Page 152 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 50

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Lake Woebegon, enjoys a national radio audience, it is in no
small measure because of his appeal to a Paradise Lost. Thus
except among radicals and revivalists, traditional folksongs have
long been an endangered species here in America.
What is true for America at century’s end was equally true
at the turn of the prior century among the just-liberated Jewish
immigrant masses from Eastern Europe. Though their folk rep ­
ertoire already came buttressed by a secular ideology and mod­
ern means of production, the exponents of folk- and fake-lore
from the Old Country had to wage a pitched battle with the
purveyors of a new sound and sensibility emanating from Sec­
ond Avenue. In the end, it was the slapdash ideology of Yiddish
Vaudeville that prevailed — or at least that came to represent
what was truly American about the American Jewish experience.
The unsung heroes of that
and of their Pyrrhic
victory — are the subject of this essay.
The same Zionist weekly,
Der yid
(The Jew), that in its first
year of publication (1899) featured the memoirs of Mendele
the Bookseller, two new installments of the Tevye monologues,
more shtetl tales by I.L. Peretz, poems about mountains and
moonlight, the Psalmster and the Prophet, spring and Zion, and
a score of satiric feuilletons, topped off this romantic and re­
vivalist menu with a “folksong” about the alphabet by M.M.
Warshawsky. This last, published a few weeks before the first
publication in Yiddish of two authentic “folktales,” was proof
that the ideologies of cultural renewal were finally, at this late
date, willing to allow the value of the folk and its folklore. It
also showed how much more they invested in the
of Jewish folklore, of the shtetl, and of
itself, than
in preserving the “real thing.” Like Sholem Aleichem, the move­
ments vying for the soul of the Jewish masses defined folklore
not as some artifact
the folk, but as something created for
the sake of the folk.2
Everyone agreed that a national movement required its own
songs. Naftali Herz Imber’s
(“The Hope”, 1878) was
already to the Zionists what Ansky’s
Di shvue
(“The Oath,” 1901)
2. For much more on this subject, see Mark William Kiel, “A Twice Lost
Legacy: Ideology, Culture and the Pursuit o f Jewish Folklore in Russia until
Stalinization (1930-1931)” (Ph.D. diss., The Jewish Theological Seminary o f
America, 1991). O f especial relevance is chapter 2, “Bialik and the
Transformation o f Agadah into Folklore.”