To the Editor:
The confusion in Johanna Kaplan’s review of A Crown of Feathers by Isaac Bashevis Singer and A Shtetl and Other Yiddish Novellas edited by Ruth R. Wisse [Books in Review, February] occurs both in detail and in Miss Kaplan’s general approach to the subject of Yiddish literature.
First, the details. The author of Romance of a Horse Thief is not David but Joseph Opatashu. David, who happens to be a prominent stage and screen actor, is Joseph Opatashu’s son. Romance of a Horse Thief was published shortly after Joseph Opatashu’s literary debut in 1910. At that time he already had acquired a considerable knowledge of American, English, and French literature, but to hint, as Miss Kaplan does, that he was influenced by the Russian-Jewish writer Isaac Babel, who was also starting out at that time, seems a bit farfetched. The name Joseph Opatashu looms high in Yiddish letters not because of his several hundred short stories but because of his great novels: In Polish Woods, Rabbi Akiba, and many others. . . .
Miss Kaplan’s general approach is also confusing, especially in her evaluation of the place of Yiddish literature in America and specifically with regard to her view that the Jews in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s work are commonly regarded as figures of exotica. But to those familiar with Jewish life, whether in antiquity, modern times, or after the Holocaust, the characters of Yiddish literature are neither exotic nor imaginary. In the artistic treatment of such characters the geographic boundary lines vanish as if by magic, especially when the Jewish frame of reference is global and not parochial—an objective eminent Yiddish writers have tried hard to achieve.
This unique condition invalidates Miss Kaplan’s contention that Yiddish literature has been without an audience because it has not been translated. The fact is that Singer, like many others, has a Yiddish audience in Israel as well as in America, in France as well as in Canada, in Melbourne and in Johannesburg as well as in Mexico City and Buenos Aires. It might be that some writers do write with an eye to the non-Jewish world, as Sholem Asch sometimes did. But there is a penalty for such transgression: these writers estrange their Jewish audience and in the long run they are also forgotten by the others. . . .
Although Singer’s novels are very much illuminated by the lights emanating from Jewish mysticism, learning, and history, his characters are not drawn from the annals of Jewish history. They spring from his rich imagination rooted deeply in Jewish life experience. He knows that the strong and healthy Jacob in The Slave is just as Jewish as the ascetic Itche Mattess in Satan in Goray. . . .
A little less aloofness and more honest consideration would certainly help dispel the confusion and folly prevalent in some circles that Yiddish novels are either second-hand copies of non-Jewish masters or, in the case of certain unique works, exotic even on the writers’ own grounds. Accordingly, Miss Kaplan’s quotation from Isaac Bashevis Singer describing the people he writes about—“They lived in the midst of almost all the social movements of their time. Their illusions were the illusions of mankind”—must come as nothing less than a profound revelation. Indeed it is—to some people.
Los Angeles, California
Johanna Kaplan writes:
Sol Schlosser is indeed correct in identifying Joseph, not David, Opatashu as the writer. As for his other objections, however, I must, in all fairness, point out that I did not anywhere suggest that Opatashu was influenced by Isaac Babel, and that since Mr. Schlosser’s letter seems to reflect a similar misreading throughout, I can only refer interested readers to my review.
I have only the highest regard for Mr. Schlosser’s evident passion for Yiddish literature—its writers and its readers—and would like to suggest that our differences are probably not as great as he somewhat querulously presupposes.