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Imagining Lives

Autobiographical Fiction of Yiddish Writers

Jan Schwarz

Publication Year: 2005

    In interwar and post-Holocaust New York, Yiddish autobiographers responded to the upheaval of modern Jewish life in ways that combined artistic innovation with commemoration for a world that is no more. Imagining Lives: Autobiographical Fiction of Yiddish Writers is the first comprehensive study of the autobiographical genre in Yiddish literature. Jan Schwarz offers portraits of seven major Yiddish writers, showing the writer's struggles to shape the multiple identities of their ruptured lives in autobiographical fiction. This analysis of Yiddish life-writing includes discussions of literary representation, self and collectivity, and memory in modern Jewish literature.
    Schwarz shows how Yiddish autobiographical fiction fuses novelistic elements and memoiristic truthfulness in ways that also characterize Jewish life-writing in English and Hebrew. His accessible style, biographical sketches, glossary of Hebrew and Yiddish words, and careful survey of notable texts takes readers on an incomparable journey through modern Yiddish literature.

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press


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pp. ix

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pp. xi-xii

This book could not have been published without the generous subsidies provided by the Dorot Foundation of San Francisco and the YIVO Society of Chicago. I am very grateful to both organizations. ...

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Note on Transliteration

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pp. xiii

The transliteration of Yiddish follows the YIVO system, except for the personal names of some of the Jewish writers. ...

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pp. 3-22

This study examines the way in which Yiddish writers reconfigured the dominant autobiographical models in European and American literature by fusing them with Jewish content, sensibilities and literary modes. Among the many critical gaps in the field of Yiddish literature is the lack of a systematic study of the Yiddish literary autobiography. ...

Part I. The Classical Trio

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1 Setting the Stage

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pp. 25-47

Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh’s Shloyme reb khayims (Shloyme, the Son of Khayim) and Peretz’s Mayne zikhroynes established two alternate paradigms that became highly influential in the development of Yiddish life-writing in the twentieth century. Before Shloyme reb khayims, Yiddish writers had written their autobiographies in Hebrew, presented ...

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2 A Whistle of Defiance

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pp. 48-76

Sholem Aleichem mentioned in a 1895 letter to the Yiddish writer Mordechai Spektor that, “the best novel is a person’s life, and my life is very rich in various episodes, characters and types,—I have decided to begin describing my life (autobiography) at length from my birth until age twenty. I intend to publish my autobiography in your Hoyz-fraynd [a Yiddish literary journal edited by Spektor]. You probably understand ...

Part II. In America

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3 The Trials of a Yiddish Writer

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pp. 79-97

In his article “America in the Memoir Literature” (1945), the Yiddish critic Y. A. Rontsh mentioned that the 1930s and early 1940s were particularly rich in autobiographies by Yiddish writers in America: “Recently there is a plethora of memoirs in Yiddish America. This is a sign that our literature is getting older; a result of the anniversaries. Yankev Milkh’s ...

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4 An American Yiddish Poet Visits Poland, 1934

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pp. 98-124

Yankev Glatshteyn’s two Yash books (1938, 1940) provided an analysis and exposition of the universal condition of exile, dislocation, and growing fear of war in the inter-war period. They reflected Glatshteyn’s crisis as a Yiddish writer midway through his career, during a period when increasing anti-Semitism threatened the very survival of the Jewish ...

Part III. After the Holocaust

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5 Of a World That Is No More

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pp. 127-158

Yiddish life-writing after the Holocaust nearly effaced the writer’s self and turned his life narrative into a parable of survival of the destruction of Eastern European Jewry. Like Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (1913–1927), the Yiddish writers Y. Y. Trunk, Chaim Grade, I. B. Singer and Joseph Buloff sought to retrieve and actualize their past’s infinite possibilities. ...

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pp. 159-164

It is now possible to delineate the main characteristics of the Yiddish literary autobiography and make some comparisons with the genre as it appears in Hebrew and Jewish-American literature. Two main influences intersected in the Yiddish literary autobiography: the Rousseauian quest for truthfulness and the externalized drama of Yiddish fiction. ...


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pp. 167-183


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pp. 185-188


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pp. 189-220


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pp. 221-229


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pp. 231-241

E-ISBN-13: 9780299209636
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299209605

Publication Year: 2005