Commentary Magazine


S. Niger Memorial Volume, edited by Shlomo Bickel and Leibush Lehrer

Homage to a Critic
Shmuel Niger Buch (S. Niger Memorial Volume).
by Shlomo Bickel and Leibush Lehrer.
YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. 333 pp. $4.50.

 

Samuel Niger, the noted Yiddish literary critic who died in 1955 at the age of seventy-two, began to write in the early years of the century, when Mendele, Peretz, and Sholem Aleichem were still alive, and modern Yiddish literature was just entering its most fruitful period. Niger’s career was almost identical with the growth of modern Yiddish literature itself, and he was one of its shapers and moving spirits. No other critic, with the possible exception of Baal Machshoves, even approximated him in stature and accomplishment, and Baal Machshoves, whose output was slim by comparison with that of Niger, died in 1924 (at the age of fifty-one) before he had a chance to deal comprehensively with such writers as Asch, Leivick, and Menachem.

Niger’s explanation of his function as critic was simple. He described himself as a discerning and thoughtful reader whose task was to help other readers get as much meaning out of a book as possible. By defining the relationship between critic and book as parallel to that between author and “life,” however, Niger lifted this humble view of criticism to considerable heights. He assigned to the critic not only a mediating but a creative role—for whom a book is a vehicle for confronting the very substance of human experience. In practice, as working critic, Niger fused both methods, examining a book (or author) scrupulously for its content, for its aesthetic merit, for its psychological and social dimensions, while making the exegetical task also an occasion for expressing his own ideas.

Yet, there were historical reasons for the type of criticism Niger wrote and for his particular idea of the critic’s function. The concept of literature as belles-lettres was fresh to the East European Jew. Not that literature was absent from his heritage: there was much poetry in his Bible and some in his prayers, and there were innumerable parables and stories in the Midrashim and the Agada. But for the Jew these too were Torah, and hence were for learning, for guidance, for spiritual and intellectual tachlis, purpose. The Jew always distinguished between the secular book and the sefer. The book was for amusement, but the sefer was for study, for getting a little closer to the heart of the Torah—the divine law as a program of conduct and as an experiment in holiness.

For the generations that turned from the yeshiva and the Talmud to Socialism, Zionism, and secular culture, there could be no enduring satisfaction in merely perusing the pages of a book. The Yiddish reader had to linger over a book, immerse himself in it, discuss it with his friends as earnestly as he did a while ago a passage in the Talmud. He cherished the book of stories or poems as a sefer, as possessing an element of sanctity, as an organ of truth. The maskilim (as proponents of the “Enlightenment”) generally judged literature in terms of its didactic effectiveness, but it was Niger’s great merit to have treated the Yiddish book as sefer without compromising it as literature. He raised literature to the status of a sefer by seeking out the tachlis, the purpose and meaning of the book, thereby proposing that the novel or poem is sefer to the extent to which it is authentic literature.

Niger had no peer as a publicist but he did not handle issues journalistically, or according to the dominant ideology or mood of the day. He was, for example, never dazzled by the promise which the Soviet Union held out for the flowering of Yiddish; and when the notion of “proletarian literature” entranced even those who were remote from Communism, he rejected it. Again, Niger was among the very few who appraised the establishment of the State of Israel correctly—not as the solution of a problem but rather as a crisis of fulfillment. He sensed the ethical danger confronting Israel and perhaps even more the Diaspora (in its attitude toward Israel)—the danger of accommodation to the idolatries of the world, the temptation to fashion itself in the image of the nations as they are. Niger was no sentimentalist, but he Was troubled by the Israeli pride in military victory as such, by the acceptance of violence as normal and natural, by the blurring of the boundary between “national” and “nationalistic.” And in opposition to Ben-Gurion’s doctrine of kibbutz galuyot, the ingathering of the exile, he developed and defended the concept of what might be called hiyuv ha-galut, the obligation of the exile: the obligation for Jewish creativity wherever we dwell and for involvement in the larger community—country and humanity—of which we are also a part.

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This commemorative volume contains sixteen essays—scholarly, informative, and, in varying degrees, interesting. Unfortunately, only four (a total of thirty-five pages) deal with Niger—either with his biography or with his work—and these are among the least adequate in the book. Three articles may be subsumed under the rubric of Yiddish literature, but they are in a minor key; there are no contributions whose theme is Yiddish literature and its values in the generic sense, or whose subject is the craft of criticism as a literary genre and as a discipline. The book is almost exclusively preoccupied with some phase of Yiddish as a language or with some sociological or historical aspect of Jewish nationalism.

The most exciting piece in the volume is Yudel Mark’s “Yiddish-Hebrew and Hebrew-Yiddish Coinages.” Mark’s thesis—sustained by examples and documentation—is that Yiddish and Hebrew were not two disparate languages throughout the centuries in Eastern Europe but constituted a single medium of Jewish thought and feeling. They were two only as “husband and wife” are two, bound together by “a partnership in destiny.” It was not merely a process of borrowing from each other. Yiddish not only absorbed a multitude of Hebrew words, phrases, and sayings through the Tanach, Mishna, Gemara, and the Midrashim, but devised countless Hebrew words, phrases, and sayings as an integral part of Yiddish speech. These had not existed in Hebrew, and their source was not in the Bible or Talmud, but in the daily life of the home, the market-place, and the synagogue. It follows then that Yiddish is no step-child of Jewish history, and that knowledge of it is indispensable both to the student of secular and rabbinic Hebrew as well as to the student of the East European Jewish milieu.

Leibush Lehrer’s “Problems of Jewish Ethnic Character” studies the changes in the Jewish character in America as compared with what it was in Eastern Europe. These changes are measured by three criteria: the type of men chosen as our ideal, the “frame-of-reference” of our religious practices, and the use we make of our leisure. First, there has been a shift from the preeminence of the talmid hakham (the man of learning), the tzadik (the pious and good man), even the martyr—to the “professional” (as administrator of Jewish institutions) and the businessman (as holder of authority). Second, our religious practices are not rooted in a nusach, a style of life, but are a medley of customs within the context of semi-dramatic ritual. Finally, our leisure does not serve us as the occasion for aliyat neshama (elevation of the soul) as the Sabbath did, but for the hedonism of food, comfort, and easy entertainment. To modify this alteration in the Jewish character Lehrer proposes a deepening of our “historical orientation.”

Besides Mark’s excellent essay, there are two others on Yiddish linguistics—Shlomo Noble’s “Yiddish in the Garb of Hebrew,” which is a variation on the same motif and supplements Mark’s article; and Max Weinreich’s “Yiddish Phonology as a Clue to Medieval Hebrew,” which is an admirable analysis of an extremely specialized and technical matter, but is out of place in this volume. Four articles are historical, and of these Philip Friedman’s “Ukranian-Jewish Relations During the Nazi Occupation” is stirring through the sheer recital of facts. Finally, besides Lehrer’s study, there is a piece by Chaim Wolf Reines, “Modern Jewish Nationalism,” in which he summarizes the works of Krochmal, Hess, Pinsker, Herzl, Achad Ha-am, Dubnow, and others, and concludes that the nationalism of Western European Jewish thinkers had its roots in our ethical and religious tradition while the inspiration of Jewish nationist thought in Eastern Europe was fundamentally secularist. There is one article on Anglo-Jewish literature by Charles Angoff, but it is sketchy, loosely organized, and altogether naive. Angoff ascribes the presumed improvement in the Jewish content of Anglo-Jewish writing to the beneficent influences of Ludwig Lewisohn, Louis D. Brandeis, and, as one might guess, the establishment of the State of Israel.

This is on the whole a solid volume, and no dishonor to the memory of Niger. But it is more representative, I think, of the interests and mentality of Yivo than of Niger. The pieces about Niger do not do justice to his vast importance in Yiddish literature. And almost all the articles are sedate in tone and content, as though their authors (or the editors) were anxious to leave undisturbed the era of good feeling which seems to have descended upon the Jewish community. Not so long ago the Yiddish-speaking segment of our community did not shy away from controversy and sharp divergences of opinion, either as polemic or as painstaking examination of ideas. Niger himself was skilled and fearless in both sorts of controversy. With the establishment of the State of Israel—and perhaps also because of the sacred martyrdom of the six million in Europe—controversy has been largely muted, and keen discussion is now conducted only within certain premises; there is, regrettably, scant questioning of the premises themselves.

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