A Look at the History of the Yiddish Literature in America

Hagit Cohen examines the physical and ideological ground that made possible Yiddish literature's rare flowering, and explores the formation of secular U.S. Jewish identity

Michal Zamir
Michal Zamir
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Peddlers in New York around 1900.
Peddlers in New York around 1900.Credit: Buyenlarge / Getty Images
Michal Zamir
Michal Zamir

“Nifla’ot Be’olam Hehadash: Sefarim Ukorim Be’yiddish Be’aretzot Habrit 1890-1940 (“Wonders of the New World: Books and Readers in Yiddish in the United States, 1890-1940”), Open University Press, Hebrew, 420 pages, 85 shekels

Some liken the brief blossoming of Yiddish literature – from the middle of the 19th century to the middle of the 20th – to that of a cactus that blooms for just a single day, its magnificent flowers a stark contrast to the surrounding arid desert. That is presumably the reason the phenomenon continues to mystify. In her fascinating new book, “Wonders of the New World: Books and Readers in Yiddish in the United States, 1890-1940,” Hagit Cohen examines the physical and ideological ground that made possible the rare flowering of Yiddish literature in America. She also explores the formation of secular American Jewish identity, a process that began in the late 19th century and continues today.

Cohen’s book does not deal with the literary and intellectual works themselves, but rather with the surroundings so vital to their existence: publishers, translators, booksellers, libraries, newspapers, organizations and “fixers,” on the one hand, and on the other, readers and places where the two sides could meet. Examination of the reciprocal relations between these two groups is based on an abundance of archival correspondence, commercial documentation, catalogs, newspaper and magazine ads and other sources, which together afford an intimate, intriguing glimpse into the misgivings of Jewish migrants from Eastern Europe in their encounter with the new culture.

Cohen follows the changes in the self-perception of the immigrants – both members of the first generation who made their way to America from the end of the 19th century until World War I, and who dealt with the difficulties of integration in the new continent, and the second generation, in the period between the two world wars, who forged their unique ethnic identity in American society.

Max Maisel – who immigrated to the U.S. in the 1880s, settling on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where he joined the circles of Russian intellectuals and became a bookseller and publisher – plays a key role in the story, reflecting the ideological changes that took place at the time.

When he came to America, Maisel exchanged his mother tongue, German, for Yiddish, and turned from a social-democrat into an anarchist. In his bookshop he sold works in Russian, German and English, and supported secularization, positivism, materialism and the idea of a society that would operate on socialist principles.

Maisel saw Yiddish as the temporary language of Jewish laborers, to be used until they became proficient in English. Accordingly, he published how-to books and guidebooks in various fields to facilitate the immigrants’ integration into the new society. These included dictionaries, lexicons, primers on naturalization, books on parenting and sexual education, children’s books and anthologies.

He also published translations into Yiddish such as Herbert Spencer’s “Education,” Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species” and Henrik Ibsen’s plays. In 1903 Maisel published an ad in the Yiddish daily Forverts (The Forward) for an English language school he had opened. “The migrants can learn the English language thoroughly, without losing time,” the ad read. “The teacher’s practical method will be very useful to the educated migrant. The price, two dollars for 20 lessons.”

A focus on issues of daily life – such as raising children and educating them, family planning, manners – offered a sort of substitute for the Shulhan Arukh, the Jewish law code. If the latter guides the life of the religious Jew, Maisel and other publishers of the time offered an extremely rich antithesis intended to help the immigrant crack the new world’s rules.

The writer Leon Kobrin, who immigrated to the United States in 1892, described a meeting with Rivka, from his hometown of Vitebsk, in her new house in Philadelphia. “At home I was such a beast, she said to me, today she isn’t anymore. She has driven away some of the darkness from her bestial mind. Her eyes have been opened. She reads. She’s interested in anarchism. She’s struggling against the bloodsuckers and exploiters and against the three obscenities – religion, state and capital.” It appears Kobrin’s joy over Rivka’s improved image suited his approach to the old world in general.

Agents of a new culture

But Maisel’s views changed following the failure of the 1905 revolution and the ties he had formed with the Bund activists who fled from burning Russia to America – mainly his ties with Chaim Zhitlowsky, a Jewish socialist, philosopher, writer and advocate of Yiddish language and culture. Yiddish was no longer the workers’ interim language in his eyes, but a basis for setting up a national identity. Maisel’s shop became a cosmopolitan Yiddish literature center. This cooperation led to a series of publishing projects - translations of the Jewish-Danish critic and scholar Georg Brandes’ works about the main streams of 19th century European literature; Zhitlowsky’s lectures on philosophy; and original, contemporary Yiddish literature, such as written by Morris Winchevsky, Joseph Opatoshu, Mani Leib, A. Leyeles and others. This was Maisel’s practical contribution to realizing Zhitlowsky’s cultural vision of raising Yiddish from its status as a popular jargon.

Maisel and other booksellers maintained constant ties with public libraries, advised them and supplied books on demand for their collections. Cohen examines the major role public libraries and librarians played in the Americanization process. They were the new culture’s wise, beneficial agents, seeking to maintain Americanization while preserving certain components of ethnic identity. The librarians found ways of dealing with the radical inclinations of the first generation of immigrants and with their adherence to old world norms, while bridging the gap between the parents’ generation and that of the sons, which was becoming part of American culture and cutting itself off from the family cell and its national heritage.

Undue devotion to the land of origin was seen as “old world psychosis.” The librarians got the impression that this was characteristic of the Poles, who stuck to their language. The Jewish migrants, in contrast, didn’t display patriotism or affiliation to their countries of origin.

“The Jewish migrants’ reading material, according to librarian publications, consisted mainly of study texts in sociology and philosophy,” writes Cohen. The Italians, by comparison, preferred love and suspense stories. The Jewish librarians’ attentiveness could bring women closer to English, and in later years bring them back, by means of reading circles, to the old forgotten language.

Cohen tracks the tension between the integration trend in America and the desire to preserve an ethnic identity, as reflected in the activities of cultural associations like the socialist Arbeter Ring (Workmen’s Circle) and in contrast, the Yidisher Kultur Gezelshaft, which initiated studies in school networks and reading circles, lectures and meetings with writers and poets.

When migration stopped in the 1930s, Yiddish literature lost its readers. The Yiddish press and popular culture were still prospering, but the canonic literature remained the domain of the few who still had profound knowledge of the language.

It is especially interesting to trace the processes of migration and identity formation that Cohen describes from both an Israeli and broad Jewish perspective. A grand culture, even when it dies physically, continues to have an influence. It finds continuity in Hebrew literature as well, and especially in Jewish-American literature written today. Perhaps not in the Yiddish language, but in its spirit. The issue of the melting pot, in contrast to preserving ethnic identity in a multicultural society, is still acute, at least in Hebrew, if not in Yiddish.

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