Page 71 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 18

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S1LBERSCHLAG — PROGENITORS OF HEBREW LITERATURE
63
the typical fate of the immigrant in the New World; he managed
to starve or nearly starve as peddler, bookkeeper, restaurateur,
editor,
Melammed.
Had he remained in Russia, he would have
probably suffered total oblivion. His poetic talents rarely rose
above the jingle, his linguistic abilities rarely violated conservative
patterns. But his genuine flair for satire was given full scope in
this country. And it earned him a secure place in the history of
Hebrew letters in America. Already his contemporaries daubed
him—in imitation of 2 Samuel 23.7—“sweet satirist of Israel.” And
the sobriquet was richly deserved.
Elegy preceded satire in the development of Gerson Rosenzweig.
The needle trade and the trade of the peddler elicited lachrymose
effusions from his pen. As poetry they were dull, ineffective, still-
born: not a memorable line in innumerable stanzas. But there is,
even today, an historical interest in his interminable verses
which praise America and flail American Jewry: the land of
plenty and the land of freedom merely accentuates the meagre
accomplishments of the Jewish spirit; factionalism is a curse, faith
is a business; and the word America in Hebrew spelling
—Ami-
Reka—
connotes: my people is a hollow people.1Thus Rosenzweig
stumbled—through a fortuitous accident of language on the
haunting symbol of destitution and desiccation which T . S. Eliot
discovered for modern poetry: “The Hollow Men.”
In prose-parodies he attained literary stature. His
Talmud
Yankai
(Yankee Talmud) which appeared in book form in 1907
made a genuine contribution to the unabundant treasury of
Hebrew humor. This mock-talmudic genre enjoyed popularity
for the past six hundred years—since Kalonymos ben Kalonymos
wrote his
Masseket Purim
(Purim Treatise) in the first half of
the fourteenth century. It reached its heyday in the latter half of
the nineteenth century.2 It was then that Jewish intellectuals,
former alumni of talmudic academies, developed their favorite
verbal sport: savage ridicule of the intricacies of talmudic dis-
cussion. The
Beraitot de-Rabbi Yizhak
(Beraitot of R. Isaac) which
were fathered by the popular Hebrew poet, Dr. Isaac Kaminer
(1834-1901), must have made an impression on Rosenzweig. Cer-
tainly their style and their diction influenced the Yankee Talmud.
“It is taught: there are four kinds of writers—he who speaks little
and says much is wise; he who speaks much and says little is
the florid kind; he who speaks much and does not say anything
is the preaching kind; he who does not speak at all and says
much is the one who knows how to keep silence in days of evil.”
1 Playing with another fanciful derivation of America from the Hebrew
root
marak
—cleanse, he asks: why is this country called America? Because
it cleanses the sins of the people. The impure become pure, the disqualified
become people of quality.
2 It is still a favorite. M. J. Bar On castigates political and social life
in Israel in
Masseket Yam im Tob im
(Holiday Treatise)—part and parcel
of a satirical Israeli Talmud. It has been recently published in Tel Aviv.