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  • Imagining Lives: Autobiographical Fiction of Yiddish Writers
  • Gennady Estraikh
Imagining Lives: Autobiographical Fiction of Yiddish Writers, by Jan Schwarz. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2005. 241 pp. $45.00.

In the second half of the twentieth century, following the decline of Yiddish as a language of non-religious life, education, and media, the multi-genre and multi-talented Yiddish literary legacy has undergone the process of compression for posterity. As a result, only two writers remain in the domain of the so-called household names: Sholem Aleichem and Isaac Bashevis Singer. The former is widely perceived as the author of The Fiddler on the Roof, whereas Singer occupies the only Yiddish pedestal in the open-to-general-public memorial of European Jewish life's "usable past." It does not mean, though, that people know biographies of Sholem Aleichem or Singer. During a conference in the New York Public Library devoted to Singer's centenary, a student seating next to me was wondering if the great writer would personally participate in the event. In fact, even committed students often have problems with finding academic publications on Yiddish belletrists.

Although Jan Schwarz's book is not biographical, it contributes significantly to understanding personas of Yiddish writers, because Schwarz deals with life-writing, or the genre that "employs fictive discourse, making it impossible to make true distinctions between fiction and autobiography from narrative and stylistic points of view." Interestingly, literary historians and critics noted that while non-Jewish writers were often prone to describe "quiet" life, [End Page 210] Jewish life-writers would normally require outside tragic stimuli, such as the decline or complete obliteration of a community or historical period. Then again, throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries Yiddish writers had too many incentives of this kind. No wonder Sholem Aleichem maintained that "the best novel is a person's life." Granted, an acute episode of open pulmonary tuberculosis rather than, say, the 1905 pogrom in Kiev stimulated him to start writing his autobiography.

Imagining Lives is an erudite book, populated (and in a few places overpopulated) by scores of Jewish and non-Jewish writers, but it has seven protagonists: Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh, Sholem Aleichem, I. L. Peretz, Yankev Glatshteyn, Chaim Grade, Jonah Rosenfeld, and Isaac Bashevis Singer. Virtual or real nostalgic trips to the habitat of their childhood and youth gave food to their literary imagination. Although all of them are East European-born men of letters (the book does not cross the gender mekhitsa) and their life-writings portray predominantly Jewish settings in Russia and Poland, Schwarz's approach is, essentially, American-centered. First, European, particularly east European, models do not play any considerable role in the study. Second, and more importantly, the list represents the transatlantic "golden chain" of Yiddish literary tradition. Apart from the fact that five of the seven writers spent at least some years of their life in the United States, the seven protagonists reflect the mainstream American Yiddish canon, in which Grade (pronounced "gra:de") and Singer are "the most important Yiddish prose writers after the Holocaust." Schwarz's choice is sagacious, because the accepted canon also delineates di alte heym ("old home"), which is normally the shtetl (or the shtetl-like setting) before or during the Holocaust.

It is logical, therefore, that such writers as Eli Shekhtman (who was "the most important" in the now almost extinct American Yiddish "progressive" camp) do not appear in Imagining Lives. Schwarz admits, though, that the "prolific output of Yiddish life-writing published in Israel, South-America, Canada, South Africa, France and the Soviet Union in post-Holocaust period requires studies of their own." Moreover, life-writing continues to develop in Yiddish literature, playing a significant role in the literary output of such writers as Boris Sandler, editor of the New York Forverts. Shmuel Gordon's novel Yizker, published in book form in 2003, became an important contribution to the genre. For a few recently deceased writers, life-writing was virtually the only genre of their creativity, e.g. the Moldova writer Yekhiel Shraybman and the Soviet, and later Israeli, writer Shira Gorshman. I am not sure if Schwarz is right when he argues that "[t...


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