Working on a kind of sequel to Dear Layla Welcome to Palestine, I am imagining a character named Bella Levenshteyn, who in her twenties devotes herself to learning Yiddish, the language of her ancestors. At one point, she confides to Perry that she once went on a five-week reading binge of the essays, poems, articles, and reviews by Yankev Glatshteyn, the foremost U.S.Yiddish writer in the middle of the 20th century.
I’ve been reading several recent works of scholarship on that period, and found some stimulating provocations in Anita Norich’s work, Discovering Exile: Yiddish and Jewish American Culture during the Holocaust.
The following passages may inform, or work themselves—somehow— into my story.
People are quite familiar with the conventional label for the Nazi genocide of the Jews, “the Holocaust.” Norich considers the period well before that word assumed its ascendancy: “Under increasing pressure of news from the war front and silence from home, Yiddish writers re-imagined modernism, the Enlightenment, political engagement, literary conventions, and symbolic language. The destruction of European Jewry was called by its Yiddish name, khurbn, before it was known as the Holocaust, before the numbers of dead were revealed, even before the concentration camps were built. What Yiddish-speaking Jews meant by khurbn … was a long history of disasters into which the rise of Hitler, the Nuremberg Laws, Kristallnacht, and a host of other disastrous events could fit. The particularities of Nazism’s rise were not, at the time, perceived as unique, unparalleled, or apocalyptic by the people against whom they were directed.”
The poet H. Leyvik defended novelist Sholem Asch’s use of Christian imagery in many of his works. He “suggested that Jesus must be returned to his origins so that the world will recognize that Jesus hanging the cross is identical to the Jews who are hanging on the cross of the world, ceaselessly muttering, ‘God, God, why hast thou forsaken us?’”
Rokhl Auerbach commemorating I. L. Peretz, one of the founding fathers of Yiddish literature, in the immediate aftermath of World War II: “Every one of these Jews, in one way or another, looked death in the eyes hundreds of times and endured the most extraordinary things that human beings have ever endured on earth. Nearly every one of these Jews has remained without relatives or loved ones, entirely alone, compelled, regardless of age, to begin life anew today….. Today we must take the most important thing that [Peretz] possess and that shines through in all his works, in all their times: his love for Jew and man. Also his universalism and humanism, his pity, and even his Jewish pity.… Today we must seek only that which will strengthen us, help set us on our feet again. And in the rich shelves of Peretz’s library we will find such curatives.”
Yankev Glatshteyn’s predicament: “At this poem’s core is a recognition of everything that is now missing in the Jewish world: a sense of place, religion, a shared language, readers, an artistic project.” “He refuses the available political factions that were part of the Yiddish cultural world just as he refuses to embrace the spiritual, historical … ways of the Jews. He does not reject them in favor of something else, but neither can he simply accept them now. They seem at once inescapable, but also too easy, following predictable paths that no longer lead anywhere. Instead, he articulates the excruciating, inescapable bind that he and his contemporaries are in and his ambivalence about any imaginable ‘solution.”’
These Glatshteyn’s volumes look worthy of investigation: “The so-called Yash books are part novel, part memoir, part travelogue, part non-fiction exposition, and part apologia. They are transparently autobiographical, but they are also fragmented and indirect in their narration, panoramic in their depiction of characters and Polish Jewish life on the eve of its annihilation….”
The long road from poetic experimentation and risking irking your Yiddish readership to the work of responding to “the blood-stained face history has taken on today” [Albert Camus]: “The history of Yiddish poetry in this period is the story of modernist Yiddish writer after writer seemingly transforming his or her poetic form and content in response to then unfolding catastrophe, eschewing the modernist, individualist tones they had once heralded and pressing the need to write a poetry of consolation and mourning, giving voice to the millions who could no longer speak, in the language they would have used.”
This would be interesting to contrast with Liu Shao-Chi’s How To be a Good Communist —Yidishkayt = “a belief in the traditional ideal expressed through Jewish culture, in the traditional customs and signs of that culture, but translated into secular—generally socialist— and not divine terms.” Revisit also the Vietnamese Communist doctor Dang Thuy Tram’s Last Night I Dreamed of Peace: The Diary of Dang Thuy Tram.