To the Editor:
As a regular reader of Commentary, I have always been impressed by its high standards of writing and accuracy. I regret to say, however, that these high standards, of accuracy in particular, seem to go by the board in your rare articles on Yiddish literature. I refer specifically to Judd L. Teller’s efforts on this subject.
In his latest article (“Secular Hebrew and Esoteric Yiddish”) in the June issue, Mr. Teller not only misrepresents the case of Yiddish versus Hebrew, but he makes the kind of serious factual error that one does not expect from a serious journal like yours. Permit me to list a few of the errors:
1. Mr. Teller writes that “I. M. Weisenberg’s work spawned a whole school of naturalists and masters of the argot like Oizer Warshavsky, Chayim Leib Fuks, and Fishl Bimko.” Chayim Leib Fuks is a poet. Mr. Teller probably refers to the prose writer M. A. Fuks, a leading short story writer today.
2. In discussing “all the significant literature of Jewish nationalism and its important Zionist-socialist sub-section,” Mr. Teller writes that the only significant work on this subject was done by Ber Borochov. The fact is that Ber Borochov was the founder and theoretician of Labor Zionism and his major writing on the subject was in Russian. His contribution to Yiddish was mainly as a philologist and literary historian. A more serious error is Mr. Teller’s failure to mention the gigantic role of Chayim Zhitlowsky, whose collected works (thirty volumes) and other writing (about twenty volumes) constitute a major contribution to the literature of nationalism, Zionism, and Socialism. Mr. Teller also omits the names of numerous other writers who did significant work in that field. Besides Dr. Zhitlowsky, I will mention only Ben Adir and Nachman Syrkin.
3. Among the Hebrew writers on the subject of Jewish nationalism, Zionism and Socialism, Mr. Teller mentions Yehudah Kaufman. Mr. Teller apparently does not know who Yehudah Kaufman is. He is known as a teacher and not as a writer. For a while he was director of the Jewish Teachers Seminary in New York and now lives in Israel. He has written a commentary on Maimonides and has edited some old manuscripts. Mr. Teller probably refers to Ezekiel Kaufman, author of Golah V’Neichar, a major work on Jewish problems.
4. Mr. Teller defines the shund-roman as “Popular novels about mistreated domestics.” Again, he errs. The shund-roman is a “popular” novel which treats a variety of characters. The early novels of this genre dealt with the lives of kings and princes and “the higher aristocracy,” though they may have been addressed to and read by “domestics.” At the present time it deals mostly with contemporary Jewish life in terms comparable to the so-called American popular novel.
5. It is true, as Mr. Teller writes, that the Yiddish-speaking shtetl no longer exists. Aside from the fact that Yiddish literature did not deal exclusively with shtetl life, I might point out that we are not so far removed in time and feeling from the concentration camps and World War II that the works of such younger writers as Chaim Grade, Mordecai Strigler and J. Spiegel, who deal with these subjects, can be considered “out of touch with large areas of Jewish experience. . . .”
6. Mr. Teller lists a rather small number of Yiddish poets who, he admits, reflect “a variegated body of poetry such as Hebrew has only recently begun to match.” I do not wish to argue with his choice of names, only with his omission of others whose contributions are too significant to be ignored. In this connection, I might mention that Mr. Teller himself was at one time a Yiddish reporter, journalist, book reviewer, and poet. As a poet, he was influenced by the “In Sich” or introspective school, and I wonder why in this article he seems to have forgotten his own origins.
7. As a sign of the vitality of the present Hebrew literature, Mr. Teller points to Shamir’s historical novel and plays. If this is the measure, I can name the recently published historical novels in Yiddish by Pesach Marcus, S. Apter and M. Strigler, which are as important as Shamir’s.
8. A large group of Yiddish novelists, story tellers, and poets is concentrated now in Israel. These writers write about Israeli life with much more vigor than their Hebrew contemporaries.
May I add in conclusion the hope that in the future Commentary will not select as its authority on Yiddish literature a former Yiddish writer who is now associated with an Israeli institution, and that it will show the same good judgment and acumen it exercises with respect to other subjects.
New York City
Mr. Teller writes:
I am not certain whether to feel depressed or entertained by a cast of mind that would deny me the right to discourse on Yiddish literature for the strange reason that I am “a former Yiddish writer who is now associated with an Israeli institution”—the first statement, incidentally, is disputable and the second not quite accurate. As for the “factual errors” Mr. Schulman has found in my article:
I am concerned with the quality, not the quantity, of Ber Borochov’s theoretical writings in Yiddish, and perhaps if Mr. Schulman would read them, he too might be impressed. Borochov has taken deep root in Israeli labor ideology, and still exercises the imagination of its intellectuals. Zhitlowsky’s thought, so often refuted (even, in parts, by himself), has failed to survive the vicissitudes of time, and hence he belongs to the unnamed “distinguished minds” of my article who produced “ephemeral movements.” Nachman Syrkin was an elegant propagandist, and it is not his thought, but that of Borochov and Gordon which took root in the applied Zionist Socialism of Israel. Incidentally, his first important work on the subject was written in German, not Yiddish.
There were various types of shund-romanen (and they were not, incidentally, like the popular novels of our day, but more like the “dime novels” of an earlier period). I referred to a particular category to indicate some of the sources of the latter-day “social content” Yiddish fiction.
Mr. Schulman’s reference to Yiddish concentration camp literature is puzzling. I did not imply that Yiddish literature was out of touch with all, or even most, areas of Jewish experience. I referred—and he quotes me correctly, thus contradicting himself—to “large areas of Jewish experience.”
Mr. Schulman does not challenge the status of the Yiddish writers I mentioned, but wonders why I did not add to the list. The fact is that my purpose was to write an essay, not a “Who’s Who,” or even a literary history.
I assume, from his remarks about Shamir, that Mr. Schulman reads Hebrew and difficult Hebrew, since Shamir has not yet been translated into Yiddish. In any case, I grant Mr. Schulman’s right to challenge my evaluations of writers, and I reserve my own right to submit his literary judgments to the gauge of that challenge.
I plead guilty on two counts of Mr. Schulman’s vehement indictment: I was indeed careless with the first names of Fuks and Kaufman.