It must have been a prodigious effort by editor Ezra Glinter, who looked through countless Yiddish Forward microfilms, going back more than 100 years, and came up with this superb collection of short fiction, “Have I Got a Story for You: More Than a Century of Fiction From the Forward.”
Unlike contemporary American newspapers, Yiddish papers, both here and in Europe, published fiction. Readers looked forward to the weekend editions, where they could find stories by their old favorite authors and newly emerging writers as well.
This variegated collection, which begins with 1907 and ends in 2015, includes contributions by 20 talented translators, including Glinter. Among them are many of the famous names in 20th century Yiddish belles lettres — Sholem Asch, David Bergelson, Avraham Reyzen, Israel Joshua Singer, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Chaim Grade. But even the lesser known names were familiar for decades to the loyal Forward audience.
Before us is a beautifully produced book, from the stunning, colorful cover, to the fine introductions by Ezra Glinter and novelist Dara Horn, and of course the lively fiction. The anthology begins with a story by Rokhl Brokhes, “Golde’s Lament,” published in 1907, about a woman who is tormented with jealousy because her husband has sailed to America with another woman posing as his wife. It concludes with a 2015 story, “Studies in Solfege,” by the recently retired Yiddish Forward editor, Boris Sandler, about — about which I’ll tell you later.
Even the clever title, “Have I Got a Story for You,” resonates with Yiddish braggadoccio.
First we read stories about the immigrant experience, including one by Abe Cahan himself, the guiding spirit of the Forward (known in Yiddish as the Forverts) from 1903 to 1946, and humorous sketches by B. Kovner who wrote for the paper for the nearly 70 years of his 100-year life — he lived from 1874 to 1974.
Some of the book’s most powerful pages, whose sheer force of imaginative and vivid prose overwhelms the reader, were written in Russia under wartime circumstances. Here we see gripping stories by Sholem Asch, David Bergelson, and I.J. Singer. Obviously, tales with such stress and suspense make New-York based fiction about collecting rent or a lovelorn seamstress pale by comparison.
It is also noteworthy that whereas stories by Yiddish masters like I.L. Peretz, Sholom Aleichem, and Avraham Reyzen invariably pertained to Jewish life, in this collection you will find almost no Jewish holidays, no shuls, no problems with Jewish practices. With one exception, there are no stories that are set in a synagogue, about kids studying in or playing hookey from a talmud Torah, no bar mitzvahs, no weddings. These subjects are not dealt with even in a negative way. They seem to be totally erased from the Forward.
Perhaps this is so because when these Jews were in their East European shtetls or cities, the holidays, the daily rhythm of Jewish life, was a central part of their existence. But in the United States, with many of the early immigrants not committed to Jewish observance, the secularly minded Yiddish writers now in the United States, writing for a socialist-leaning paper like the Forward, did not have Yiddishkeit at the forefront of their creative imagination.
Noteworthy too is that not one of the writers included in “Have I Got a Story for You” was born in the United States. You can understand that early in the 20th century, Yiddish writers would be European-born. But as the decades progressed toward the mid-20th century, you would have expected at least one American-born Yiddish writer to emerge. But none did. Also, if you look at the birth years of the contributing writers, you see that only one was born in the 1920s. None were born in the 1930s or 1940s. The two writers who were born in 1950/51 were Russians. This means that most of the writers who contributed to the Forward — or at least those selected for this anthology — were born before 1910.
In the now classic 1953 anthology “Treasury of Yiddish Stories,” edited by Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg, Chaim Grade’s story, “My Quarrel with Hirsch Rasseyner,” is the last selection. Born in 1910, 43 when the story was published, he was the book’s youngest author. And so it is curious to see that in this anthology, published in 2016 — 53 years later — that Chaim Grade still is among the youngest authors. There are only three younger than he — Yente Mash (1922), Mikhoel Felsenbaum (1951), and Boris Sandler (1950). Certainly the decimation of Jewry during the Holocaust and the repressive Stalinist regime in Russia had something to do with this gap.
(I should add, if only parenthetically, that in the magazine Afn Shvel, published by the League for Yiddish, you can read American-born Yiddish writers in their twenties and thirties, publishing both fiction and non-fiction.)
But there is one delightful linking of generations. Lyala Kaufman (1887-1964) has six short sketches in the book. During more than 30 years with the Forward, she wrote thousands of stories. She was the daughter of Sholom Aleichem and the mother of novelist Bel Kaufman, who died last year at 104, the last person on earth who knew Sholom Aleichem.
The only exception to the absence of Jewish institutions is in the masterful novella by Chaim Grade, “Grandfathers and Grandchildren.” Set in an old Vilna shul between the two World Wars, it tells of a group of old men whose children have assimilated. Their lives perk up when little boys come into the shul in the winter to warm up, and the old men start giving them private lessons. During summer the boys disappear, but the old men’s lives take on new meaning again when two yeshiva bokhers come into the shul to look for old texts and take on the oldsters as their students.
The last two stories in the anthology are by Russian Yiddish writers. Mikhoel Felsenbaum, who lives in Israel now, writes about a married Israeli Yiddish writer who goes to the Basel book fair, where he meets a beautiful woman and falls in love with her. In the last tale of the book, Boris Sandler focuses on a teenage boy who describes taking singing lessons from a girl just a year or so older than he. In addition to singing she introduces him to the Indian love guidebook, the Kama Sutra.
I have resisted quoting delectable lines from this anthology till now — but now I can’t resist.
The narrator’s teacher asks him if he knows what the Kama Sutra is. Since he doesn’t know, he says the first thing that comes into his head: “Of course. It’s a type of Japanese wrestling.”
Curt Leviant is the author of two recent novels, “King of Yiddish” and “Kafka’s Son.”