Illuminating the dark side of Yiddish

Miron seems to be trying to remove from Shalom Aleichem the mantle of the simple Jewish storyteller, in which the latter so loved to deck himself

By Matan Hermoni

Haaretz

Kislev 29, 5765

"Hatsad haafel betzhoko shel Shalom Aleichem: Al hashivuta shel retsinut beyahas leyiddish ulesifruta" ("The Dark Side of Shalom Aleichem's Laughter: And Other Essays on the Importance of Being Earnest About Yiddish and its Literature") by Dan Miron, Am Oved, 320 pages, NIS 89

In the story "The Man from Buenos Aires" from Shalom Aleichem's train stories, a stranger tells the tale of how he became wealthy to his neighbor in a train compartment, who is the first-person narrator. At the end of the story the narrator asks the traveler what business he is in. The man from Buenos Aires, who has accumulated a great deal of wealth from trafficking in women - a detail that the reader has already figured out for himself even though it has not been stated explicitly - tells the naive narrator, who is perhaps only pretending to be naive: "Not citrons, my friend, not citrons."

The reply of the man from Buenos Aires to his fellow traveler on the train, who prefers only to see the explicit and to turn his gaze away from the cover, expresses the basic problematic aspect of the Hebrew reader's attitude toward Yiddish literature: Whereas Hebrew literature has acquired the status of a high, national literature, a literature that stood at the cradle of the Zionist project, Yiddish literature has been perceived as one that operates by virtue of a popular, inferior tradition that is written in the formulas of the servants' novel, the schund, written by Meir Shaikevitch and other authors in the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th.

In his new book, "The Dark Side of Shalom Aleichem," Dan Miron, one of the most important literary scholars in Israel, shows that Yiddish literature does not only concern itself with citrons, not only with nonthreatening appearances and not only with the comic and the sentimental - but also with the dark, underground forces that impel great literature as such.

In this book Miron brings together a selection of essays in the area of Yiddish that were written beginning in 1982, among them the essay "Between Two Homes" on the split, Yiddish-Hebrew world of Zalman Schneour, which was originally appended to the Yiddish novel "The People of Shklov"; the essay "Fears of All the Days of the Year" on Yehoshua Perla's "Everyday Jews"; and the essay "The Peeling of the Soft Pit," on the "Yash" novels of Jacob Glattstein.

In the only essay that has been published for the first time in this book, the title essay, Miron completes the processes of the revision that has occurred in his perception of the place of Yiddish literature within Jewish literature as a whole, a perception whose beginnings can be found in some of the other texts in the book.

According to Miron, Shalom Aleichem embodies the diametric opposite of the popular image that has clung to him, the image of a good-natured comedian, "a living bone from the people, a kind of essence from the people," as Y.H. Brenner wrote in his article eulogizing the great Yiddish writer. Shalom Aleichem's artistic world, as presented by Miron in the essay, is a world in which the motivating forces seem to be Dostoyevskian (or, alternatively, Freudian): a boy who rejoices in his father's death and the anarchy that prevails after the destruction of the old world in "Motl the Son of Peysi the Cantor," or a father who with his own hands leads his daughter to commit suicide in "Tevye the Milkman," whose character, as Miron analyzes it in the new essay, is so very different from the one played by, among others, Chaim Topol in the film adaptation of "A Fiddler on the Roof" - a kind of harmless, Yiddish Salah Shabati or Everyman.

In order to understand the depth of the change in Miron's perception of Shalom Aleichem, it is necessary to see how he presents the figure of Tevye in 1970, in his book "Shalom Aleichem - Essays." There, Tevye is presented as someone who "though he had taken a heavy beating from the disasters that have befallen him, has repelled the blows as though they had not penetrated to some internal entity inside him, in accordance with which, for the most part, his identity is embodied for us as a comic hero, despite everything." At that time, Miron did not come out explicitly against the perception of Shalom Aleichem that prevailed in Hebrew culture. Just as the disasters that befell Tevye did not succeed in penetrating the inner entity within him, they, it would seem, did not succeed in exploding some inner essence in the Hebrew reader who could see Tevye the Milkman only as a popular, amusing and good-hearted character.

Now Miron is attempting to take apart that "inner entity" inside Tevye and put it back together again, just as he does for other of Shalom Aleichem's characters as well. Miron shows the obverse side of Tevye, who in "The Dark Side of Shalom Aleichem's Laughter" is not a comic hero at all. Miron's fascinating analysis shows Tevye as a person who has destructive urges, for whom the character of the popular fool is just a masquerade. To a large extent, in the same way, the character of the popular storyteller is no more than a disguise to tease the reader.

In effect, it seems that Miron is trying to take from Shalom Aleichem the mantle of the simple Jewish storyteller, in which the latter so loved to deck himself. In the short poem "Inscription on My Tombstone," which is appended to the translation of his autobiographical novel "Fun'm yarid" ("The Great Fair"), Shalom Aleichem described himself as a "a simple Jew who wrote Jewish to delight." Miron shows not only that Shalom Aleichem was not a simple Jew at all, but also that "Jewish" - Yiddish - was not destined only to delight.

But diverting attention to the dark side in the works of Shalom Aleichem serves Miron as only part of a broader process, which attempts to re-examine the role of Yiddish and its culture within Jewish culture. Not as a language that was destined to give birth from within to a new Hebrew literature, as Dov Sadan argued in "Avnei Bedek," one of the cornerstones of literary criticism in Hebrew, but rather as a language destined to make the voice of a culture heard, and which was considered inferior as compared to the elitist Hebrew culture, the national language that had taken on flesh and sinew. In this, Miron in effect carries on a trend that began in the previous decade in the study of Hebrew literature, which examines the subversive potential of writing in Yiddish.

This potential has been examined in various ways by Chana Kronfeld in 1993 in "On the Margins of Modernism: Decentering Literary Dynamics" and Iris Parush who, in her 2001 book "Nashim korot; Yitronah shel shuliut" ("Reading Jewish Women"), presented the phenomenon of the reading of popular novels in Yiddish as a subversive-feminist act that shaped a Yiddish-female world as an alternative to the Hebrew-male world.

Through his attention to Shalom Aleichem, who perhaps more than any other writer symbolizes Yiddish culture and its literature, Dan Miron attempts to expand this discussion, and it is not by chance that he turns to Giles Deleuze and Felix Guattari. Miron proposes a kind of development of Deleuze and Guattari's theory of minor literature, i.e., literature in a language that is placed in an inferior position within the minority to which it belongs. Thus the oeuvre of Shalom Aleichem, which is written in Yiddish, can challenge the way the world is run, as well as the institutions of Jewish society, both traditional and national.

At the beginning of the book Miron writes in a quasi-confessional mode of his love for Shalom Aleichem: "In my eyes," writes Miron, he "is the greatest of Jewish writers alongside Franz Kafka, and the one who has succeeded more than any other Jewish writer not only in exploiting the comic gap between the modern Jew and the simple Eastern European Jew, but also to eradicate it."

Beyond the fact that the mention of Kafka on the same level as Shalom Aleichem seems almost inevitable, in light of Miron's invocation of Deleuze and Guattari, consideration must be given to another matter that is implied by this. As the greatest Jewish writer in addition to Kafka, in Miron's opinion Shalom Aleichem is greater than any other writer whose works he has researched - greater than S. Yizhar, greater than Gnessin, greater than Mendele and greater even than S.Y. Agnon.

Miron's statement - in which there appears to be something of a display of modesty ("In my eyes") or apology that is directed to his reader, the Hebrew reader - necessitates to a large extent the examination of this essay in a broader context. In other words, it is impossible to read this essay only as an essay on the world of Shalom Aleichem. It has to be read as an essay by Dan Miron on the world of Shalom Aleichem, in which he re-evaluates the status of Shalom Aleichem in Jewish literature. That is, it is necessary to examine in what way the new essay connects with the totality of Miron's historiography.

The interpretation that Miron gives of the artistic world of Shalom Aleichem, a world of anarchy, the breaking of preconceptions and the shattering of taboos, necessarily places this world in juxtaposition to the world of Hebrew literature. And the world of Hebrew literature within the totality of the 50 years of Miron's study of Hebrew literature, and in particular as it emerges from in his monumental 1983 study "When Loners Come Together," is quite different from the nihilist and anarchic world presented in "The Dark Side of Shalom Aleichem." Yiddish literature, as it is represented by Shalom Aleichem, undermined the pillars of society, whereas Hebrew literature, especially as it emerges from "When Loners Come Together," is a literature that established a national-historical social order and narrative.

It is impossible to describe the social climate of the Jewish world at the turn of the last century without discussing the place of Yiddish. However, within Hebrew culture, Yiddish and its culture are perceived, for the most part, as a language and a literature that have remained outside the national camp, never mind outside the boundaries of the literature that accompanies the project of the national revival. Therefore Yiddish literature did not have a place within the borders of the Hebrew literary republic, as Miron defined it in "When Loners Come Together."

Now it appears that Miron is undertaking a revision of the definition of the borders of the Hebrew literary public, to the shaping of which he himself had contributed. As noted, he has been dealing with Yiddish literature for several decades now. However, it seems to me that this placement of it as a minor and subversive literature is what expands the boundaries of the Hebrew literary republic. Moreover, it redefines its realm: a major Hebrew mainstream and working against it the minor stream (with Deleuze and Guattari's determination that a great literature can only be a minor literature reverberating in the background) of Yiddish literature, lead by Shalom Rabinowitz - Shalom Aleichem - who, according to Miron, is the greatest Jewish writer, alongside Kafka.

And one final observation: Miron dedicates the essay to Benjamin Harshav with the words "il migli or fabbro," with which T.S. Eliot dedicated "The Wasteland" to Ezra Pound, and which mean "the most skilled artisan." Both Harshav and Miron, who are among the greatest researchers of Hebrew literature, are now at universities in America, the former at Yale and the latter at Columbia. Both of them devote a considerable portion of their research and publications to Yiddish literature no less than to Hebrew literature. It seems to me that this is more than a coincidence. It is possible that it is in America that the ground is riper for bilingual, Yiddish-Hebrew research - or perhaps it is Harshav and Miron who are taking care, despite everything, that Yiddish will not trespass on Hebrew.



Matan Hermoni is writing a master's thesis in the literature department at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.