Page 91 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 24

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M
ark
— G
randfather
of
Y
iddish
L
iterature
88
and tragedy of Cervantes. Mendele only points out the comedy.
He ridicules life in an unreal world, ignorance, helplessness, and
limited horizons.
From the very outset, Mendele’s language was on a relatively
high level. His early years were spent in Byelorussia, in the area
of the Lithuanian dialect. His mature years were spent in the
Ukraine (Kamenetz, Berdichev, Zhitomir and later Odessa). In
his environment Ukrainian Yiddish was spoken, but he remem­
bered the language of his youth very well. Thus he became the
first Yiddish writer who not only aspired (there were such aspira­
tions before him) to write transdialectically but could actually
do so. By the 1870’s he had the conscious aim of perfecting his
language and style. He concentrated on the proper selection of
every word, phrase and idiom. He sought out the specifically
Yiddish words and expressions, and purged his language of every
contamination, o f every Slavic or German influence, of every
element of jargon. Just as Isaac Luria (Ari) had his
magid
who
taught him the secrets of the Torah—Mendele later explained—
so he was always attentive to his
magid,
the ordinary little Jew
who spoke to him.
He synthesized the language of the upper classes, that of the
scholars with that of the common people. The result was a rich
and pure language. He learned to imitate the language of his
various characters and created an amalgam of the different social
and geographic elements. Every component was of the people,
taken from the living language or from the earlier religious and
secular literature; but altogether it was the writer’s creation
which exalted, enriched, purified and at the same time restrained
and formed the Yiddish literary language. This linguistic achieve­
ment is no less important than the whole galaxy of realistic types
he created and the feeling of esteem and self respect he aroused
in the Yiddish reader. His disciples, the younger writers, learned
two things from their mentor: realistic description and the old-
new gemlike language in all the above-mentioned works.
Mendele liked to keep a manuscript in a drawer for a long
time, so that he could take it out occasionally to correct and
polish it. Even when a book was published, he still was not
finished with it. He would take it back to the workbench and
rework it. He was an artist, a perfectionist. Younger writers
were admonished to note three things: “ a piece of writing must
be honed, honed and honed.” He is said to have spent hours
finding the right word, and days on a few paragraphs. This was
unheard of in Yiddish literature. The result was majestically
constructed sentences, purity and richness of vocabulary, and
authentic artistry which gives no indication of the great effort
expended to achieve the desired result.