Page 93 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 24

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and his respect for the beauty of Jewish tradition. Here we find
a monument to a life that even then, to a great extent, was the
From Mendele’s works we know the Jewish life of his era,
especially of his younger years, in all its aspects. We know how a
poor or well-to-do Jewish home looked; we are there on week
days and on the princely Sabbath. We are thoroughly acquainted
with all the pitiful occupations and the curse of unemployment.
We walk around the marketplace in search of a little bargain.
We are in the workshops o f the artisans, the tailors and the
smiths. We know how it felt to study in the
bes medrash,
we listen to the idle talk about politics and about prominent
Jews that took place behind the stove. We perspire in the baths
on the upper bench, and we engage in convivial conversation at
a Sabbath-end repast, or we just sing Sabbath-eve songs. The
gross and the idyllic, the half tragic and the comic are inter­
woven in a restricted life from which there nevertheless emanates
a tender humanness.
Because of this great vista and Mendele’s achievements in the
areas of language and style, he is the first classical writer of the
new Yiddish literature, which the old writer was fortunate enough
to see and bless in full flower during the quarter century between
1888-1915. In the history of Yiddish literature Mendele is the
dominant figure of the last third of the 19th century. This was
recognized by those who wanted to oppose him and pursue other
directions, and certainly by those who consciously or unconscious­
ly followed in his footsteps. In those days the mainstream of
Yiddish literature was realism which breathed Jewishness. Men­
dele established literary discipline and responsibility, and also
introduced a kind of family relationship between writer and
reader. Mendele Mocher Sforim, the pseudonym and the mask,
was the first beloved figure among the East European readers.
Later Sholem Aleichem, Peretz and others joined this select group.
In real life Mendele both adhered to and deviated from his
literary image. He was tall and thin, with myopic yet sharp eyes,
a high forehead, thick grey hair, a barely noticeable smile on his
thin lips and a mobile nose which revealed his moods. He was
a ubiquitous conversationalist and a marvelous story teller. In
Odessa, Bialik, Sholem Aleichem, Ben-Ami and Ravnitsky clung
to him, and he was respected by Ahad Haam and by Simon
Dubnov. They heard his opinions with deference although he
was not involved in political groupings or rivalries. He abhorred
extreme opinions and had only satiric remarks for the struggle
between Yiddish and Hebrew. “ The Jewish nose must breathe
through both nostrils” was one of his sayings. About the cultural
value of Russian for Jews he once said, “That’s breathing through
the thumb.”