Page 66 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 24

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58
J
e w i s h
B
o o k
A
n n u a l
A Romantic Knight of Yiddish
A. A. Roback’s most characteristic contributions in the Jewish
realm were made to Yiddish, the language and the literature. In
the words of Moshe Starkman, Roback was a
“romantisher ritter
fun mameh loshn”
a romantic knight of Yiddish, a tireless
fighter against the psychology of
untergangism.
In this field
more than any other, the epitaph Theodor Herzl once suggested
for himself, “ He had too good an opinion of the Jews,” applies
to A. A. Roback as well. The purpose of his
Curiosities of Yiddish
Literature
(1933) was “ to offset the terrible injustice done to ten
or more million Jews . . . to do something toward gaining a
better understanding of the Jewish folk spirit.” This omnium-
gatherum is a veritable mine of “ oddities and quiddities” which
includes the syllabus of a course in Yiddish literature Roback
offered in the Massachusetts Division of University Extension
from 1930 to 1932—a typical Roback “ first.” His major work in
this field is
The Story of Yiddish Literature,
published in 1939/40
by the American Branch of YIVO. (Roback later printed material
eliminated from this edition in a supplementary pamphlet.) In
the first book of its kind in English since Leo Wiener’s
History
of Yiddish Literature in the 19th Century,
Roback devotes 58
pages to Mendele, Sholem Aleikhem, and Peretz, and 270 to
the contemporary scene. He felt that the giants of the “ golden
age” of Yiddish literature had been adequately covered in Eng­
lish elsewhere, including his own book
I. L. Peretz: Psychologist
of Literature
(1935), whereas more recent writers were unde­
servedly neglected.
Characteristically,
The Story
was one of several books by
Roback that led to endless epilogues in the form of
Streit-
schriften
like
Reviling is Not Reviewing
and a Yiddish pamphlet
called
Kritik un Kritzenish
(“Gritting as Greeting” ). Ever a
rationalist and possessed of a Jew’s burning sense of justice,
Roback frequently felt called upon to undertake the thankless
task of polemicizing with reviewers, including young men fresh
out of graduate school who were eager to win their critical spurs
by attacking those outside the “ Establishment.” In this instance,
the man who was criticized for excessive zeal, for being an
apologist and propagandist, for “ sins” of both commission and
omission, had occasion to lash out at the provincial indifference
and egotism in Yiddish-speaking circles. In his booklet
Psychol­
ogy Through Yiddish Literature,
subtitled
Apologia Pro Vita
Yiddicia,
he replied to the “ Blitzcritique” o f men like S. Niger
and A. Mukdoni and claimed he had “ learned more about
human nature in the months following the publication of
The
Story of Yiddish Literature
than in the four years I spent in the