Being Out of Place: The Writing of Sholem Aleichem and Isaac Bashevis Singer

June 1, 2012
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Jeremy Dauber

Rendered a refugee by the outbreak of World War I, Sholem Aleichem arrived in America ill and impoverished, his family split asunder; he would never see his oldest son again. But these agonies were echoes, for him, of an earlier displacement, one that had been afflicting him for close to a decade: a separation from the most direct sources of his literary inspiration.

The fortunes of the man who would become Yiddish literature’s most beloved writer had always been connected with Russia and its Jews. He had begun his literary career right around the watershed year of 1881, when Czar Alexander II’s assassination created a ferment of Jewish possibilities, programs, and politics; and he’d joined the increasingly ardent voices of Russian liberalism seeking a transformation in his country’s politics as the 20th century began. But when the resulting Revolution of 1905 collapsed in bloodshed and antisemitic acrimony — including a pogrom the author personally witnessed from the windows of Kiev’s Hotel Imperial — he left Russia with his family, never to return. After Sholem Aleichem contracted tuberculosis, the Russian climate became forbidding for him; it was only in death that he saw the possibility of return, asking that his remains be reinterred in his beloved birthplace (something that never happened).

But the writer never left the country and its Jews — Yiddishland — in his creative imagination, even as he spent winters on the Italian Riviera and summers in German sanatoria. He would buttonhole visitors and subscribe to newspapers looking for local facts and anecdotes he could run through the crucible of his imagination to make them sholem-aleykhemdik. And, paradoxically, his alienation helped create works both panoramic and paternal, suggesting that no segment of the Yiddish population was beyond the writer’s eye, and that everything was valuable — because from a distance, everything turned cherishable.

Sholem Aleichem’s writing formed an indelible portrait of modern Jewish life as inherently uprooted. While Diaspora had been central to the Jewish imagination since the Second Temple’s destruction, this was different. Sholem Aleichem’s writing articulated the difference between being away from a place and being no place. The writer’s Railroad Stories employed that churning, smoke-breathing symbol of modern times to perfection, presenting a new natural habitat for the Jews of Europe: nowhere and everywhere. The writer’s final masterpiece, “Tales of A Thousand and One Nights,” put the emphasis on nowhere. A chronicle of Yiddishland’s devastation during the Great War, caught as it was between Russia and Germany, the story raises a dark prospect tragically fulfilled by history and brilliantly, elegiacally explored by a second great Yiddish writer, Isaac Bashevis Singer.

Singer, living in a fast-deteriorating Poland, was brought to America in the mid-1930s by his brother Israel Joshua and by the publisher of the Forverts, Abraham Cahan. But it took Singer years to recover the literary momentum and promise he’d displayed with his brilliant and terrifying first novel, Satan in Goray. The reasons had everything to do with forced homelessness — but a far different kind of homelessness than the unmooring infused in the writing of Sholem Aleichem.

In his controversial essay “Problems of Yiddish Prose in America,” written as the war was at its height, Singer claimed, bluntly, that to write Yiddish literature in America was impossible. Language and cultural milieu — and place — were linked inextricably; Yiddish belonged to Europe, to Yiddishland. The corollaries were startlingly clear. American Yiddish literature was a contradiction in terms (even as Singer typed his Yiddish essay in New York); and the only other option — writing about Yiddish culture in situ — was increasingly, brutally, a thing of the past. To evaluate the merits of the argument on its own terms is irrelevant. It captured Singer’s own psyche and silenced him. Ultimately, he found a solution that worked brilliantly for him and eventually shaped the history of Yiddish literature — indeed, of Jewish memory. He embraced his irrelevance to his current context, and rendered himself largely — if not entirely — of the place he had left behind.

Unlike Sholem Aleichem, who served as an interpreter and mirror of a former place, which required an audience (and events had rendered that impossible), Singer understood that a different audience required a different role for him. He became an elegist, a witness spirit, and a living ghost. Even as his earthiness, his wit, and his spry media presence rendered him a vibrant, vital part of American culture — not just of American-Jewish or Yiddish culture — in the third quarter of the 20th century, his appeal depended on his being there and not there at the same time. While his Nobel Prize may have come from the West, it was only because his heart, as it were, was in Eastern Europe.

The history and legacy of Yiddish is unimaginable without these two major writers’ careers and fortunes. America was home and haven to both; but it only mattered because, in some essential way, it served as neither.

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Jeremy Dauber is the Atran Associate Professor of Yiddish Language, Literature, and Culture at Columbia University, where he directs its Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies. His book The Worlds of Sholem Aleichem, a literary biography, will be published next year.

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