Page 134 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 41

Basic HTML Version

Yiddish literature at the beginning o f the 1920’s; the small p ro ­
vincial town, its society and its fu tu re had been the subject o f
scores o f pieces, short and long, in the n ine teen th and early twen­
tieth century. From the tendentious maskilic satires like Dik’s
orkhim in Duratsheshok
(The visitors in Foolstown, 1872) and I.M.
(Jewish spring, 1880), th rough the
more subtle but no less biting satire o f Sh. Y. Abramovitsh
(including parts o f
Dos vintshfingerl
(The wishing ring, 1865,
Masoes Benyomen hashlishi
(Travels o f Benjamin the T h ird ,
1878, and o ther works) and Sholem Aleykhem (his series o f
Kasrilevke stories, for example), the shtetl had been the scene,
and often the main character, o f the “classical” period o f Yiddish
writers.7O f Bergelson’s contemporaries, Sholem Asch’s nostalgic
Dos shtetl
(The shtetl, 1905) and I.M. Vaysenberg’s parodic
A shtetl
(A shtetl, 1906) defined the paradigm o f
twentieth-century attitudes: the sentimental school o f nostalgic
recollection versus the realistic, naturalistic tendencies o f the
more innovative writers.
Bergelson’s own original response to the conven­
tion o f the shtetl genre is to downplay the factor tha t had been
central to previous works; as in
Nokh alemen,
the shtetl env iron­
ment and physical setting at most reflect and underscore the main
movement o f the novel. T he self-chosen isolation o f the main
character is echoed by the summer sleepiness o f Rakitne, whose
inhabitants live suspended lives o f quiet monotony; it was to
Rakitne that Khayim-Moyshe’s friend Meylekh re tu rn ed from
the city and quietly took his own life. While Bergelson was praised
by contemporary critics for the “accuracy” o f his portrayal o f
small-town Jewish life in this novel,
does not focus on tha t
life p er se. As in the au tho r ’s sho rter pieces o f fiction o f this
period , the languishing atmosphere o f the shtetl serves as an
analog o f the abstract oppressiveness and hopelessness tha t his
characters are forced to confront.
Bergelson’s most striking d ep a r tu re from trad ition
is the use of a shtetl setting with virtually no emphasis on social
7 For a discussion o f this topic, see D. Miron, “Der imazh fun shtetl:
batrakhtungen vegn klasishn imazh fun shtetl in der yidisher literatur,”
47 (forthcoming).