Page 47 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 21

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B y
o l
i p t z i n
c e n t u r y
ago, in 1863, the Yiddish novel began its rise as
a significant cultural force in modern Jewish life. In that
year the Hebrew writer Sholem Yacob Abramovitch published
his first Yiddish narrative
Dos Kleine Menshele
(The Little
Man). In order not to jeopardize his growing reputation as a
Hebrew essayist, he had this novel published under the pseudo-
nym of Mendele Mocher Sforim, a mythical bookseller and
peddler of religious wares.
It is true that Yiddish fiction had already experienced cen-
turies of development and decline before Mendele appeared
on the scene. Verse narratives flourished as early as the fifteenth
and sixteenth centuries. The best of the Old Yiddish romances,
of 1507 by Eliahu Bakhur (1469-1549), retained
its popularity down the generations, especially in its prose
transformation as the
Indeed, it was so much in
vogue that the expression Bovo-Maase or Bobo-Maase came to
designate not only this heroic tale of the wise and God-fearing
Sir Bovo, but any adventure story that verged on the incredible.
Since “bobo” is also the Yiddish word for grandmother, the
expression has come to connote a grandmother’s tale or old
wives’ tale.
For the Middle Yiddish period the finest surviving narratives
are those told by the Hassidic Rabbi Nachman Bratslaver (1772־
1810). These have found readers in every generation. They
have been translated into the principal European tongues and
are still reprinted in new editions. Indeed, the translation into
German by Martin Buber sparked the neo-Hassidic revival in
Central Europe.
The most important direct forerunner of Mendele, however,
was Isaac Meir Dick of Vilna (1814-1893), who initiated the
publication of Yiddish stories on a grand scale. Dick introduced
into Yiddish literature the sentimental novel, the realistic novel,
and the historical novel. His main objective was to teach ethical
conduct and to broaden the intellectual horizon of the common
man by feeding him maxims and information through excit-
ing tales and anecdotes. In the decade before Mendele’s ap-
pearance, more than one hundred thousand copies of Dick’s