Page 14 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 21

Basic HTML Version

J
e w i s h
B
o o k
A
n n u a l
8
Woman’s Own
and finding (probably to her amusement) that
her husband—like many a modern husband—was furtively read-
ing it behind her back!
The Golden Age of Yiddish Wri ting
I have mentioned the 19th century as the golden age for
Yiddish stories. And of course it was! The three greatest classic
writers of the time were, as we all know, Mendele Mocher
Sforim, Shalom Aleichem and Peretz; though there were many
others. Of these three, while Shalom Aleichem is far and away
the most popular and best known, to my mind Mendele Mocher
Sforim is perhaps the greatest. His novels are of that loose kind
we generally call picaresque and are in effect linked together
short stories. He was a decidedly more bitter observer of Jewish
life than Shalom Aleichem, more of a satirist, more impatient
with our racial shortcomings. He d idn’t hesitate to criticise,
sometimes in very strong terms, the Jewish life he knew. T h e
rich get it pretty hot from him; so do certain of the more
narrowly orthodox. It is interesting to know—and I think some
of the critics of what has been called the “new wave” of Anglo-
Jewish writers may do well to reflect on this fact—that Mendele
Mocher Sforim, our greatest Yiddish writer, a man who has
been compared with Cervantes and even Chaucer, was so furi-
ously attacked by Jewish readers on the publication of one of
his books that he had to leave the town he was living in and
settle elsewhere.
Shalom Aleichem is of course everybody’s darling. When we
look back on life in “der heim” it is through his eyes that we
see it. When he says something about Jewish nature as it was
then, although it may hardly apply now, something in us re-
sponds with passionate nostalgia to his vision and we long for
it to be true of us now, even delude ourselves that it still applies
today. When he says for instance: “Look at these boys who
haven’t got a pair of trousers to their name and still they want
to study. Ask them, ‘What are you studying? Why are you
studying?’ They can’t tell you. It’s their nature . .
When he
says this, though we know very well that study for its own
sake is no longer a salient feature of our Jewish lives, yet we
long to believe it is so.
But Shalom Aleichem, were he alive today, would not be so
sentimental. I don’t think it is generally realised just how tough
and modern a writer he was. In the story called “H ode l” for
instance, Hodel, who is Tevye the m ilkman’s daughter, decides
without asking her father’s permission (and what could be more
modern than that?) to marry . . . not the rich man suggested
by the marriage broker, but the poor, young student with Left