A Wise and Humble Language

Mausoleum of three Yiddish writers: Ansky, Dinezon, and Peretz. Jewish Cemetery, Warsaw.

Eleven U.S. citizens have won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Bob Dylan won it most recently, in 2016. I still remember the first time I heard one of Dylan’s songs. It was “Lay Lady Lay.” I was riding in my car, listening to the radio, in south Jackson. I recall thinking, “What is this I’m listening to?” Country music, I knew, also blues, and, of course, rock and roll. But this music was something strange to me. William Faulkner won the prize in 1949. I didn’t get into Faulkner until I was in college. My first Faulkner was Absalom, Absalom! I’ve never gotten over it. For someone who was used to the likes of Dickens and Eliot–George, not T. S.–it was quite a change. Eventually, I enjoyed Faulkner and came to the firm belief that he should be read slowly while sipping bourbon, which I did, seated by a window through which the thick scent of magnolia entered, which I also did. In due course, I purchased one of three hundred limited edition copies of Absalom, Absalom!, signed by the author. But of all the Americans who have won the Nobel Prize for Literature, my favorite, bar none, is Isaac Bashevis Singer, who won the award in 1978. And he, of course, did not write in English. His language was Yiddish.


Wednesday, October 24, 2018 (continued): This is the third installment describing our visit to the Okopowa Jewish Cemetery in Warsaw. In this installment, we visit the mausoleum of three Yiddish writers: S. Ansky (or An-ski), Yacov Dinezon, and Yitskhok Leybush Peretz. On our way to the cemetery, Beth and I pass Krochmalna Street. Talk about serendipity! I ask her to take my picture beneath the street sign. It’s been raining off and on, and we get splashed with rainwater by a passing car. I don’t mind, but Beth isn’t happy because some of the water got on her camera.

Gershon Ben-Avraham, Krochmalna Street and Jana Pawla II Avenue, Warsaw.

For Yiddish writers, Warsaw was the place to be in the early part of the 20th century. Krochmalna Street was a special place for Singer, his father’s home. He mentioned it in his Nobel Lecture in 1978: “My father’s home on Krochmalna Street in Warsaw was a study house, a court of justice, a house of prayer, of storytelling, as well as a place for weddings and Chassidic banquets.”¹

Singer is not just my favorite Yiddish writer; he is my favorite writer, period. This may seem a little strange since Singer wrote in Yiddish and I’ve read him only in English. However, I’m sure that there are many readers whose favorite authors wrote in a language the reader did not know, Russian or French, German or Spanish, for example. In the last sentence of his Nobel Lecture, Singer says something that I believe helps me understand how he can be my favorite author although he wrote in Yiddish, a language I can’t read, at least not very well.

In a figurative way, Yiddish is the wise and humble language of us all, the idiom of frightened and hopeful Humanity.

Isaac Bashevis Singer, Nobel Lecture, 8 December 1978

I count myself among frightened and hopeful humanity. Consider this extract from Singer’s novel, The Slave.

A house built today would be burned tomorrow. Today a girl was engaged, a few days later raped. One day a man was rich, the next poor. Banquets were held one day, the next funerals for martyrs. The Jews were constantly on the march…²

I’m reading English, but I’m hearing Yiddish.


Mausoleum centerpiece: Ansky, Dinezon, and Peretz. Jewish Cemetery, Warsaw.

The Mausoleum of Three Yiddish writers is on our left as we continue our walk on the main path from the cemetery’s entrance past the monument to Janusz Korczak. Three masters of Yiddish are buried here: S. Ansky, also spelled An-ski, the nom de plume of Solomon Zanvel Rappoport; the Yiddish writer and editor Yacov Dinezon, and the Polish Yiddish author and playwright Yitskhok Leybush Peretz.

The three writers died in Warsaw, fairly close together in time: Peretz in 1915, Dinezon in 1919, and Ansky in 1920. All three are buried in the mausoleum.

Ansky was born in Vitebsk which at the time of his birth was in Russia. It is now in Belarus. His most famous work is the play The Dybbuk. The play was written between 1913 and 1917, initially in Russian. Subsequently, Ansky translated the play into Yiddish. An adaptation of the play was made into a movie in 1937 by the Polish filmmaker Michał Waszyński. The movie was filmed entirely in Warsaw. The English prologue to the film available on YouTube says, “All creatures are drawn to the source of the Divine Being. In these migrations it may happen that a wandering soul – – a DYBBUK – – enters a human being which once it loved.” You can watch the movie online, on YouTube, here.

Dinezon can lay claim to writing the first, best-selling, Yiddish novel, The Beloved and the Pleasant, or the Black Young Man, published in 1877. Over 10,000 copies of the book sold within a short time of its publication.

Peretz was born in the Polish city of Zamość in 1852. He grew up in an Orthodox Jewish home but became a member of the Haskalah. One of the things I like about Peretz is the respect he had for Hasidic Jews. This cannot be said of every member of the Maskilim. It is estimated that 100,000 people attended Peretz’s funeral in Warsaw. My favorite Peretz short story is “Bontshe Shvayg.” Here is a small taste of it, the story’s opening paragraph, translated by Hillel Halkin:

Here on earth the death of Bontshe Shvayg made no impression. Try asking who Bontshe was, how he lived, what he died of (Did his heart give out? Did he drop from exhaustion? Did he break his back beneath too heavy a load?), and no one can give you an answer. For all you know, he might have starved to death.³

Next time, Okopowa Jewish Cemetery, looking for Leimans.


¹Isaac Bashevis Singer: Nobel Lecture. The Nobel Prize, 2013, https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/1978/singer/lecture/. Accessed 19 December 2018.

²Isaac Bashevis Singer, The Slave. Translated by the author and Cecil Hemley. (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1962), 147-148.

³Peretz, I. L. The I. L. Peretz Reader (p. 146). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.


All photos © Beth Ben-Avraham, 2018.

2 thoughts on “A Wise and Humble Language

  1. Thanks, Juliet. Yiddish uses the Hebrew alphabet for writing. The written language looks like Hebrew. The similarity between the two languages is more in how they sound, not in how they look. This derives in part from their common ancestry in High German. So, for example, “Good Day” in German is written “Guten Tag”—writing from left to right—and sounds like “GOO-ten tahk.” The same phrase in Yiddish sounds similar, and is written “א גוטן טאג”—writing from right to left—and sounds like “A gutn tog,” with the “a” sounding like the “a” in the word father.

    A German language speaker who can read the Hebrew alphabet might be able to understand at least part of a Yiddish text. The opposite is also true. A Yiddish speaker who can read the German alphabet may get the gist of a German text. Once my wife was volunteering in a hospital and was attending a Russian woman who spoke to her in Yiddish. My wife understood most of what the woman said but replied to her in German since she doesn’t speak Yiddish.

    I once showed a Yiddish book I own to a native Hebrew speaker. He looked very puzzled and after a while said, “I have no idea what this is saying. It looks like Hebrew, but it makes no sense.”

    If I’ve not understood your question, I apologize. Please let me know, and I’ll try again.

    Gershon

    Like

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