The Yiddish Language and Her Writers

From Hoyz-Fraynd (House-Friend)

By Jacob Dinezon
Edited by M. Spector
Warsaw: “Progress” Publishing House, 1909
Pages 1–20
(See Yiddish Version Here)
(Originally published in 1888)
Translated from the Yiddish by
Janie Respitz


Jargon writers from the past: Reb Yakov Bar Yitzkhak, author of the “Tzenah U’Renah,” Reb Elye Bakhur, author of the “Bove Mayseh,” and other scholars of the Jewish people.
Jargon writers of our day: Mr. I. M. Dik, Aksenfeld, Dr. Sh. Ettinger, E. Tzweifel, A. B. Gottlober, Sh. Y. Abramovitsh, A. Goldfadn, M. Gordon, E. Tzunzer, A. Tsederboym, Tz. Rabinovitch, M. L. Lilienblum, “Shilshum Bar Yente,” Y. Y. Linetzky, M. A. Shatzkes, Y”L Gordon, M. Zayfert, M. Spector, “Sholem Aleichem,” and many others.

Our first wise men and writers are, for the most part, our great religious teachers. They had the sacred intentions to teach Jews their obligations between man and place, moral teachings between man, and his fellow man and they wrote their sermons and books which served the people always in the language of the folk, although they felt much closer to the holy tongue and better educated in it from the Gemara and commentaries which were written in the pure holy tongue and not Aramaic which was, in those days, a Jargon just like our Ivre-Taytsh.

(Translator’s note: Ivre-Taytsh is a form of archaic Yiddish used to translate sacred texts.)

I do not have the space or possibility in this article to fill in and show the historical path and development of various jargons in our literature. But one thing is clear to me, our old sages did not write disrespectful books. They taught their brothers through their writings to take the honest path.

The same goes for our Jargon, Ivre-Taytsh, nothing new, and it was not yesterday that our smart, honest people began writing in it. A certain great man, Rabbi Yakov Berabi Yitzkhak, three hundred years ago wrote the extremely popular Tzena U’Renah, a translation of the Pentateuch, as well as explanations of Prophets and Writings. Our grandmothers and great-grandmothers read this holy book hundreds of years ago, and our wives and daughters read it until today.

In those days, and before, many books on Jewish morality and religious books were translated into today’s Jargon, some in rhyme with lovely parables and flowery language by our sages from the greats of those generations who were the teachers and leaders of their people.

They dealt more with religious topics than secular ones. Those years were different. To learn about what was happening in the world, Jews in those dark times had different teachers and storytellers. Through fire and water, with blood and iron, they got acquainted with the world. There was only one rule to get along with others: to kiss the hands of those who beat and robbed their flesh and blood and deliver to every hungry wolf and thirsty wild animal. You did not have to tell them about their troubles and problems; they knew them well. Perhaps they feared writing about them. Nothing for Jews in those days was secure or sure. Not his house, not his possessions, not his child’s or his own life. Everything hung on a single hair, and he did not fight or quarrel for anything. However, there was one thing he held dear and sacred and wanted to maintain: his one and only God and his great faith in Him. He struggled for Him with heart and soul, more than for any other hero in this world. In order not to forget their beloved God, they remembered all of His decrees and writings. They must be prudent: prayer, Torah, and good deeds should not escape their hands for one moment. When they wanted someone who was faltering to understand what they were saying in our holy mother tongue, they began to speak with him in his language so he could listen, and this is how, throughout the ages, a literature in a specific jargon came to be, just like it happened in our Jargon.

Hundreds of books and antiquities in Jargon are mentioned by “Seder Hadorot” (“The Order of Generations”), who lived two hundred years ago. Also mentioned are books that are today rare and valuable which tell stories about Jews and Judaism. For example, the well-known grammarian and great Torah scholar Rabbi Eliyahu Bakhur, of blessed memory, who wrote on important matters in the folk language, as well as the story Bove Mayseh which is well-known. He, of course, did not have the same goals as our Jargonists of today who write about pointless things. He wanted to give the masses something to uplift their dreary mood. He felt it was better for them to read nonsense that lifted them up than sit idle in their free time and resort to sins and failure. The same intentions exist today. The masses should not spend the Sabbath and holidays walking freely in the streets and come into contact with evil, fights, or scandals, which often result in the worst situations such as pogroms and all things comparable.

After all we have read here, our proud writers who write in the Holy Tongue should be ashamed by their estrangement from their smaller brothers and sisters that they write about them and never with them? Or to talk to them through an advocate like Joseph did with his brothers that sold him. To play the role of a higher type of person and not recognize who they are! . . . It does not appear that the silly children of today who come from the gymnasia and universities, who study at their parents’ expense, give back to their parents, the simple non-artistic Jews, and these children do not want to talk to them in Yiddish even though they know very well their parents cannot (and it is not their fault) and do not understand Russian, French, or other languages they picked up in various places. Do not insult the behavior of these educated children or the simple man. This is the situation in so many of our Jewish families. Is it hard for them to see the sorrow of their parents who cannot talk to their children and not disdain and hate those children and their silly, unnecessary pride?

Are the multitudes not our fathers? Are we not their children, their flesh and blood? Was it not from their calculations and efforts and troubles that we Hebraists became enlightened and called ourselves scholars? What right do we have to think we are better than them, than the multitudes? And what is our enlightenment for, if not for them? The Jewish Enlightenment is actually the guard of Jewish enlightenment, not common sense. It is a special erudition which must belong to all of Judaism! What we know, every simple person must also know according to his own ability. We are all responsible for each other. We must share what we learn. We must share our knowledge and satisfaction with the masses in the language they know best. This means to write for them in one language with words they are familiar with, so they do not require a translator.

I will never forget the impression made upon me by a teacher about “one from the masses,” and I tell it at every opportunity when I am asked why I became a Jargon writer and did not remain a Hebrew writer as I had begun, although the holy tongue is dearer to me than everything else.

The truth is, I was a young boy living in the city of Mir and was just becoming acquainted with the Jewish Enlightenment. I was passionate about the Hebrew language and the Jewish Enlightenment in general. I worked with all my strength to inspire my friends. To achieve this, I invited Mapu and Shulman to our city and other Hebraists I knew. My friends and I would meet face to face and learn from these angels of God! It is no surprise that my last kopeks were spent on publishing their booklets. At that time, I began to study with the son of a certain Reb Simkha. A man of newly acquired wealth, very pious, but also a good, honest Jew. Although everyone in his household were simple people, they loved and showed interest in learning and education. They did not want their children to remain ignorant and, to this end, were not stingy. The first new thing I brought into their home was a lovely library, a Talmud from Vilna beautifully bound. I bought all the holy books which were in all the wealthy Jewish homes, thank God. Slowly, I bought all the sacred books and booklets. The only thing lacking was a subscription to a Hebrew newspaper.

When I asked Reb Simkha for money to subscribe to Hamagid, he answered me with the following words: “I gave you money for the Talmud and other sacred books even though I don’t read them and my older children don’t understand much either. I have no regrets. Perhaps, with God’s help, my younger son will be able to read and learn from them. If not, God forbid, what do they say? ‘Beautiful books in a Jewish home are like fine jewelry.’ My heart fills with joy when I walk by and see the books. However, why should I spend money on a newspaper which is just pages and not holy writings, and something my children and I do not understand?

“If you don’t want me to deprive you of this pleasure and give you the money, you must take it upon yourself, every Friday night, or whenever I and my wife and child are free, to sit with us around the table. You will take this newspaper and read and translate it to us. Let us all enjoy and learn about what is happening in God’s world.”

At the time, I thought this would be simple. I would only have to translate.

Who could translate these difficult Hebrew words better than me? I promised to do this without giving it much thought. I took the six rubles and sent them to Lik. Ten days later, we received the first edition. Friday nights, we sat around the table. I sat at the head like a king and began to read and translate from the Holy Tongue.

I was so naïve in those happy untarnished days. My heart was pure and honest. Each Hebrew word was beloved and sacred to me. I considered it a crime to omit such flowery, superfluous words, which were understandable in Hebrew but foreign and completely superfluous in Jargon or in the archaic Yiddish used to translate sacred texts. (At that time, I was not even familiar with the word Jargon). In any event, I translated without feeling the large drops of sweat on my forehead from working so hard. Twisting my tongue was like crawling on all fours up and down a mountain through thorns. I did not notice or concern myself with what was going on around me, and I did not take my eyes off the page. I continued to read and translate until the end. And just like that first Friday, I did it again the following week and continued to do so until the end of the year.

Ha! How much patience did these dear sincere people have to sit and suffer week after week, sitting in one place for hours watching me perplexed every minute as my tongue got stuck in the flowery words which some little writer used and probably did not understand himself? They sat and, not to spoil my pleasure, did not even laugh once, even though it probably cost them their health. They were too good to me.

Thank God the year passed. I went to Reb Simkha and asked for more money for a new subscription to the newspaper.

“Listen, my dear,” he answered honestly, “you may not know, but I must explain, our business last year, exchanging cash coins for translation was a mistake. We were both fooled. You are not at fault, God forbid. You did not waste your hard work and honestly translated word for word, although this was not easy for you. Perhaps the writers are at fault for writing about things that are not interesting. Some of their flowery words do not give themselves to translation. Perhaps they do not write for Jews like my children and me.

“I believe they write for experts like you and other smart people. But what do I get from this? And what did my children learn over the past year? Was I really previously unhappy that I did not know that somewhere far away there is a small town, Mordorvke, where there is a little rabbi, a sort of idiot, may God help me, who fights regularly with the Mordorvke ritual slaughterer who makes the calves non-kosher, and so on? Are my children happier and better educated now that they know that in Karpilovek, they looked for sins and took an innocent young woman and led her around with feathers stuck to her shouting, “This is what happens to a sinner!” Believe me, my children would be healthier without knowing this information. Furthermore, I now know that in France, a shepherd’s calf was born with two heads and that our town’s tax collector, the usurer and trouble maker to Israel, Berl Leyb, is very soft-hearted and does the greatest favors for the town and the poor, although we all know this is a big lie. Only his teacher described him like this to receive Chanukah money! Was it worth it for me to spend six rubles a year for this? The important high-level topics they write about in these newspapers are not for our brains. We do not understand them at all. My children and I would sleep calmly during your readings but not my wife, Gitl. She would not even doze as she believes every word in the Holy Tongue is sacred, and she will gain a place in the world to come just by listening. Believe me, I could not watch your grief and was not able to watch how you swam and bathed in those flowery biblical words and could not fight your way to complete your work. I would ask myself: What are you occupied with?

“This is not what I had intended. I thought if I just let you translate, we would be able to understand. Now I see that newspapers written in the Holy Tongue are meant for people who speak the Holy Tongue. For me, however, for my wife and children, it would be good to have the type of newspaper that speaks exactly as we do and is written without flowery biblical words. With or without glasses, I should be able to read it or read letters from an intelligent writer, which I understand and listen to with great pleasure. What I see with my own eyes is clearer, and I understand better than someone illustrating to me in words. My desire is for a newspaper to be written in simple Ivre-Taytsh or at least a chapter in Ivre-Taytsh. I will not be cheap. I will pay six rubles three times a year to help a newspaper like that get written. If there is not already one, please write to the newspaper writer to also consider simple Jews and publish a newspaper in Ivre-Taytsh. I can assure him that here in our city there are hundreds of householders who would buy this paper with great pleasure and the newspaper writer will earn well!”

How open-hearted and clever these words seemed then and still seem correct and practical until today! I began to inquire among my acquaintances and older enlighteners if there was, somewhere in the world, a newspaper written in Ivre-Taytsh. I learned at that time there had once been such a newspaper called Kol Mevaser (The Herald), which had only recently ceased publication.

The admirable Reb Simkha,, of blessed memory, did not want to rob me of my pleasure and gave me six rubles for Hamagid, however with these conditions: not to bother him nor his wife or child with my translations.

Oh, how difficult these conditions were for me in those years: to receive so much joy and not be able to share any of it! This was too much for my gentle heart and pure conscience to handle. I thought of a way to share my pleasure with those that brought me luck and joy. If you search, you shall find says the world:

On Wednesdays, the postman would deliver the newspaper to me in my hand, as Reb Simkha, of blessed memory, ordered him to do. By nightfall, I would read it over a few times to remember all the topics and interesting articles which appeared. On that night and the following night, Thursday night, I would rewrite the newspaper in Ivri-Taych, copy several topics with my own explanations, explaining them in simple, clear language which everyone could understand. The Hebraists of the day had to see how happy and proud I was with my triumph when I resumed my Friday night readings and how people listened with attention and great pleasure to what I read!

The home of Reb Simkha, of blessed memory, was like the home of Abraham our forefather, may he rest in peace. It was open to all neighbors, to everyone. All the neighbors, young and old, would gather to hear the news that was written in the gazettes just as one goes to listen to a preacher giving an amazing sermon. After the Sabbath, the newspaper would be written out in more copies, and many would read it all week long. Within the year, my regular listeners appeared different. Their ideas were better, and their desire to learn about world events developed. They all now knew what politics was and what was going on at the time. They became well acquainted with Bismarck and were happy that Lasker was a Jew and was honorably victorious in all his battles in the German Reichstag. They were happy with all the orders and honors received by important Jewish people in various lands. This is how they developed a patriotism for their nation and Judaism, which they previously knew nothing about. Even their language, which they spoke at home, improved, and they were able to converse with people in a nice, befitting manner. I was pleased with these results. Reb Simkha, of blessed memory, and my other listeners were extremely happy. This luck and happiness only lasted one year. Every person has his destiny, and wherever his destiny leads him, that is where he has to go, taking the good things with him. However, things often go against one’s own will.

My happiness ended, and worse times took over with worries about earning a living. I had to put down my beloved pen and pick up something else in my hand to earn a piece of bread. Nevertheless, I did not give up, and until today, my thoughts from those days remain with me, namely:

Influence the multitude so they listen and do what you tell them. This can only be done with the ordinary Yiddish language as the multitude sets out to learn how to travel the right paths and to learn about their leaders who are honest and non-partisan and the writers who are talented and knowledgeable. Words that leave the heart enter the heart. This is an important rule: there should not be a curtain separating anything that is heart to heart, no partition, no translator, and no interpreters because even the best copy is far from the original! . . .

What I have recounted here is what I actually experienced. Let each individual come to a conclusion to the best of his understanding and love. Through this, I began writing in simple Yiddish for my poor brothers and sisters, although, in truth, I read Hebrew much more willingly and think mainly in Hebrew. I have a great love for our Holy Tongue as many of our Hebrew writers who shout daily, “Here lies our spirit!”

I would like to end my dissertation with a detailed overview of more books and stories in Jargon that have until now been published and which the people spend time and money to read. I am not afraid to offend the unjustified honor which many non-talented and dishonest writers have received for their writings. Although I myself am a Yiddish folk-writer, I can certainly expect to be paid the same respect which I would like to allocate to them. Also, my heart and my conscience will not punish me if, through my overview, many of them will be deprived of the earnings they receive for their writing.

Although I don’t begrudge anyone his happiness, in such cases, we must always keep the following parable in mind:

When they began to build the railroads, those who belonged to “The Society Against Cruelty to Animals” strongly protested against this project. “The railroads,” they shouted, “will take away the livelihood of the wagon drivers and the thousands who earn a living in transportation. The people will be able to find other sources of income if they look, but what will the horses do when they become superfluous to mankind? Who will give them their hay and oats, so they do not die of hunger? Would this not be cruelty by man against animals if they build the railroads which will rob the life of so many innocent creatures?” Human intelligence and worldly justice did not put an end to this project, but this complaint was not addressed for even a minute:

If the horses are left alone, they will have nothing to eat. The world and humanity will forever torture the wagon driver and never bring about new inventions for the good of the worker.

Will the masses always be fooled and deceived by the fact that a few horse-like writers earn a living writing? The best honor I can bestow on them is to compare them to horses. It is probably better to compare them to bedbugs and parasites and ask: will we always allow them to suck our blood in our rooms and beds and not exterminate them or chase them away because our blood is their bread, and it is a pity to take bread away from a living creature? I don’t compare them to parasites even though they are not as useful as horses because they are people, and people will commit a crime for a piece of bread. Nevertheless, we shall not allow them to continue to commit these crimes, and we should scrupulously advise others not to give them money, and we should assuredly say we will take away their bread and they must look for an honest piece of bread. I have no fear of saying this and doing this for another reason.

Ours has exactly the opposite luck of the Hebrew language. When Hebrew books and articles are written by experts in the Holy Tongue, they are only read by Hebraists. However, for these writers and enlighteners like this writer himself, Yiddish-German is exactly the opposite. No writer thinks he is expecting an honor or a dishonor from another writer who critiques his book, and, actually, the writer reads the Yiddish language less than all other languages. I myself, in this sense, have not been better than the others. Therefore, I simply lack the information to accurately know which good books have been published in the last few years in this language that are worthy of being read and critiqued. Those that I come across every day at various itinerant booksellers, as many of them that I have read, I have found to be less worthy of critique, and the few good ones are without heart. Those who have an appreciation are familiar with and lovingly grasp them because they originate from actually talented and honest people and are better authorities than me. I will mention their names and offer my thanks to them because they are not ashamed to write in the Yiddish language as others are. Let the readers forgive me if I perhaps abuse their patience:

The first Yiddish writer who wrote a lot and brought good to the Jewish multitude and did not know any Hebrew is certainly the intelligent Reb Isaac Meir Dik, may his candle shine upon us. He raised the language to a high level with a serious and pure conscience, and he should feel happy with the results which he himself saw in his own birthplace, Vilna. He was also well received by experts in other cities in close and far away provinces. As good as others were at emulating him or original writing, he will always remain the first in Yiddish literature, and everyone who reads his work and realizes the great impression he made during their time in Jewish life should gladly pay him the respect which he earned and deserves.

As great as Dik was in earnestness and morality, [Israel] Axenfeld was as great in art and talent. Whoever reads his theatrical pieces “The Beggar’s Treasure Game” or “The Fooled World” can see his mastery of real-life types and how restrained and objectively he described them. I know little about his life story. However, I do know he wrote them no less than fifty years ago. That time was actually a blossoming and thriving period for our Yiddish language, and highly educated people contributed. Many theater pieces were written, although nobody yet dreamed about public performances. At that time, or not long after, the well-known comedies “Serkele” by Dr. Sh. Ettinger, “Captain Khaim Elye,” “Rokhele-Edye the Singer,” and many more were written but no longer exist. However, we still remember them, and anyone who read them knows their importance and the importance of their authors who were well-known for their knowledge and wisdom in other important matters and were not ashamed of the Yiddish language and wrote with great talent, seriousness, and the desire to write in Yiddish.

Also, the well-known Jewish scholar Zweifel, may his candle shine upon us, and the beloved poet and Hebrew stylist Gottlober often came down from their high place in Hebrew literature to the folk. Their poems criticize life and teach morality, perhaps while crying in the ears of their poor dejected brothers. They comforted them like a father comforts his child, in his language and with the ideas he can understand. No proper writer, thirty or forty years ago, thought it was embarrassing to write in Yiddish. Also, Mr. Sh. Y. Abramovitsh, may his candle shine upon us, displayed his strength and talent in his story “The Tax,” and Mr. Abramovitsh had no resentment. I permit myself to say openly that none of his stories or many others by other Hebrew authors have affected the multitude of readers of all classes more than “The Tax,” until today, on all readers. Consequently, “The Tax” is the best work which until now has been published from his pen and we can call it a classic work. Mr. Abramovitsh has distinguished himself many times with his Yiddish works. Who does not know The Mare and Yudl? I hope Abramovitsh forgives me when I say the truth openly: He did not achieve his goal with these two books if his goal was actually to familiarize Jews with their present troubles and oppressors. One can assume when reading The Mare, or to celebrate in song and recount with tears in one’s eyes his historical martyr story about the courage to continue to tolerate and continue to suffer for his sacred faith. As every comprehending reader can figure out from Yudl, if this was his goal, Abramovitsh worked ineffectively in educating the people about the development and did not bring them to understand or learn from this. If both books, The Mare and Yudl, have gained fame, the good reputation is not from the masses but rather from his friends, the enlighteners, and those who write in the Holy Tongue. The people are not buying them or reading them. And even if they were read, one in a thousand would know what he’s talking about, and I believe if Abramovitsh was foolish enough to think that when he wrote these books, he was writing for the masses and that the masses would understand them. The question for me remains: for whom did he write The Mare and Yudl in Jargon? Most of all, I noticed, after the great success of “The Tax,” Abramovitsh no longer considered writing seriously in Yiddish. The satire and humor are overdone and too thickly wrapped in the ordinary with often unnecessary and not very witty clownery, which hides any drop of moralizing and reason. When I read his most recent Yiddish work, The Travels of Benjamin the Third, for example, I felt the writer was playing around and making artistic deformities, mocking and laughing and dancing on a string for his friends and other writers, and does not consider the people who use and express themselves in the Yiddish language. I do not know how to explain the manner and vision he utilizes. I don’t believe he could be so pedantic and maintain this language as an established language where each word has its root and source in the same language and is so pleased with the roots and sources. Everything he finds in them is neither sacred nor good to use and therefore writes in pure Yiddish like many a Hebrew pedant writes and wants others to write only in pure biblical Hebrew. Or, from the start, he hates Jargon and wants to bury it in order to present its simplicity and corruption. He should be ashamed.

I am allowing myself to reproach him because I respect his talent, which is much greater than all the other fashionable Jargon writers. Perhaps he will recognize the feelings his last works instilled in the hearts of those who take his Yiddish writing seriously and give them something nice and useful. I am now beyond my limits. I do not want to bring up, God forbid, examples of his bad writing or bring up perhaps how others could be mistaken. Mr. Abramovitsh, I am doing this because you are the best and the greatest Jargonist. He is the big gun, and who is greater than him? Therefore, I am being hard on him, like a hairsbreadth, and particularly such mistakes which are pulling the wagon of those who look with a keen eye at the language and at the stories written by decent, fair writers. I hope Mr. Abramovitsh will not misunderstand me.

Besides stories, dramas and comedies, and moral teachings translated from Hebrew into Yiddish, we have many poems and songs from talented people in our folk language. The most famous European writers bestow praise and are proud of their folk poets. Our language can be proud of our folk poets, although we cannot say proudly that our Yiddish literature stands as high as the others. However, we can say our folk songs stand high enough and will continue to rise and ring out throughout the world. If Jewish writers would not be divided into two main classes, Hebrew and Jargon, they would, like all classes in every land, quarrel among each other and frequently scoff at the Yiddish writers.

In such a dark situation of our language where our experts are for various reasons impartial to talk about the good attributes of our folk songs, or they remain silent and do not want to mention our language at all, especially our writers. In such a situation, we call upon the masses, the readers for whom these books are written, and we listen to what they have to say about the songs written by our most famous and talented Yiddish folk poet Avrom Goldfadn! Is there a child, an old Jew, a rich Jewish lady or a servant in a kitchen, a university student or a Hasid with his Rebbe, or someone in Russia, Romania or Galicia in recent times, as well as Paris, London as well as America and Australia who was raised in a Yiddish-speaking house and once spoke Yiddish who has never sung or heard a Goldfadn folk song? Who has not been delighted with his rhythm and did not feel his love for his people? Who did not sigh with his sighs and feel pleased with his comfort? How many mothers rock their crying babies with these golden songs? And how many troubled hearts were healed thousands of miles away where Jews have spread out? Of course, thousands do not even know who wrote these songs they sing or listen to, but they do know the content and can relate to them because the writer of these songs, the folk poet, placed so much feeling in their hearts from the first day they were born. Through a divine inspiration, they were written down on paper not for himself, but for his people, for his brothers and sisters, whom he loves more than life itself and offers all of his efforts for them.

My intentions in this dissertation are not to single out writers or stories and prevent detailed reviews to point out where they were lacking or excelled, rather, to show that Yiddish also had writers that had a good reputation among their Jewish readers who always knew how to honor them and worried about their spiritual development. It is worthwhile mentioning those who excelled in the name of gratitude for their good deeds and talent. I feel obligated to do this, and I do it gladly.

Before the world knew Goldfadn’s songs, the songs of our beloved folk poet, the brilliant elder Mikhl Gordon, may his candle shine upon us, were already well-known. And who does not remember today his songs that were written over forty years ago? Who does not know the song, “The Jew in Exile,” and who has not sung it or at least heard it sung in a Jewish home? In 1878, I was in Berlin and had the good fortune to have a friendly entry to the world-famous scholar Abraham Geiger, of blessed memory. In his free time, he spoke with me about authors and scholars in Russia. One day, he asked me if I knew the Jargon song, “The Jew in Exile.” To my great joy, I knew the song as I had often heard my eldest sister sing it, and I recited it for him. The scholar was so pleased and happy, he asked me to write it out, which I immediately did with great pleasure. A few days later, when I was with him again, he greeted me with a verse from the song: “They say they will put out the fire if they only say who the One is” and so on . . .  “Every Jew should keep this verse in mind, when they recite: Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One,” the great reformer told me. He then asked me if I knew the poet personally, and I told him that as a child, he showed me his love and carried me in his arms as he lived in our house under the same roof as my parents. And later, my mother told me that the scholarly professor was very fond of me and lovingly held my hand. The scholar Geiger, of blessed memory, is a German Jew and was a Jewish scholar. These two traits were never good friends with our corrupt language, but subsequently, the poet Mikhl Gordon found a place deep in his heart through his Yiddish song, “The Jew in Exile”! . . .

Here in Russia, our brothers still do not know how to examine a folk poet. Nevertheless, I am amazed how we forget them and until now have not mentioned them or their work publicly? Everyone knows his songs, and everyone still sings “The Song of the Stepmother,” “The Song of Whisky,” “The Song of the Borsht Society,” and “The Song of the Hypocrite,” as well as “The Beard,” as well as his ironic satirical song about “Confession on Yom Kippur” and others which are so familiar. This poet sang “Wake Up My People” for the first time, and then other poets took these words and adapted them in their own works. Mikhl Gordon did not only excel in folk songs but also wrote serious scholarly books in Yiddish. His book The History of Russia familiarized thousands of our brothers and sisters with the history of the land we were born and lived in long before Hebrew writers even began to think about it. Supplementary, the ingratitude of our critics and writers of our beloved Mikhl Gordon should be pitied. It has been known for a while that our world is broadening and becoming more familiar with art and the artist. Every artist, therefore, wishes his art and his work would receive more honor and exposure. As our highest and greatest artist, God himself said: “Let them forget me, but remember my Torah (Teaching).”

The scholar Gordon knew that the present-day writers and critics who judge the writer publicly more than his writings are still young people who like young fresh wine more than aged wine. Many of them were raised on his songs. Our literature has been recently renewed, and its youngest branch is criticism, which lets itself bend with the wind . . . let it mature. Let our experts stabilize and with love and respect turn to those who have been forgotten! . . .

The amazing poet Eliyokum Tzunzer also deserves honor as a folk poet for his last songs, “The Plow” and “The Return to Zion.” We can only demand from him songs that are characteristic of singing and not high poetry, as a preacher lecturing through his songs. Folk poetry goes through the people. It sings about their lives more than the artistic style of poetry, which corrupts its worthiness and flavor. One who is a folk poet by nature finds his subjects singing before our eyes and does not need to fly after the eagle in the sky, which we notice and unfortunately hear in Eliyokum’s earlier songs. In any event, the people respect his talent and writings.

It would be a great injustice against my readers if I would conclude this article without touching upon, even with a short overview, the books of new Yiddish writers whose books and stories are known by the reading public which does not have their own taste or judgment about what they are reading. My own conscience would not forgive me if, God forbid, with other intentions, I would steal the well-earned respect of the many older writers and what they did for Yiddish literature. Therefore, as little prepared as I am to mention personalities and individual works, I must go back a bit to honor those who earned this honor long ago, and from them, descend to new writers who, unfortunately, stand at a dishonorable place in every respect which belongs to criticism.

Mr. Alexander Tsederboym, may his candle shine upon us, belongs to the older well-known writers whose names are not mentioned by Yiddish readers without respect and appreciation. He was the editor of Hameilitz (The Interpreter) and Kol Mevasser (The Herald) (a long time ago), and the Yiddish Folksblat (until recently). Whoever remembers Kol Mevasser and its important writers and respectable articles of the day knows how important and useful it was for thousands of readers who developed and were spiritually nourished by it. This was their only way to receive news and the only possibility to be positively persuaded.

In those days, Kol Mevasser happily and fruitfully served the masses in their language, which today is called Yiddish Jargon. It did not as yet have this bad name, and people were not yet ashamed of it as they are ashamed today. Well-known scholars, educated enlighteners, and the finest Hebraists were correspondents and contributors to the Yiddish Kol Mevasser. Among those who contributed were: Mr. Gottlober, Mr. Zweifel, Mr. Zvi Hakohen Rabinovitch, Mr. Rozenblum, the well-known and the talented enlightener Bernshteyn, under the pseudonym “Shilshom Bar Yente.” Our beloved folk poet Mr. Goldfadn also often sent the people a gift in Kol Mevasser, and how quickly did the people embrace these songs and sing them in salons and dilapidated houses, at celebrations of happy occasions, and sad hours of loneliness to chase away bad moods and lift themselves up! How beloved and familiar did Kol Mevasser make the talented satiric writer Linetzky with his biographical story “The Polish Little Boy.” How necessary Kol Mevasser was in general for its readers!

When we consider the usefulness of these works at that time, we find the differences between Hebrew and Yiddish, as the readers of the Holy Tongue were also self-educated by reading this. This means: they were educated through reading newspapers in the Holy Tongue, half-enlightened men, Jewish enlighteners, and simply young people who read and dreamed in Hebrew, and what’s more, the majority remained with Hebrew and lamented their toil, their years, and their education. At that time, the older Yiddish speakers, the simple Jews, opened their eyes to see their mistakes and their own silliness and at least saw a better way to educate their children. Mothers found an opportunity to see the light and recognized that their children would have to live in a smarter time which would demand of them different information as Jews than they, the mothers, received in their youth.

Fathers and mothers were freed from their prejudice and made an effort to be better people in the world and times they were living in, and no one can deny Kol Mevasser influenced this movement. I am not afraid to openly admit that this experience taught me that Yiddish achieved its goal as our lovelier and better holy tongue because the Holy Tongue demanded its own departure, and many were convinced saying, “We were once slaves. Now we are free in this world to learn the language of the land, to gain information and wisdom, and to use this to earn a living.”

This, however, the Holy Tongue did not do. Although we are not in denial that many Hebraists were awakened, it rarely helped anyone. Mostly, the Holy Tongue drew young Jewish boys away from the sea of Talmud, a sea which had no bottom and no shore, and drove them into the sea of the Jewish Enlightenment, to taste all the wisdom from the tip of a knife and never reach the bottom or the shore!

And the many that remained with their Hebrew are now between heaven and earth, not with God and not with man, neither here nor there, and can be found until today in every city, in every Jewish community!

Yiddish, however, did not demand a departure. For itself, the language did not speak and had nothing to say. Therefore, everything written in it was only to awaken, to explain, and to guide. Those who followed the advice of what they read arrived at a better result than those Hebraists. Kol Mevasser certainly had a large readership and played a large part in the lives of many who, through their reading, awakened to the joy of searching for and finding, but rarely would they admit to it now! Who can deny that without the alphabet, one cannot read? Without the first step, you cannot take a second. Kol Mevasser instructed those unknowing and showed them the first step to take in life. Its merit was large enough to be eternally remembered in the history of our people’s education in our country.

After Kol Mevasser, things were quiet for a while in Yiddish literature. However, suddenly, ten years ago, writers sprouted with novels and poems in large books and small booklets and flooded the world like a surge of water that we do not know from where it came and to where it flows away. Daily, many very prolific writers rained on the masses with their novels and stories written in Jargon, until today, with new and old used books. However, this raining of new novels was not like a spring rain which enables the earth to provide good fruits. This was a different post-Succos autumn rain, dirty, muddy, and making Jewish roads impassible. They wasted time and spoiled the appetite of the poor simple reader, which does no good and takes away the desire to read!

This is how things stand with our writers, authors in general, and with the new Yiddish novel writers in particular. The majority of these writers do not look at their own inclinations, talent, and knowledge. Feh, why do they need to pay attention? They only need to see what the others are doing and where others are succeeding.

Perhaps ten years ago, someone got lucky with a novel or something he wrote in Yiddish, which brought him some attention. And as usual, the recompense was exaggerated one thousand times, as well as the honor bestowed on this lucky writer. This was a lucky and serious business for thousands of others. Whoever knew the shapes of the letters of the aleph-bet took a pen in hand instead of a needle, shoemaker’s thread, or hammer, and became a Yiddish writer, author, or novelist. They grew like mushrooms after a warm rain from thorn bushes and sticks, which were never sowed nor planted. Really, what can be easier than writing a story in Yiddish? Who needs to instruct whom on how to contaminate a paper with ink? Who asks a question about the story? This means: who looks at the large number of new writers and what they are writing? However, how much do the masses suffer because of this and how spoiled have the tastes and smells become, and how much money and time is spent, sadly, on this nonsense which causes more damage than good?

We do have a few good people and a few writers from this latest period to mention, the best among them being Reb Moishe Aron Shatzky, may his candle shine upon us, the respected, well-known author of The Key who also gained fame in our folk language with his outstanding work: The Jewish Passover Eve. Mr. Shatzky is not an artist or builder of beautiful buildings. However, in the language of the masses, he forms his story with all the appropriate moments. The content of every chapter shows authentic Jewish life, not exaggerated and not dragged in from a strange world as others do in their works. Every Jewish man and woman who read Passover Eve immediately remembered and visualized scenes from their own lives. The same goes for those who have become aristocrats, as they are wrongly called. Those who live freer and have abolished these things from their domain, but not long ago saw it in their parents’ homes and see it at their neighbors until today. How often have I heard many men and women talk about the weeks before Passover when they actually saw what was going on in their houses, the chaos of polishing, koshering, sweeping, and cleaning. Fearing a small piece of food that is not kosher for Passover and for such things that our holy Torah does not even command. And they cry out the following words from the chaos: “Exactly as it is described in Passover Eve.” It is these words that provide the most meaning for this famous work. I cannot think of any better or higher praise! Besides the artistic side of Passover Eve, we are thankful for and blessed with his clever explanations of a few important religious matters, customs, and laws, and most of all, the examination of situations of our nation in its faith which actually opened the eyes of many readers about the difference between truth and lies. Passover Eve is worthy and honest and should be found in every Jewish home and should be read every year at the beginning of the month of Nissan until the day after the holiday!

Our best-known poet in the Holy Tongue, Yehuda Leyb Gordon, also presented us, a year ago, with a booklet in Yiddish of pleasant, humorous poems, not without satire and irony. The booklet is called Profane Talk. It is a collection of poems from the past twenty-five or thirty years. If the poems were not so good and I did not like them so much with their Yiddish poetic content, Gordon wouldn’t deserve the credit, since for a period of thirty years he expressed so little of Profane Talk. . . . but because these poems are excellent, and I like them so much, I feel sorry for the poor masses whose Talmudic scholars consider him profane, and for thirty years spoke little of Profane Talk. He collected a few pages and made a booklet to learn from. . . . The most unfortunate is the Talmudic scholar. The poet himself calls himself a “folk poet,” but the folk, until his latest Profane Talk, never heard of him, never heard his teachings, and do not know why this new writer of Yiddish called this sacred booklet “Profane Talk.” I hope that our best and exalted poet recognized this injustice, and from now on will learn with his poor simple brothers not to be ashamed, and in the coming years give them more profane talk, and teach them, and comfort them with divine bounty, with the sacred spirit of song which he has for his people. We ask him, and the poor people can demand it!

A good story to remember is the novel Loves Pleasures (in Hebrew) or Flowers and Thorns (in Yiddish) by Mr. Zeifert. At the very least, the story and the writer were more worthy in every respect than the large number of writers and the stories that came after. It is a pity that Mr. Zeifert perhaps meant to fill an obligation with this one-and-only successful story and then stopped writing in our folk language. The recently published Folksbalt has introduced the public to new and serious writers. And it would be worth my effort to dwell on other new Yiddish writers. All the writers that were published in the Folksblat of Mr. M. Spektor. However, the fate of my article was to be included in The House Friend, which he published on his own. I must stop here and talk about them elsewhere. People should not say: “One should not pass judgment on oneself”! . . . .

I would like to conclude my article with something good and, therefore, the last one I will mention is the outstanding folk-writer “Sholem Aleichem” who is today well-known and beloved by all who read the Yiddish Folksblat. His scenes have all the colors and shades of Jewish life and remind every reader of their own experiences. His language is good and appropriate for the content he writes. He is not a novelist and does not present himself as such, but he is a very talented, outstanding, and clever writer. I read everything he writes with great pleasure. Every expert prays for such a writer: they should multiply and write more for their brothers! “May he be blessed, and may his brothers always enjoy the fruits of his labor!”

—Yakov Dinezon

Return to Research Page