Editor Ezra Glinter has gone deep into an old mine, exploring its many abandoned tributaries and mineshafts, and he has come up with wheelbarrows full of glittering gold. The old mine, in this case, consisted of the back issues of New York’s famous Yiddish Forward newspaper – more than a century’s worth of ephemeral daily and then weekly papers preserved on microfilm.
“The stories now in this book were nestled amid world news, the Bintel Briv advice column, reports on labour and union politics, comics, recipes, movie reviews and advertisements for everything from Ex-Lax to grand pianos,” he writes.
The process of mining these stories must have been extremely tedious and time-consuming, but Glinter, in a preface, speaks chiefly of the rewards. “One of the great joys of putting together this collection was the opportunity to unearth writing that may never have been read by anyone ever again, and to give it new life in a new language,” he notes.
Have I Got A Story For You presents 42 stories, originally published in Yiddish and translated into English for the first time. The authors include some of the most acclaimed Yiddish scribes of all time, such as Nobel Prize laureate Isaac Bashevis Singer, his brother Israel Joshua Singer, Chaim Grade, Sholem Asch and even Abraham Cahan – the famed populist editor of the Forward who yet found time to pen a bestselling novel and many short stories of his own. Many lesser-known but no less talented writers are also represented, including a rich and balancing assortment of women writers whose stories Glinter has seemingly rescued from oblivion.
Before we speak further of the stories, we must comment on the excellent manner in which they are presented. The content is divided thematically into five sections: Immigration and Its Discontents, Modern Times, World on Fire, The Old Country and New Horizons, each introduced with a short preface giving social and historical context minus any overly intellectual blather. Each author is then introduced with a biographical preface that is likewise clear and insightful. These enable us to appreciate the original context of the stories and to imagine what it was like to read them on the day they first appeared.
The first and one of the earliest stories in the collection is Golde’s Lament, by Rokhl Brokhes, which dates from 1907. The plot takes place completely in the Old Country and focuses on a wife’s jealousy when her husband, out of financial necessity, accepts 20 rubles from a wealthy woman to assist her on a journey. Brokhes perfectly captures the wife’s silent torment which climaxes in a sort of emotional breakdown on the evening before the journey.
A similar theme is explored in Friends, a 1912 story by Hersh Dovid Nomberg about a man who was convinced that his wife had “hidden her beauty just for the man she had chosen. The graceful lines of her body, the delicate neck, the round, beautifully shaped arms that seemed made to embrace – all of it was a secret revealed to him little by little, a bookful of poetry and brilliance that he leafed through page by page, drawing new enchantment from it.” However, after his wife dies, he discovers and comes to accept the fact that his best friend’s love for his wife was as deep as his own.
Themes of war are also explored, as in Sholem Asch’s 1914 tale The Jewish Soldier about a Russian Jew who takes up arms for his homeland, even while knowing many Jewish soldiers were in the opposing Austrian army. While some of the stories in the collection are more like sketches, this one has a full classical structure with a rousing tragic-ironic ending that well reflects the mood of the times.
Abraham Cahan acted as a mother hen to his writers, and often went on trips to eastern Europe and the Pale of Settlement to meet and sign them. He utilized many American writers as well, even one who lived for a time in Toronto, Sarah Hamer-Jacklyn.
Author B. Kovner – a pseudonym that Cahan invented – was a gifted humorist whose stories, like many others in the collection, were set in New York’s teeming Lower East Side. Kovner’s featured a Jewish immigrant couple with young kids. In one piece, Yente and Mendel go in search of a new apartment:
“On Sixth Street we found three rooms with two windows, on the fifth floor. The toilet was in the yard and the wash lines were on the roof. We inquired by the landlord in his rear dwelling.
“The landlord asked what kind of landsman I was.
“I said, ‘A Polish one.’
“He said, ‘It pains me greatly, but I do not accept any Poles because Poles are not fine people.’
“I said, ‘Much better people than you Litvaks!’
“He said, ‘There is no people finer than Litvaks’…
“Yente gave me a jab. ‘Come, Mendel. May he burn down with his house.’”
Many of the authors were new to me and their stories came as revelations. The translations, by a crop of nearly two dozen translators, seem uniformly excellent.
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A Calendar of Northern Fables: John T. Syrtash has produced his first work of fiction, a book of short stories titled A Calendar of Northern Fables. The stories focus on religious Jews in Toronto and the northern suburb of “Hillthorn,” caught in a series of humorous foibles. Many of the stories are centered around the Jewish holidays.
The Man Who Couldn’t Sin, the first piece in the collection, describes a much-loved pharmacist named Mendel, who feels compelled to sin before Yom Kippur strictly for the sake of heaven, so that he can ask for forgiveness. Syrtash has a fine sense of humour and a surefooted way of telling a story