Short Stories, Irish literature, Classics, Modern Fiction, Contemporary Literary Fiction, The Japanese Novel, Post Colonial Asian Fiction, The Legacy of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and quality Historical Novels are Among my Interests

Monday, December 11, 2017

“The Cafeteria” - A Short Story by Isaac Singer - December 28, 1968,in The New Yorker - translated from Yiddish

A Good Introduction to the History of The Yiddish Language

Obituary for Isaac Singer, from The New York Times

Isaac Singer was born in Poland in 1902 (some records reflect 1904),in 1935, concerned over Nazi Germany, which invaded Poland in 1939 and would have meant death in for him, he moved to New York City.  He continued to write books and novels in Yiddish.  In 1978 he was awarded The Nobel Prize for Literature.  Many now consider his Collected Short Stories his crowning achievement.  He was dedicated to preserving Yiddish cultural heritage in the face of the Holocaust in which six millions speakers of Yiddish died.  Here are his closing remarks in his 1978 Nobel Acceptance Speech.

“Yiddish has not yet said its last word. It contains treasures that have not been revealed to the eyes of the world. It was the tongue of martyrs and saints, of dreamers and Cabalists - rich in humor and in memories that mankind may never forget. In a figurative way, Yiddish is the wise and humble language of us all, the idiom of frightened and hopeful Humanity.”

“The Cafeteria”, wonderfully read in the Podcast from The Great Short Stories of Eastern European Jews hosted by Leonard Nimoy, is one of his most famous short stories (the runtime for the podcast is fifty minutes, I could not find the story online).  Set in New York City, maybe around 1953, it is narrated by a man who could well be Singer.  He tells us he eats his lunch at an inexpensive cafeteria, even though he now has the money to eat anywhere, so he can spend time with other Yiddish speaking persons who frequent them, many are Holocaust survivors.  There is much political debate among the mostly male group.  Some have fitted in perfectly in their new country, others have issues.  

One day a woman, originally from Moscow, joins the luncheon crowd and soon attracts a lot of attention.  She is single and lives with her father.  He lost his legs in a Siberian work camp but his spirit is strong.  The narrator becomes friends with her, we learn she has a wealthy suitor.  Her father wants her to marry the man, a bookbinder, for security but she refuses to marry a man she does not love.  Her husband died fighting the Germans.  

As the story processes Singer shows us how the Holocaust has shaped lives, many, including perhaps the narrator, have “survivor’s guilt”. A good bit of time goes by.  After a long break the narrator returns only to find the cafeteria was destroyed in a fire.  I do not want to tell too much more of the plot of this wonderful story.

“The Cafeteria” is clearly the product of high intelligence honed by much experience and deep reading.  

I first read Singer in 2011, he was my introduction to Yiddish Literature.  I wish his Collected Stories were available as a Kindle.  

Four Hollywood movies were based on his work, I think Yentil is the most famous.  

Mel u


Buried In Print said...

Ah! So there is a whole series of stories hosted by Nimoy: fascinating! I've got Singer's name in my notebook: I must do some exploring.

Mel u said...

Buried in Print. Nimoy was a huge fan of Jewish Stories. He even saw Spock as having Yiddish ties...