Page 13 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 21

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7
C
harles
— J
ew ish
S
hort
S
tory
W
riters
How has this affected the short story? T o answer this question
I think it would be be well to look back for a few moments
and consider what the Jewish short story is.
It began, of course, as has been pointed out very often, with
the Bible. T h e Bible is full of short stories. The Book of Ruth
is a long short story. So is Esther. Joseph’s encounter with
Potiphar’s wife is a short story—and a very modern one too!
Coming down through the centuries we find that the Jewish
way of Talmudic teaching has always used the short story as a
kind of “learning without tears” method of instruction. The
earlier Jewish sages may have used it with a slight feeling of
condescension perhaps, a feeling that they were sugaring the
hard core, the real stuff of what they wished to impart by doing
this; but they did it with their usual good sense and marvellous
understanding of human psychology (antedating incidentally
the educational ideas of our time by centuries). They used
stories in order to teach and they went on using them; though
never, I imagine, without just a trace of that condescension
which still lingers to this day.
Ordinary Jews, like ordinary men everywhere, have always
loved stories. In the 16th century the
bova buch
and the
maase
buch,
two collections of tales, were enormously popular. But—
again the distinction must be made—perhaps not with our truly
learned and educated men. Their attitude towards “the story”
was still a very slightly scornful one. I think that much of the
hostility towards our present day Jewish imaginative writers
springs from precisely that inherited slight contempt of the
academic minds of our rabbis and sages towards the use of
“art,” of fiction (in its broadest sense) for the dissemination of
ideas. It was this very attitude which led, in the 16th century
and with the invention of printing, to stories of that time being
printed in Yiddish, this being the “kitchen language” mostly
used by women. Women, then as now, preferred a good story
to a philosophical essay. So stories were printed in Yiddish, the
inferior language, for women, the inferior creatures. The so to
speak, woman’s magazine of that day, the famous
Tsenna
Urenna,
was printed in Yiddish. So were many stories adapted
and translated from western literature. T h e rather charming
irony about this state of affairs, which I must say pleases me
very much, is that it was partly through the popularity of these
stories with women that the Yiddish language was preserved
and lived to be used in the creation of one of our greatest
literary glories, the 19th century golden age of Yiddish writing.
It was to some extent through
fiction
that Yiddish made its way
from the kitchen to the study. One can imagine—and I confess
I find the picture an enchanting one—the Jewish housewife
of that time poring over the stories in the then equivalent of