Small Worlds by Allen Hoffman
Back in the early 1950′s, when the late Irving Howe set out to compile A Treasury of Yiddish Stories, he eliminated from contention almost everything written in Yiddish about the New World. If, Howe reasoned, American-born readers were looking for slices of urban life, or the panoramic sweep of their own social landscape, they had access to the “real thing”—to Dreiser, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Dos Passos, Faulkner. Rather, what Howe saw as unique to Yiddish fiction was the life-and-death struggle of the shtetl, the self-regulating, culturally autonomous, and historically vulnerable Jewish community of the Old World. In the wake of that community’s final destruction in World War II, the Yiddish literature he (together with his collaborator Eliezer Greenberg) was bringing into English would provide a lasting, and loving, memorial.
Howe did not live to see a surprising fruit of his labor: in the last decade of the 20th century, a group of American-born Jewish writers has begun to reclaim that same shtetl for their own fictional purposes. But unlike their Yiddish literary forebears, who actually lived the experiences they described, these third- and fourth-generation American-Jewish writers have little more to go by than the Howe and Greenberg Treasury, plus some Sholem Aleichem and LB. Singer translated into English or transformed into the fare of movies and musicals.
About the Author
David G. Roskies teaches literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary. This is adapted from a work in progress, The Last Yiddish Novel: A Memoir. Copyright © 2005 by David G. Roskies.