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  • Yiddishlands: A Memoir
  • Philip Hollander
Yiddishlands: A Memoir, by David G. Roskies. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2008. 225 pp. $27.95.

In accordance with the author's classification of this work as a memoir, one expects to find a loosely structured work containing scattered vignettes pertaining to one of the world's premier Yiddish literary scholars' private life. This work, however, greatly exceeds such limited expectations. Having spent decades researching the complex fiction of leading Yiddish writers, such as Yitzhak Bashevis Singer and Pinchus Kahanovich, and reading the nuanced and artistically wrought memoirs and autobiographies of S. Y. Abramowitz, Y. L. Peretz, and Sholem Aleichem, Yiddish literature's classic writers, Roskies creates a literary autobiography combining deep emotional truths with well-crafted art and occasional flashes of literary brilliance. [End Page 187]

Roskies' recognition of himself as a second-generation Holocaust survivor lies at this work's core. Yet, when growing up, Roskies' conscious and unconscious worlds, unlike the overwhelming majority of his generation, were not dominated by ghettoes, einsatzgruppen, death camps, and hiding spots. Instead Roskies, who was born in 1948 to secular East-European-born Jewish parents who had succeeded in making their way to Montreal in the summer of 1940, confronted the heights of intellectual and cultural achievement attained by East European Jewry's Yiddish-speaking community prior to the war and the community's inspiring vitality even under difficult circumstances. Roskies' mother Masha, who dominates the work's opening section, convened one of the geographically diffuse Yiddish world's most important literary salons and took tremendous pride in the unique character and cultural achievements of East European Jewry, especially those attained by residents of her hometown Vilna. Young Roskies, temporally and spatially blocked from the apex of Yiddish cultural achievement in East Europe by the Holocaust, looked longingly towards a Golden Age in a mythic Yiddishland that could liberate him from a grey and seemingly uninteresting English and French-speaking Montreal that failed to provide him with a viable peer group. His subsequent efforts to resurrect the mythic world on American soil through the foundation of Youth for Yiddish and his taking up of Yiddish scholarship's call, as voiced by YIVO's legendary founder Max Weinreich, soon had him abandoning the here and now in a burdensome effort to preserve a world that Hitler had worked to destroy.

In a manner evocative of Harold Bloom's theory of the anxiety of influence, Roskies portrays how he emerged out of the stifling influence of his mother, who came to personify the interwar East European Jewish world for her son, through his deepening engagement with Jewish history, Jewish religious tradition, and Zionism and the State of Israel. Roskies would maintain the lifelong commitment to Yiddish language and culture, but his ability to effectively proceed forward in his life as a Jew, a scholar, a husband, and a father, mandated that he take possession of the East European Jewish past which he had previously allowed Western Holocaust survivors, including his mother and important Yiddish cultural figures, such as Leybl Rochman, to dictate for him. Roskies' ability to do this and arrive at what he has referred to in his scholarship as "a usable past" came about through his participation in the Havurah movement, which he helped found. Although Roskies arrived at this movement, which looked to reinvigorate American Judaism through the incorporation of Judaic and countercultural elements, from a unique psychological place, he was attracted to its utopian quest for meaning and its willingness to incorporate Yiddish culture into a new Judaism meant to replace an increasingly suburbanized and bland American Judaism. Through the portrayal of a [End Page 188] debate between Leybl Rochman and Arthur Green, founder of Havurat Shalom, in a chapter entitled "Between Two Mountains," Roskies indirectly voices the internal debate going on within himself between fealty to the survivor generation and the desire to create an eclectic Judaism serving present needs. With the victory of Green, who would go on to head the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and emerge as a leading scholar of Jewish mysticism, Roskies marks his arrival at intellectual maturity.

Intellectual maturity changed Roskies' relationship with his mother and...


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