrong language at a crucial moment. One can picture a young Shapiro tearing his hair out. How can there be hope for Yiddish Literature when one of its greatest practitioners can’t even conduct business in the language! This youthful purism was, in me, turned inwards. In my 20s, I berated myself for failing to keep kosher, failing to keep Shabbos, failing to keep up with my talmudic studies. Entering Jewish literature as a writer in my 30s, is there an equivalent? Who am I disappointed in?
So much of the Jewish world is swinging right, to keep in lock step with the state of Israel. I arrived in Israel in 2005, the year the state removed settlements from Gaza. How proud I was of the morality of that decision, the liberalism of it! Surely this was the beginning of a Jewish-led peace. But as I watched the slow imprisonment and pulverizing of Gaza over the next decades, and as my own mental health crisis inclined my sympathies to all who were trapped, hurt, wounded, I became disenchanted with Zionism and Israel. I left in 2008, a nervous wreck, heart broken by the “only Jewish country in the world.” Now I no longer believe in states and their promises, much as I no longer believe in sanity. The world is too thin for that, the mind too unpredictable. We must let go of purism, and embrace what emerges next. ↩
28 Jewish literary greatness eluded Shapiro in his first sally. No meteoric rise, no weeping at the edge of the sea for having nothing left to conquer. Like Don Quixote he comes home beaten, finding the world both larger and smaller than he had hoped. And me? I am dipping my toe in. I am satisfied with my early publications, and am exploring a writers life. Readings, submissions, queries, working on sustained pieces. Is this failure? Is it success? It’s mostly just words, some printed, most online. A bigger and smaller world than I had hoped↩
29 Behind all this Jewish writing, political upheaval. Empires rise and fall, tsars are conspired against, assassinated, appointed, Presidents are elected, Jewish states come into being, Holocausts happen. What is a Jewish writer’s responsibility to all this? What language should he write his political screeds in? What role should she take in history?
When there was a brief rhetorical struggle over whether it was appropriate to label the conditions of US detention facilities for immigrants “concentration camps” I felt it my responsibility to get arrested protesting a July 4th parade with a group of Jewish activists. We were of the opinion that the detention facilities were indeed concentration camps, and that we as Jews must shout never again. These activists, who I perhaps over excitedly labeled “my comrades,” have become a Jewish community for me. I write about their Messianic pretensions, their artistic sensitivities, their cries for mutual aid (which I try to answer when possible). I conspire with them to make art. Some of them are Jewish writers too. ↩
30 Like Shapiro, I have been alive for the turn of the century. I wonder if I’ve also lived to see a revival of a uniquely Jewish political consciousness. Conversations long thought dead and dying suddenly have new life. Twitter profiles of US 20 somethings earnestly declaring themselves Neo-Bundists spring up like mushrooms after the rain, and Zionism chugs along, a state ideology, with its free vacations for Americans and its mandatory army service for Israelis. Yiddish has taken on a new significance in this struggle, there are respectable amounts of revivalists in the summer programs and classes and even an app that teaches you the language, taught me the language. But has Jewish literature taken a role yet in the century to come? ↩
37 Leon Kobrin (1873-1946) playwright, poet, translator, whose passion for Yiddish only began upon his immigration to Philadelphia in 1892. Beginning as a disciple of Jacob Gordin (See note 35), his career spanned two golden ages of the Yiddish stage. ↩
41 What is my responsibility as a Jewish writer in English? Shapiro complains of cheap translations and interpretations as shoddy patchwork on the dignity of Shakespeare. When I use my duolingo Yiddish to translate the greats of Yiddish literature into my mooncalfish English, whose dignity am I imperiling? On the other hand, reading Cynthia Ozick’s novella “Envy, or Yiddish in America”, I come across her creation the poet Edelshtein, wandering the wintry New York streets, feverishly hoping to find a translator for his poems. Is Yiddish a language of beggars who cannot be choosers? Is it so insulting to patch up the coat of a language dressed in rags? Or is it an insult to point out the rags in the first place?↩
45 Pen name of Dr. Isidor Eliashev (1873-1924), the “Master of Thoughts” didn’t enter into the world of serious Yiddish literary criticism until Dr. Joseph Lurie (see note 27) urged him to in 1899. His enthusiasm for Yiddish literature took a distinct pessimistic turn in 1910, with the collapse of his marriage. Things seemed to look up after WWI, but then his depression and physical ailments took a turn for the worst, and he died in his native Kovno. ↩
46 Hersh Dovid Nomberg, (1876-1927), a Yiddish bohemian whose stories of love, lust and loss I have encountered in translation in the delightful “A Cheerful Soul and other stories” (2021, Snuggly Books) trans. Daniel Kennedy ↩
50 Jacob Steinberg, (1887-1947), who wrote Yiddish in Peretz’ circles, but swore off it and on to Hebrew when moving to Mandate Palestine in 1914. Still, he never adjusted his Hebrew accent, writing in an Ashkenazi Hebrew until his death. ↩
52 Eventually ambition leaves us, and we can get down to writing. Shapiro is no longer a Genghis Khan, and I can no longer continue to over identify with Shapiro, whose greatness and essentialness to the world of Jewish letters surpasses my own abilities. I must now admit the gulf between us, me, unproven and trying in English, and him, a master of Yiddish. I’ll visit him at his grave in Los Angeles one of these days, and thank him for the advice. ↩
53 Every Jewish writer post the Shoah has heard this call, and has had to answer in their own language, in their own way. Hebrew is the future, some of us say. I do not speak Yiddish, we say. I am not even Ashkenazi, others reply. Still, the voice is sharp and clear. Why does it keep calling? Why can’t it be satisfied with the short spurt of the river that Shapiro describes?
I am not a Yiddish writer, but I am creating a Jewish literature for here, for now. And part of that literature by necessity is about and for and in Yiddish. Yiddish is the present and the future. Yiddish is as alive as the pulse in my thumb, as it presses the iPhone screen and answers the cartoon owl’s questions in Yiddish. ↩
54 I end here, on Shapiro’s bitter optimism. Writing in 1945, it is unclear to me how much he knows about the devastation of his world and audience. But surely he knows something has shifted, that there is a dying at hand. He transitions from here to several sections of craft thoughts and writing advice. He covers what there is to learn from other arts, how to learn what not to do from others failures, whether Yiddish will ever be free from comparisons to German. In the following pages he declares “The Yiddish language has worked a spell on me. She is, after all is said and done, my most beautiful love, and I hope to die at her feet.”
That spell is being worked on me by Jewish literature more broadly. I have my answer now of what to read. Shapiro’s listing above is curriculum enough, and more gets written every day. I am a Jew awash in books, as Jews always have been. One day Jews will swim in my words too. ↩
Mordecai Martin is an Ashkenazi Jewish writer from New York with ties to Mexico City and Philadelphia. His creative non-fiction has appeared in Catapult Magazine, Longleaf Review, Peach Magazine, Autofocus Lit, Anti-Heroin Chic Magazine, and The Hypocrite Reader. His fiction has been featured in Identity Theory, Timber Journal, X-Ray Lit, Gone Lawn, Knight’s Library Magazine, Funicular, and Sortes. He is obtaining an MFA in creative writing at Randolph College in Virginia. He tweets and instagrams @mordecaipmartin and blogs at http://www.mordecaimartin.net.