Avraham Novershtern, Kan gar ha’am hayehudi: sifrut yidish be’artsot habrit [Here Dwells the Jewish People: A Century of American Yiddish Literature] Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 2015. 747 pp. ISBN: 978-965-493-822-8.
The phenomenon of secular Yiddish literature, beginning in the late nineteenth century, is an immensely important part of the story of Jewish cultural creativity in modern times. By the early twenty-first century, this phenomenon is largely a memory. For contemporary Jews, other than those who live in Hasidic enclaves which cultivate Yiddish as a means of communal solidarity, Yiddish constitutes a memory to be revisited and utilized in a post-vernacular context. The thousands of men and women, poets, novelists, essayists, and critics, who together produced , for a brief century, a formidable body of artistic and literary creativity in Yiddish have disappeared from the consciousness of contemporary Jews save for those, like Isaac Bashevis Singer, who have been translated into other languages and are known by their translations. The relatively small community of several thousand academics and Yiddish cultural activists able to read and communicate in secular Yiddish and to access its treasures in the original language do not seem to constitute a sufficient critical mass that will markedly change this situation.
This is what makes Avraham Novershtern’s massive Hebrew volume an event of great cultural importance for all those for whom no aspect of Jewish cultural creativity should be alien. From his position as Professor of Yiddish at the Hebrew University, Novershtern has spent decades carefully reading and researching Yiddish literature, and the present volume marks the masterful culmination of his efforts. Novershtern’s book concentrates on the American center of Yiddish literature while always requiring the reader to understand that the true story of the achievement of American Yiddish literature can be appreciated only by comparing America with the two other great centers of Yiddish cultural creativity in the twentieth century–Poland and the Soviet Union. In Poland, however, that creativity was cruelly cut off by the extermination of European Jewry during the Holocaust. The promise of Yiddish cultural continuity in the Soviet Union as well was artificially cut off by Stalinist policies and purges.
That left America as the one major center to enjoy unimpeded by external forces the rise of secular Yiddish culture (from the late nineteenth to the early twentieth century, culminating in the 1920s) and its subsequent decline (from mid-twentieth century on). For that reason alone, America would have been important for the story of Yiddish literature. Beyond that, however, Novershtern emphasizes that America was the place where Yiddish theater and journalism flourished earlier and more lastingly than anywhere else and that cultural influences between Europe and America travelled in both directions.
The length of Novershtern’s book is necessary for several reasons. One of them is that he has a really complex story to tell and this story has only been partially told in previous literary criticism and scholarship in Yiddish, English, and Hebrew. Secondly, he is writing in Hebrew for a Hebrew-reading audience. Israel is the place where the struggle for the primacy of the Hebrew language as the everyday language of the Jewish people resulted in the “othering” of Yiddish. For the Hebrew readers of Israel, heirs to this “othering,” Novershtern attempts to convey the immense cultural importance of American Jewry in general and of Yiddish creativity in America in particular through both historical reconstruction and artistic presentation. Thus for every poet and novelist he analyzes, Novershtern offers not merely copious and extensive citations in the original Yiddish. Each citation is offered in a Hebrew translation that is not merely accurate, but also displays great artistic merit.
The book begins with several general chapters that enable the reader to understand the major trends of the story in all its complexity. Then readers are treated to studies of the works of a number of individual poets and novelists, with the bulk of the attention given to poets (both A. Leyeles and Yankev Glatstein merit two chapters apiece). While obviously not every writer of merit received that sort of extended attention (the book was certainly not conceived as an encyclopedia) enough has been said by Novershtern to give the discerning reader a well-planned entrée into the world of the authors and critics and the issues they confronted. The lengthy and detailed timeline included at the end of the book (699-720) is one of the book’s most valuable features, helping the reader see the forest as well as the individual trees.
As has been said, Here Dwells the Jewish People is a work of Israeli scholarship in Hebrew meant to satisfy the needs of the Israeli academic community. In its breadth and scope, there is no exact equivalent in English but it is my hope that it will be translated speedily for the benefit of an English-speaking reading public that will certainly greatly appreciate this important contribution to our knowledge of Jewish cultural creativity in North America.