The recent deaths of Abraham Sutzkever and Inna Hecker Grade, the wife of Chaim Grade, might be taken as further evidence of the inevitable eclipse of Yiddish.
Sutzkever remained a mainstay of the tradition late into his long life, overseeing the publication of the periodical Di goldene keyt in Israel, and publishing excellent work of his own that was well translated.
Chaim Grade has been gone for more than 25 years, and the story of his widow’s management of his literary estate is a strange one. Upon Hecker Grade’s death this month in the Bronx, her two executors revealed a trove of manuscripts and other materials upon which she had sat, guardedly, rather than allow them to be properly edited and circulated as published texts.
It seems likely that some of Chaim Grade’s unpublished works will find their way into print and gain a new audience for a writer who is not nearly as well known as I.B. Singer or some of the major Yiddish poets.
Ironically, however, recent technological shifts have by far increased the availability of Yiddish books to the average Yiddish-reading buyer. The simplest form of access is the kind of book buying that would have once required a certain amount of sleuthing – say, a trip to the Strand Book Store in Manhattan – but now is served by Internet sites that connect buyers with bookstores across the United States.
It was through this method that I came to own a reasonably well-maintained copy of Melech Ravitch’s 1966 Yiddish translation of Franz Kafka’s The Trial. Aside from the pleasures of reading Kafka’s famous opening in Yiddish (“hot men im in ein sheynem frimorgn arestirt”), the text itself is a remarkable artifact. Published in New York City, with a few illustrations reminiscent of Ben Shahn, my edition was at one time in the collection at the educational department of the Knitgoods Workers Union on Broadway Avenue in New York. Its biographical note on Kafka tells readers that his Jewish name was Amschel, something English-language editions are not likely to bother with.
A more elaborate source for Yiddish books is the Massachusetts-based Yiddish Book Center, founded and run by ex-Montrealer Aaron Lansky, where a huge collection of Yiddish books is maintained. More recently, with funding from movie director Steven Spielberg, the centre has begun scanning its collection, so books are available for downloading and printing. Printing a 400-page novel is not necessarily an attractive option, but after finding a short children’s novel by Joseph Opatoshu unavailable for straightforward purchase, I printed its 30 pages. My homemade facsimile doesn’t have the charge of the Ravitch volume, with its Ladies’ Garment Workers heritage, but it’s done the job. Opatoshu, a native of Mlawa, north of Warsaw, is, like Grade, a giant among Yiddish novelists who is little known or read today.
His children’s story, coincidentally called Der Mishpet (The Trial), was originally printed in a Warsaw Yiddish journal and appeared in book form in 1952 from a Yiddish book publisher in Buenos Aires. Its availability as an online file allows readers to sneak free of the Yiddish canon and find their way to a forgotten text that represents aspects of the literary tradition that we no longer remember existed.
Opatoshu, in the biographical note included with his text, descended from what he called “forest Jews,” and his fiction often focused on the relationship between Jews and Poles in the countryside, whether this meant writing about horse thieves, or, in the case of Der Mishpet, children who ride, Tom Sawyerlike, on skiffs on the Vistula River. A noteworthy presence in the story are a colourful array of Polish words, most of them associated with the countryside, and Opatoshu’s tendency to describe Jewish characters as peasant-like, contrary to the stereotype often presented in contemporary literature of Polish-Jewish animosity and difference.
Even more surprising is Opatoshu’s use of motifs from Polish legend, including Princess Wanda, said to inhabit the Vistula River, and whose story is central to Polish national identity and pride. As it turns out, the trial mentioned in the story’s title is among storks, whom Opatoshu presents as a kind of tribe judging one of their own. Here, Poland’s national bird becomes key to what the author wants to convey to Yiddish-speaking children.
Upon discovering the trove of materials in the Grades’ Bronx apartment, Lansky was quoted as saying, “This is our thrilling moment in Yiddish literature, this is our Dead Sea Scrolls.” And so it may be, but similar kinds of recovery are in fact a part of the Yiddish everyday scene online.
Norman Ravvin is the chair of the Concordia University Institute for Canadian Jewish Studies.