Hebrew Fiction / Tel Aviv, Meet the Lower East Side

In 'Hebrew Publishing Company,' Matan Hermoni creates a parallel universe that is both American and Yiddish-centric, light years from the Israeli cultural world in which he writes and lives.

Hebrew Publishing Company

by Matan Hermoni. Kinneret, Zmora-Bitan Publishers (Hebrew ), 270 pages, NIS 89

It's been a long time since we were graced with such an enjoyable novel as "Hebrew Publishing Company." In juicy and wise language, Matan Hermoni tells the story of the rise and fall of Mordechai Schuster, an orphan who immigrates to America from Eastern Europe in the early years of the 20th century and begins his life anew as an apprentice printer at the Hebrew Publishing Company in New York. Schuster dreams of becoming a famous author - or at least as famous as the lowbrow writers whose books he prints. His dream comes true and he turns into America's best-known and best-selling author of popular Yiddish books - for a short while, that is, until his painful downfall.

Hermoni's novel, his first, moves back and forth in time, from Schuster's immigration to New York in 1904 until after his death in 1968, and beyond that to the death in the late 1980s of Henia Levitsky-Feigenboym, his first love (and the inspiration for the heroine of his successful novels, Annie Page ). Most of the book is set in New York's bustling Lower East Side, though the plot does reach San Francisco, Los Angeles and even the Mount Scopus campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, which in Hermoni's novel seems like an extension of Jewish American culture.

The novel draws readers in, not only to the crowded apartments of immigrants and the real-life publishing house for which the book is named, but also to the rowdy theaters and coffee houses of the Lower East Side where Schuster sits with his friend, the Hebrew poet Yedidya Segal. These are the sites of the overt and covert struggles between Schuster and the other Jewish writers, like his friend and enemy Nahum Sobelplatz, who goes by the pen name Z. Goldschlager. The novel follows Schuster's relationships with women: Henia Feigenboym, who redeems him of his virginity and "teaches" him how to tell stories by trial and error, and Dina Shmerkes, the object of Schuster's desire on lonely nights, who marries him during his heyday, after she herself has become a Yiddish theater star. From this point on, the novel slides into bitterness and disappointment, which is the lot of Schuster and his family as soon as the masses tire of his writing, and ends with the grotesque, posthumous fate of his books, which continue to live an independent life around the world.

In many senses, the heart of the novel is the urban landscape of Jewish New York and its flourishing Jewish literature, in particular the scorned pulp fiction known in Yiddish as shund ("trash" ), and how these intertwined. At the beginning of the 20th century, the Lower East Side was a small, crowded and poverty-stricken area that contained the densest concentration of Jews in the world. Jewish immigrants lived in narrow apartments, made their living working hard in sweatshops and small businesses, and dreamed of leaving for a better place. At the same time, though, the neighborhood was a bustling center of Jewish American culture, conducted for the most part in the Yiddish that the immigrants had brought with them from Eastern Europe.

The golden age of Yiddish culture on the Lower East Side was short-lived but intense, expressed in literature, newspapers, theater, radio and film. Shund books, which had been popular with many readers when they were still in Eastern Europe, played a large role. Immigrants who might never have written books or plays in the old country did so when they moved to America, and there was a large output of Yiddish novels (which appeared in installments in flourishing Yiddish papers and in cheap, easily accessible paperback editions released by firms like the Hebrew Publishing Company ) and plays for the popular theater, for a readership hungry for the Yiddish word. The Jewish-American landscape was seen as simultaneously threatening and liberating, and it appears that Yiddish pulp fiction, despite the scorn it evoked, successfully managed to portray the vibrant reality, as well as the social and economic fantasies of the immigrants in the cruel, capitalistic American world.

Legendary aura

A lot of water has flowed down the East River since the beginning of the 20th century, and the Lower East Side, abandoned by its Jewish residents, long ago acquired a legendary aura in Jewish America (the rough equivalent of a cross between Tel Hai and Little Tel Aviv in Israeli culture ): the place where Jewish immigrants turned into Americans. That mythical space was depicted not only by canonic Yiddish writers like L. Shapiro, Moishe Leib Halpern and Jacob Glatstein, but also by many Jewish-American authors writing in English - Abraham Cahan, Anzia Yezierska, Henry Roth, Saul Bellow, and at the beginning of the 21st century, writers like Dara Horn and Nicole Krauss as well. Even outside the Jewish context, the Lower East Side occupies a central place in American cultural history.

Hebrew literature, which was written in Europe and later mainly in Israel, almost completely ignored the Lower East Side and its immigrant culture. Even American authors who wrote in Hebrew, with the exception of a few like Shimon Halkin and Reuven Wallenrod, turned toward America's broader pastures. "Hebrew Publishing Company" fills this gap with great success. Hermoni, a scholar of Hebrew and Yiddish literature and culture, has an intimate knowledge of the physical and cultural space he depicts. Although he reconstructs the period with a plethora of historical details (real and imagined ), he isn't an annoying know-it-all. On the contrary, the novel flows smoothly; it is stirring, filled with humor, and completely free of sticky-sweet nostalgia. One of the most incredible aspects of the book is that Hermoni has created a parallel universe, an American, Yiddish-centric one that is both light years away from the Israeli cultural world in which he writes and lives, yet is also very Israeli and Hebrew-centric. It is a novel informed by early-20th century Jewish literature that very much speaks to the here and now.

Here is a short example of the way Hermoni produces this miracle. "And so it was: like the rest of our brothers, our redeemers, Mordechai Schuster left his country and his homeland and his city and journeyed to New York; a 14-year-old boy, almost 15, an orphan. His father died when he was 2 years old. His mother died a year and a half before he left. How did the father die? This he did not know. Ask him and he'll say, 'The way people die, he died.' How did the mother die? About this, he doesn't want to talk. And even if he did want to, he couldn't. She died. 'The way people die, that's how she died too.' That's what he would say if people asked. But ask they didn't."

Juicy Yiddish

What is it about these sentences? On the surface, this is apparently a simple and rather banal story (in essence similar to those in the shund novels ) about a boy whose fate is no different from that of millions of other Jewish immigrants. At another level, it isn't hard to find many allusions to classic Jewish texts: S.Y. Agnon's "Only Yesterday" (except that here the immigrant does not reach Jaffa or Jerusalem like Isaac Kumer but rather the Lower East Side of New York, where he is "redeemed" ); Sholem Aleichem's orphan in "Mottel the Cantor's Son"; and Yosef Haim Brenner's novella "Out of the Depths," whose protagonists are also printers' apprentices in a Jewish immigrant neighborhood, but in London ; and other literary works in Hebrew, Yiddish and English.

From the point of view of language, the sentences above, like the entire novel, are written in a Hebrew that is simple and comprehensible to the Israeli reader, and yet somehow foreign too: Hebrew behind which juicy, conversational Yiddish can be heard clearly ("The way people die, he died." "But ask they didn't." ). This is the spoken language at the very heart of Yiddish literature - both canonic and popular - and of broad sections of Hebrew prose: from Mendele Mocher Sforim and Brenner right up to Yaakov Shabtai, Aharon Appelfeld, Yossel Birstein and the first part of David Grossman's "See Under: Love."

The most remarkable thing about this lovely book is the simultaneous proximity and distance between these seemingly different and opposing worlds. Hebrew and Yiddish, New York and Israel, high literature and pulp fiction, masculine and feminine - all of these mix together in a wonderful carnivalesque stew, in which there is no chance of separating the abysmal gravity that characterizes the fate of the Jews from the grotesque laughter that is its soundtrack.

Shachar Pinsker teaches Jewish literature at the University of Michigan and is the author of "Literary Passports: The Making of Modernist Hebrew Fiction in Europe" (Stanford ).