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Jewish Social Studies 7.2 (2001) 67-88

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Trains and Train Travel in Modern Yiddish Literature

Leah Garrett

As the apocryphal story goes, in the 1840s when Tsar Nicholas I decided to develop the railroad in Russia, he placed his hand on a map and traced the line it would follow along the edge of his hand. However, the line he drew inadvertently included the ridge of his thumb. The tale says that, when the train system was built, it included that ridge. The tale is an unlikely one, but it points to how the railroad of Russia was a tsarist railroad. It would transport the gentry between St. Petersburg and Moscow, move soldiers to the front, and bring merchants around the country. Clearly the last thing the Tsar had in mind was that the great Russian train system would become for many Jewish writers something that they conceived of as Jewish rather than Russian.

The third-class train car was the place where Jews from the shtetls and cities of Eastern Europe would, typically, meet, conduct business, speak Yiddish, and talk about their families. The car would be full of Jewish merchants, Jews starting their transatlantic passage to America, Jewish horse traders, and even Jewish horse thieves. Like Rudyard Kipling's portrayal of the trains of India in Kim, where the train of the great British Empire becomes an Indian train, inhabited by Sikhs, Muslims, Sipoys, and Hindus speaking their languages and making it their train through dialogue and conversation, the Jews of the region made the Russian train into a Jewish train through their conversations, their fights, their gossip. Yiddish writers utilized this Judaization of the train car to make it an ideal setting for Jewish storytelling.

As Jonathan Crary has observed, "Modernization is a process by which capitalism uproots and makes mobile that which is grounded." 1 [End Page 67] Because the railroads generated unprecedented economic and social mobility and, by so doing, broke down many premodern socioeconomic constructs, there is a conflation of the railroads with modernization. For Yiddish writers, there was thus a natural binary that they could employ in their works about the railroad as a symbol of mobile modernization and the shtetl as a symbol of premodern stasis. Opinions varied, however, on whether the change wrought by the trains was good or bad for the Jews.

This article will consider three tales of train travel spanning 19 years: Sholem Abramovitsh's 1890 Shem un Yefes in a vogn (Shem and Japheth on a Train), Sholem Aleichem's 1911 Ayznban-geshikhtes (Railroad Stories, written between 1902 and 1911), and David Bergelson's 1909 Arum vokzal (At the Depot). The stories will be contrasted against each other as well as against European literary portrayals of train travel, to demonstrate how Jewish writers used the motif of the train to critique modernization and urbanization. As I will show, in Yiddish literature the train is portrayed as a vessel that brings the tides of change into and out of the shtetl.

In 1865, the popular Yiddish poet and songwriter Elyokum Zunser (1836-1913, better known as the Badkhn, or Jester), published a poem entitled "Der ayznban" ( The Railroad). 2 The poem was a typical maskilic piece, highly idealistic about the new railroad system of Russia. It explained to the Jews that the new invention would modernize their lives. All the aspects of the train that many Jews undoubtedly found frightening became, in the poem, positive symbols of the "new age." "Der ayznban," however, was written when the train was a new form of transport in Russia (since the train system came later to Russia than to Western Europe). 3 By the time of Zunser's second railroad poem, "Lid fun ayznban" (Railroad Poem), merely 10 years later, the train was no longer a novelty; for Zunser it was now a negative symbol of bureaucracy and class stratification. 4

"Lid fun ayznban" humorously depicts the negatives of train travel in a step-by-step breakdown of the roles of each of the different train officials, from the director to...


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