SAMUEL Niger, the noted Yiddish literary critic who died in 1955 at the age of seventytwo, began to write in…
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.
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.
Choose your plan and pay nothing for six Weeks!
S. Niger Memorial Volume, edited by Shlomo Bickel and Leibush Lehrer
Must-Reads from Magazine
A Trump of their own.
There were many arguments for opposing Donald Trump’s bid for the presidency, but the retort usually boiled down to a single glib sentence: “But he fights.”
Donald Trump could accuse John McCain of bringing dishonor upon the country and George W. Bush of being complicit in the September 11th attacks. He could make racist or misogynistic comments and even call Republican primary voters “stupid”; none of it mattered. “We right-thinking people have tried dignity,” read one typical example of this period’s pro-Trump apologia. “And the results were always the same.”
If you can get over the moral bankruptcy and selective memory inherent in this posture, it has its own compelling logic. Driving an eighteen-wheel truck through the standards of decorum that govern political discourse is certainly liberating. If there is no threshold at which the means discredit the ends, then everything is permitted. That kind of freedom has bipartisan appeal.
Democrats who once lamented the death of decency at Trump’s hands were apparently only troubled by their party’s disparity in this new rhetorical arms race. The opposition party seems perfectly happy to see standards torn down so long as their side is doing the demolition.
This week, with passions surrounding Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court reaching a crescendo, Hawaii Senator Mazie Hirono demonstrated that Democrats, too, are easily seduced by emotionally gratifying partisan outbursts. “They’ve extended a finger,” Hirono said of how Judiciary Committee Republicans have behaved toward Dr. Christine Blasey Ford since she was revealed as the woman accusing Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct as a minor. “That’s how I look at it.”
That’s an odd way to characterize the committee chairman’s offers to allow Dr. Blasey Ford the opportunity to have her story told before Congress in whatever setting she felt most comfortable. Those offers ranged from a public hearing to a private hearing to a staff interview, either publicly or behind closed doors, to even arranging for staffers to interview her at her home in California. Hirono was not similarly enraged by the fact that it was her fellow Democrats who violated Blasey Ford’s confidentiality and leaked her name to the press, forcing her to go public. But the appeal of pugnacity for its own sake isn’t rooted in consistency.
Hirono went on to demonstrate her churlish bona fides in the manner that most satisfies voters who find that kind of unthinking animus compelling: rank bigotry.
“Guess who’s perpetuating all these kinds of actions? It’s the men in this country,” Hirono continued. “Just shut up and step up. Do the right thing.” The antagonistic generalization of an entire demographic group designed to exacerbate a sense of grievance among members of another demographic group is condemnable when it’s Trump doing the generalizing and exacerbating. In Hirono’s case, it occasioned a glamorous profile piece in the Washington Post.
Hirono was feted for achieving “hero” status on the left and for channeling “the anger of the party’s base.” Her style was described as “blunt” amid an exploration of her political maturation and background as the U.S. Senate’s only immigrant. “I’ve been fighting these fights for a—I was going to say f-ing long time,” Hirono told the Post. The senator added that, despite a lack of evidence or testimony from the accuser, she believes Blasey Ford’s account of the assault over Kavanaugh’s denials and previewed her intention to “make more attention-grabbing comments” soon. Presumably, those remarks will be more “attention-grabbing” than even rank misandry.
This is a perfect encapsulation of the appeal of the fighter. It isn’t what the fight achieves but the reaction it inspires that has the most allure. But those who confuse being provocative with being effective risk falling into a trap. Trump’s defenders did not mourn the standards of decency through which Trump punched a massive hole, but the alt-right and their noxious fellow travelers also came out of that breach. The left, too, has its share of violent, aggressively mendacious, and anti-intellectual elements. They’ve already taken advantage of reduced barriers to entry into legitimate national politics. Lowering them further only benefits charlatans, hucksters, and the maladjusted.
What’s more, the “fire in the belly,” as Hillary Clinton’s former press secretary Brian Fallon euphemistically describes Hirono’s chauvinistic agitation, is frequently counterproductive. Her comments channel the liberal id, but they don’t make Republicans more willing to compromise. What Donald Trump’s supporters call “telling it like it is” is often just being a jerk. No other Republican but Trump would have callously called into question Blasey Ford’s accounting of events, for example. Indeed, even the most reckless of Republicans have avoided questioning Blasey Ford’s recollection, but not Trump. He just says what’s in his gut, but his gut has made the Republican mission of confirming Kavanaugh to the Court before the start of its new term on October 1 that much more difficult. The number of times that Trump’s loose talk prevented Republicans from advancing the ball should give pause to those who believe power is the only factor that matters.
It’s unlikely that these appeals will reach those for whom provocation for provocation’s sake is a virtue. “But he fights” is not an argument. It’s a sentiment. Hirono’s bluster might not advance Democratic prospects, but it makes Brian Fallon feel like Democrats share his anxieties. And, for some, that’s all that matters. That tells you a lot about where the Democratic Party is today, and where the country will be in 2020.
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A lesson from Finland.
High-ranking politicians are entitled to freedom of speech and conscience. That shouldn’t be a controversial statement, but it often is, especially in European countries where the range of acceptable views is narrow–and narrowing. Just ask Finnish Foreign Minister Timo Soini, who spent the summer fighting off an investigation into his participation at an anti-abortion vigil in Canada. On Friday, Soini survived a no-confidence vote in Parliament over the issue.
“In general, I’m worried that Christianity is being squeezed,” he told me in a phone interview Friday, hours after his colleagues voted 100 to 60 to allow him to keep his post. “There is a tendency to squeeze Christianity out of the public square.”
Soini had long been associated with the anti-immigration, Euroskeptic Finns Party, though last year he defected and formed a new conservative group, known as Blue Reform. Before coming to power, Soini could sometimes be heard railing against “market liberals” and “NATO hawks.” But when I interviewed him in Helsinki in 2015, soon after he was appointed foreign minister, he told me his country wouldn’t hesitate to join NATO if Russian aggression continued to escalate. He’s also a vociferous supporter of Israel.
Through all the shifts of ideology and fortune, one point has remained fixed in his worldview: Soini is a devout Catholic, having converted from Lutheranism as a young man in the 1980s, and he firmly believes in the dignity of human life from conception to natural death. “I have been in politics for many years,” he said. “Everyone knows my pro-life stance.” The trouble is that “many people want me to have my views only in private.”
Hence his ordeal of the past few months. It all began in May when Soini was in Ottawa for a meeting of the Arctic Council, of which Finland is a member. At the church he attended for Mass, he spotted a flyer for an anti-abortion vigil, to be held the following evening. He attended the vigil as a private citizen: “I wasn’t performing as a minister but in my personal capacity. This happened in my spare time.”
A colleague posted a photo of the event on his private Twitter page, however, which is how local media in Finland got wind of his presence at the rally. The complaints soon poured into the office of the chancellor of justice, who supervises the legal conduct of government ministers. A four-month investigation followed. Soini didn’t break any laws, the chancellor concluded, but he should have been more circumspect when abroad, even in his spare time.
Soini wasn’t entirely oblivious to the fact that he was treading on sensitive ground. A top diplomat can never quite operate like a private citizen, much as a private citizen can’t act like a diplomat (someone tell John Kerry). Still, does anyone imagine that Soini would land in such hot water if he had attended a vigil for action on climate change? Or one in favor of abortion rights?
“No, no, no. I wouldn’t say so … The Finnish official line is that I should be careful because abortion is legal in Finland and Canada.” So the outrage is issue-specific and, to be precise, worldview-specific. In Nordic countries, especially, the political culture is consensus-based to a fault, and the consensus is that the outcome of the 1960s sexual revolution will never be up for debate. Next door in Sweden, midwives are blacklisted from the profession for espousing anti-abortion views. Ditto for Norwegian doctors who refuse to dispense IUDs and abortifacients on conscience grounds.
The consensus expects ministers to bring their views into line or keep their mouths shut. “This is of course clearly politics,” Soini told me. “I think I have freedom of conscience. I haven’t done anything wrong. This is me practicing my religion.” And the free exercise of religion means having the right to espouse the moral teachings of one’s faith—or it means nothing.
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Banality and evil.
A week ago, I wondered what was going on in Sunspot, New Mexico. The FBI had swept into this mountain-top solar observatory, complete with Black Hawk helicopters, evacuated everyone, and closed the place down with no explanation whatever. Local police were politely told to butt out. It was like the first scene in a 1950’s Hollywood sci-fi movie, probably starring Walter Pidgeon.
Well, now we know, at least according to the New York Post.
If you’re hoping for little green men saying, “Take me to your leader,” you’re in for a disappointment. It seems the observatory head had discovered a laptop with child pornography on it that belonged to the janitor. The janitor then made veiled threats and in came the Black Hawks.
In sum, an all-too-earthly explanation with a little law-enforcement overkill thrown in.
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The demands of the politicized life.
John Cheney-Lippold, an associate professor of American Culture at the University of Michigan, has been the subject of withering criticism of late, but I’m grateful to him. Yes, he shouldn’t have refused to write a recommendation for a student merely because the semester abroad program she was applying to was in Israel. But at least he exposed what the boycott movement is about, aspects of which I suspect some of its blither endorsers are unaware.
We are routinely told, as we were by the American Studies Association, that boycott actions against Israel are “limited to institutions and their official representatives.” But Cheney-Lippold reminds us that the boycott, even if read in this narrow way, obligates professors to refuse to assist their own students when those students seek to participate in study abroad programs in Israel. Dan Avnon, an Israeli academic, learned years ago that the same goes for Israel faculty members seeking to participate in exchange programs sponsored by Israeli universities. They, too, must be turned away regardless of their position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
When the American Studies Association boycott of Israel was announced, over two hundred college presidents or provosts properly and publicly rejected it. But even they might not have imagined that the boycott was more than a symbolic gesture. Thanks to Professor Cheney-Lippold, they now know that it involves actions that disserve their students. Yes, Cheney-Lippold now says he was mistaken when he wrote that “many university departments have pledged an academic boycott against Israel.” But he is hardly a lone wolf in hyper-politicized disciplines like American Studies, Asian-American Studies, and Women’s Studies, whose professional associations have taken stands in favor of boycotting Israel. Administrators looking at bids to expand such programs should take note of their admirably open opposition to the exchange of ideas.
Cheney-Lippold, like other boycott defenders, points to the supposed 2005 “call of Palestinian civil society” to justify his singling out of Israel. “I support,” he says in comments to the student newspaper, “communities who organize themselves and ask for international support to achieve equal rights, freedom and to prevent violations of international law.” Set aside the absurdity of this reasoning (“Why am I not boycotting China on behalf of Tibet? Because China has been much more effective in stifling civil society!”). Focus instead on what Cheney- Lippold could have found out by Googling. The first endorser of the call of “civil society” is the Council of National and Islamic Forces (NIF) in Palestine, which includes Hamas, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and other groups that trade not only in violent resistance but in violence that directly targets noncombatants.
That’s remained par for the course for the boycott movement. In October 2015, in the midst of the series of stabbings deemed “the knife intifada,” the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel shared a call for an International Day with the “new generation of Palestinians” then “rising up against Israel’s brutal, decades-old system of occupation.” To be sure, they did not directly endorse attacks on civilians, but they did issue their statement of solidarity with “Palestinian popular resistance” one day after four attacks that left three Israelis–all civilians–dead.
The boycott movement, in other words, can sign on to a solidarity movement that includes the targeting of civilians for death, but cannot sign letters of recommendation for their own undergraduates if those undergraduates seek to learn in Israel. That tells us all we need to know about the boycott movement. It was nice of Cheney-Lippold to tell us.