Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction and Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel and post Colonial Asian Fiction, Yiddish Literature, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality historical novels are some of my Literary Interests

Sunday, December 22, 2013

"A Shtetl" by Isaac Meir Weissenberg (1906, 63 pages) - A classic Yiddish Work

The most important historical event of the last century was World War II. Central to an understanding of it and the world that came from it is an understanding of what happened to the Jews of Eastern Europe.  The holocaust was the greatest attack on the reading life the world has yet seen.  Never has there been a culture more respective of the reading life than that of Yiddish speakers.   

In Yiddish a shtetl refers to a small largely Jewish community.  

Included in the excellent anthology A Shtetl and other Yiddish Novellas edited by Ruth Wisse is an excellent overview of the origins of modern Yiddish literature.  I was fascinated to see that the short story was the form which first gained popularity.  Just like in Australia, Japan, and the USA the Yiddish short story blossomed along with the start of magazines aimed at the growing middle class of educated people who wanted stories about "real life" they could read in one setting.     

"A Shtetl" by Isaac Meir Weissenberg (1881 to 1938, Poland) is, according to Ruth Wisse, a leading 
authority in the field, an important classic of Yiddish literature.  Weissenberg, rather than romanticizing
the shtetl as many earlier and later writers did, tried to give a completely accurate worthy of Zola portrait 
of real life in the community.   He brilliantly portrays how organized crime begins to develop and its 
very ugly consequences for the community.  In one devastating scene, a casual word to a "fixer" 
about and old unpaid debt has the completely unwanted consequence of murder.   Three big  concerns
dominate the lives and thoughts of most of the residents of the shtetl, making a living, getting good
marriages for your children, and wondering what the Gentiles will do.  1906 in Poland was a period of 
great prejudice against Jews.  Vicious bands of Christian thugs, often Cossacks, would rampage through
Jewish communities, killing and destroying as they wished.  Weissenberg makes one such pogrom
come terrifyingly to life.   

There is a very comprehensive background article on the author here

There are five novellas in the collection from which this comes.  Here is the publisher's (Wayne State 
University Press) description

The five short novellas which comprise this anthology were written between 1890 and World War I. All share a common setting—the Eastern European Jewish town or shtetl, and all deal in different ways with a single topic—the Jewish confrontation with modernity.
The authors of these novellas are among the greatest masters of Yiddish prose. In their work, today's reader will discover a literary tradition of considerable scope, energy, and variety and will come face to face with an exceptionally memorable cast of characters and with a human community now irrevocably lost.

In her general introduction, Professor Wisse traces the development of modern Yiddish literature in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and describes the many shifts that took place between the Yiddish writers and the world about which they wrote. She also furnishes a brief introduction for each novella, giving the historical and biographical background and offering a critical interpretation of the work.

I think anyone with a serious interest in Eastern European literature would love this book.

Mel u 

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