Here you can read the transcript of a talk given by Boris Sandler, who spoke about Yiddish literature during the International Association of Yiddish Clubs Conference on October 25th.

Boris Sandler was born in Beltz (Bessarabia) and graduated from the Music Conservatory in Kishinev and wrote for the Moscow Yiddish magazine “Sovetish Heymland.” Later he joined its editorial board. In 1989 he created a Yiddish Show on the Moldovian State Television – “On the Jewish Street.”

He is the author of two documentary film scripts: From 1990 till his immigration to Israel in 1992, he was the Yiddish Editor of the bilingual journal “Undzer Kol” in Kishinev and President of the Yiddish Cultural Organization of Moldavia.

Sandler is author of seven fiction books and was editor of the children’s magazine “Kind un Keyt”. His works have been translated to Russian, English, French, German, Hebrew and Rumanian. Since 1998 he has been Editor-in-Chief of the Yiddish Forverts newspaper and from 1999 to the present editor of the Forward radio show.

The Development of Yiddish Literature Since the Czernowitz Conference



A. Background

Yiddish writers and their readers were and remain dispersed throughout the world. That dispersion has had advantages and disadvantages. Perhaps the greatest advantage was that Yiddish literature, soaked in its natural juices, colors, and folk-themes, also absorbed the unique characteristics and sounds of the countries and landscapes in which the Yiddish writers were fated to live and create.

Dovid Hofshteyn depicted his native corner of the world in these well known lines:

In the winter evenings on Russian fields—
where can one be lonelier, where can one be lonelier?

And a distant echo of Hofshteyn’s Russian fields can be heard in the lines by the Argentinian Yiddish poet Moyshe Koyfman:

Fields, fields—desolate and empty–
swim through a cloud of sand.
The blacksmith and the cobbler are gone—
we’re in the midst of the Pampas land.

Two different landscapes, saturated with deep yearning, seen through Jewish eyes and expressed in a common language: Yiddish.

Nevertheless, it has been commonly accepted in Yiddish literary history that between the two World Wars there were three literary centers: the American Yiddish center, the Yiddish center in Poland, and the Yiddish center in Soviet Russia. Dovid Bergelson’s essay, written in 1926, is indeed so titled: “Three Centers.”

The American Yiddish center, Bergelson emphasizes, found itself in better economic circumstances than the other Yiddish centers. “Its bourgeois and petit-bourgeois members, known as ‘allrightniks,’ are repeating the most fruitless and comical page in Jewish history: they want to assimilate but can’t.”

Jews, in their two-thousand-year Diaspora history, have more than once tried to assimilate: with the Arameans, Arabs, Spaniards, Italians, Germans, Russians, and Polacks. Who haven’t they tried to assimilate with?!

Everywhere they wandered, they always believed that right there they had finally found secure ground to continue the ‘golden chain of generations.’ There ‘salvation’ would come. “And everywhere,” Bergelson writes, “with each new attempt, they always bumped up against the principal nerve of assimilation: the language of the people into whose new stomach they wanted to throw themselves, feeling that though the baptismal water touches only the body, the language also baptizes the soul.” And Bergelson emphasizes further: “The tendency to weaken the soul through the alien language, which is the expression of the alien soul, was often quite clear among the wealthy strata of Jewish society.”

But how does the Yiddish proverb go? “In the orbit of a rich man, ten poor men circle.” The wealthy classes always dragged the poor masses along with them in the new land. So it was when they were fleeing from the pogroms in Russia at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century and about a million Jews came to America, so it was when they settled the Pampas of Argentina, and so it was during the prewar emigration to Israel. Thanks to the poor masses, the longed-for assimilation used to come a cropper: instead of melting into the language and culture of the new environment, as the wealthy Jews would have liked to do, the uninterested masses, over the years, merely adjusted the foreign language to their daily requirements. As a result, there developed an Aramaic-Jewish; a Spanish-Jewish, Ladino; an Arabic-Jewish, Yahudish; and an Ashkenazi-Jewish, Yiddish. “Now the same process is going on in America,” wrote Bergelson in the 1920s, and today, as a result of that process, we speak a sort of new Yiddish-English mixture, Yinglish.

Ab. Cahan, the founder and first editor of the Forverts, in an editorial in which he expressed the importance of the Czernowitz Language Conference in recognizing Yiddish as “a language like all other languages,” wrote that it was precisely the pogroms in Russia in the 1880s that awakened the national feeling among the Jewish intelligentsia, who before that had rejected Yiddish, the “jargon.” “But right after the first pogroms,” Cahan wrote, “the Jewish students who had been ashamed to hear people speak Yiddish, to say nothing of speaking it themselves, began to use their mother-tongue in the home and in the street. That was their demonstration that the spilled Jewish blood had opened their eyes, awakened them from their foolish error in believing that they could shake themselves loose from their people.”

Of course the social processes in the societies of which the Jews were a part couldn’t fail to drag them into the maelstrom of the events that were rapidly developing in the 20th century. The Jewish youth threw itself, body and soul, into that rushing whirlpool, especially in the Russian Empire, where the Jewish masses were particularly oppressed and deprived of rights.

The leading Yiddish critic Shmuel Niger emphasizes the characteristics of that time, between 1900 and 1914, up to the first World War: “Yiddish literature has ceased to be a tool for liberal, socialistic, or nationalistic enlightenment and has become more and more a literature like all other literatures, first in the old country and then in America. First of all, Yiddish literature, like a mature person, has begun to analyze and understand what it wants to and has to do next: begin developing publicistic and philosophical essays and literary and theatrical criticism—the scientific work. And as an indication of concern about tomorrow, the first signs of a children’s literature and a pedagogical literature are appearing.”

About ten years later, the question of establishing Yiddish shuln, both in the old country and in America, was placed at the forefront of the discussion of continued Jewish survival. The writer Boris Smoliar, who concerned himself deeply with Yiddish education both in the old country and here in America, wrote in 1925: “A language cannot go lost if there exist children’s schools in which the subjects are taught to the children in that language. A language is not dependent on the inflow and outflow of people if there is no strong tendency to assimilate it into another language.”

In America, there was no Holocaust, thank God, and what we have today in America’s Jewish life is a “successful” result of the tendency to “assimilate as fast as possible into another language.”

B. Literature in Soviet Russia

The October Revolution in Russia in 1917 not only divided the whole world into two parts, the socialist camp and the capitalist camp, as the Soviet historians used to define it; in Yiddish literature, too, which till then had been reminiscent of a braided Sabbath challah, intertwined and united, with one history, tradition, and esthetic, and connections between various writers of differing ideological viewpoints, a red boundary line was drawn that was transformed over the years more and more into a deep chasm.

But first I want to mention another brief but important chapter in the development of Yiddish literature. A half-year before the October Revolution, also in Russia, there took place the so-called bourgeois revolution. In Petrograd and Moscow in Russia, and in Kiev and Kharkov in Ukraine, clear signs of a Yiddish cultural revival appeared. Niger characterizes that era as follows: “The conditions in Ukraine were favorable. There there were Jewish folk-masses. They lived a Jewish life, with the help of Yiddish. A movement began from below that was, in its essence, a cultural awakening of the Jewish folk-masses. Yiddish shuln, libraries, evening courses, and clubs began to open throughout Ukraine. There arose a broad-ranging unified organization called the “Yiddish Cultural League of Ukraine.” The Cultural League established a Yiddish bookstore…broad prospects for the Yiddish word in Ukraine appeared.”

As we know, however, political and economic crises soon developed, as a result of the October revolution and the civil war and bloody pogroms and slaughters that followed it.

Among the dozens of names that that stormy time cast up from its depths, especially from Ukraine, was the young poet Osher Shvartsman. In the Western world, his name is almost unknown because his literary activity extended over only one decade. He was a legendary personality, a hero of the first World War. His first poem in Yiddish, “The Tavern,” was written in 1909. In 1913, Dovid Bergelson, with whom Osher had become friendly back in their Kiev days, published a poem of his, “And the Earth Would Tell the Secret at Night,” in the Vilna magazine “Di Yidishe Velt” (The Jewish World.)

Shvartsman’s legacy consists of about 60 poems. During his lifetime, he didn’t publish even one book, but despite that he is considered by Soviet literary critics one of the founders of Soviet Yiddish poetry, though he wrote only two or three poems that can be called revolutionary. He was not a bard of the revolution but rather its echo. He died in 1919, at the age of 29. Here is an example of his poetry:

A ray of sun kissed a wave
with lips of purest gold;
the wave jumped up, as if confused,
and no longer wanted to live.

Dovid Bergelson, in his essay “Three Centers,” wrote in the 1920s: “Soviet Russia is the only country that forces the Jewish people, not only on paper but with an iron hand, to make full use of the equal rights that it provides. It forces the delineation within it of a peasantry, a workers’ army, its own teacher and government officials class, Jewish schools and technical institutes, Jewish judges, Jewish poets, Jewish prosecutors, Jewish Soviets and Jewish militia, Jewish farmers, Jewish divisions in the universities, Jewish scholars and professors, and Jewish leaders and holders of power. It interweaves and integrates the Jewish intelligentsia with the Jewish masses, and paints the gray Jewish life with a kaleidoscope of colors, and in the process creates new Jewish possibilities for the new Jewish artist.”

That was not propaganda. Bergelson wrote straightforwardly in his essay, without any pressure whatsoever, especially since he wrote it when he was outside the borders of Soviet Russia. Even in the 20s, there was no doubt about the revival of Jewish national life. The Jewish youth was fascinated by the new Jewish life and dipped their toes into it. New paths opened in Yiddish literature in Soviet Russia.

What actually are the foundations of every literature? Two things: what one writes about and the way of writing.

Bergelson remarks that “Yiddish prose writers often felt themselves to be in the position of a cook who is given the same raw foods every day and is told to prepare a new dish from them every day. That caused minor talents among Jews to fade away right after the first prose work; only very prolific writers or very great masters who could put things together well could remain alive and leave many volumes.”

Who were the usual characters in Yiddish Literature? The merchant, the broker, the artisan, and the Jewish wife. Sholem Asch, in his “Shtetl,” introduced three strong folk-types, the fisherman, the wagon-driver, and the butcher, and thereby produced a complete revolution in literature.

“The same could be said about Yiddish poets,” Bergelson writes. “They were the capable, driven intellectuals who, instead of emigrating to the other countries, emigrated into themselves, their individual emotions. That was especially true of our new poets in America.” Bergelson was referring to the group In Zikh, about whom I will speak later.

The revolution and the birth-pangs of a new life of course created new themes and new types: civil war, the decline of patriarchal Jewish village life, contradictions between the parents’ generation and impetuous youth, participation in gigantic industrial constructions, establishment of Jewish collective farms, and later the emigration to Birobidzhan.

But the names of the new prose works sound astonishingly strange to the traditional Jewish ear: Hershl Orland’s 1926 novel “Dams” in which he depicts irrigation in Volhynia; or his novel “Conglomerate,” about Jewish workers in a metallurgical factory; or Mayer Alberton’s books “Birobidzhan” and “Mines”; Note Lurie’s novel “The Steppes Are Calling,” about Jewish peasants; Buzi Miller’s lengthy stories “The Changing of the Guard” and “Hens on the Collective Farm”; Khayim Malamud’s novel “Blooming Acacia,” about the new relationship between Jews and Ukrainians in the village; Hershl Polianker’s tales and novels about life in the village: “On the Other Bank,” “The Second Encounter”, and others.

I will mention here only a few names of Yiddish writers for whom the revolution opened creative doors and gates into the greater literature. At that time, Yiddish creative organizations and associations were established in the largest centers: Russia, White Russia, and Ukraine. I’ll mention just a few of them: in Kiev at the beginning of the 1920s, “The Culture League”; in Moscow, “The Union of Jewish Writers and Artists,” whose members were Bergelson, Dobrushkin, Hofshteyn, Vendrov, Kushinor, Der Nister, Chaikov, and the painter Marc Chagall; in 1924, in Moscow, a group of young writers who came together around the magazine “Yungvald”; in 1925, in Minsk, the journal “Shtern” began publication; in Kiev, in 1925, the literary group “Rebirth” was created—they published the first collections of poetry by Itsik Fefer, Itsik Kipnis, Motl Khashtshevatski, and others; a second Kiev group, “Antenna,” included Fininberg, Orland, Noah Lurie, and Dovid Bergelson; there were also literary groups in Vitebsk, Polotsk, Mogilev, Slutsk, Bobruisk, and other cities in White Russia.

In the year 1934, 348 Yiddish titles were published in the Soviet Union; two years later there were 431, and in 1946 there were 359.

In 1934, in Moscow, there was an All-Union convention of Yiddish writers, and right after that was the All-Union convention of Soviet writers, in which Dovid Bergelson, Yasha Bronshteyn, Dovid Hofshteyn, Peretz Markish, Leyb Kvitko, Moyshe Kulbak, Moyshe Litvakov, Note Lurie, Yitskhak Nusinov, Yoysef Rabin, Itsik Fefer, and Izzy Kharik all participated. Not quite three years later, Kharik, Kulbak, Litvakov, and Bronshteyn were arrested and sentenced to death.The fate of the other delegates and Yiddish writers and cultural activists in the Soviet Union was sealed in the late 1940s and early 1950s as a result of the anti-Semitic, cruel dictatorial power of Stalin and his clique.

C. Literature in Poland

Between the two World Wars, the Polish Republic became the greatest Yiddish center in Eastern Europe. Separated from the Soviet Union, the Yiddish writers nevertheless maintained contact with their fellow-writers in Soviet Russia till the late 1920s. There were also close ties between the Yiddish writers of Poland and America. While remaining two distinctive points of Yiddish literature, “each of them rose or fell in its own way and under its own conditions,” Niger writes.

The crisis in general world history—the first World War and then the Russian revolution in 1917—forced a re-evaluation of the accepted esthetic, moral, social, and other values. “New times, new melodies,” says the proverb. There also arose a new generation of Jewish writers. “In the transition from the older generation of writers to the younger generation, and from the younger to the youngest, there was a transition from a legacy-and-continuity literature to a literature that begins everything anew,” writes Shmuel Niger, a witness to and participant in that transition. The new generations were less bound to the age-old traditions. They especially did not receive any traditional Jewish education; their “universities” were the famine, homelessness, and cruelty that they themselves experienced. That made them deprived, downtrodden, empty of any beliefs, full of doubts, and deeply immersed within themselves. The old-time romanticism, after all, looked like a crippled farce and parody. Niger remarks ironically that “only in such a religious and mystical poet as Aaron Tseytlin, or such a hopeless romantic as Itsik Manger, could one find something of the prewar piety and exaltation.”

A significant institution in Poland between the two World Wars that united Yiddish writers and journalists of various ideologies and tendencies under its umbrella was the Association of Yiddish Writers and Journalists, located in Warsaw, at Tlomatske 13. Here is what the writer Ephraim Kaganovski writes in his memoirs “Tlomtstke 13—From our Burned-up Yesterday”: “In the place of greatest honor hung a very large portrait of Y.L Peretz. Peretez represented a boundary, a parting of the ways from assimilation. Secular yidishkeyt—that was his one area of desire and activity; no grimaces, no making a fool of oneself before God and before Man. The work of Yiddish writers, journalists, and community activists has gone under that banner for the past few decades. Under that same banner, Tlomatske 13 was established. Everyone understood that, though no one made an issue of it.”

Besides the largest institutions, which, as I have mentioned, had a unifying character, there were dozens of other organized Yiddish literary groups that formed in various cities and ideological streams and streamlets: the avant-garde “Khaliastre,” “Young Lodz,” and “Young Vilna”; the socialist writers who gathered around the Bund; the group around the magazine “Globus,” and others. Despite the difficult conditions around them, the poverty and anti-Semitism that forced many Jews to leave Poland and emigrate to America or Palestine, a creative life swirled around them, and the Polish Yiddish writers wrote the best of their work precisely then. Let us mention at least a few of them: Aaron Zeitlin, I.J. Singer, Melech Ravitsh, Alter Katsizne, Yisroel Shtern, Rokhl Korn, Khayim Grade, Y.Y. Trunk, Yehoshua Perle, Moyshe Fuks, Ephraim Kaganovski, Bashevis Singer, Aaron Eynhorn, and others. Among the literary researchers, linguists, and critics were Max Weinreich, Noah Prilutski, Max Erik, Zalmen Reyzen, Zalmen Kalmanovitsh, Nachman Mayzel, and others.

The invasion of the Nazi armies in September 1939 put an end to the blooming center of Yiddish literature in Poland. Most of the Yiddish wordsmiths and activists for Yiddish in Poland who remained alive after the Holocaust settled in America or in Israel, which factually became a new center of Yiddish creativity.

D. Literature in America

Between the two World Wars, Yiddish literature in America stood up on its own two feet. New publishing houses opened that published in book form many of the works that had been published previously in newspapers and magazines. At that time, the activity of the Forverts and the Workmen’s Circle as publishers burgeoned. Besides various anthologies, popular-scientific series, and translations, the works of almost all the Yiddish writers in America, both those of the older generation and those of the younger generation, were published.

Avrom Lyesin, after a long hiatus, began to write poems again. Yehoyesh was inspired by the new streams in the poetic world and wrote his best poem, “The Web.” The so-called In Zikh group, headed by Yankev Glatshteyn, Aaron Glants-Leyeles, and N.B. Minkoff, appeared on the poetic scene. Glatshteyn’s words in the 1920s can serve as the group’s manifesto: “In our time, when so many millions have been slaughtered and so many others are wandering without hope, when science is struck dumb, there remains for the poet only his poetry, only his art, as a lantern in the dark corridors of the labyrinth of life. He must turn to himself if he wants to wrest some sort of answer from life, some solution, some consolation.”

At that time, a great impression was made by the romantic poems of H. Leyvik; by the prematurely deceased Moyshe-Leyb Halpern, with his grotesque, mocking poems; by Y.Y. Shvarts and his Jewish-American epics and brilliant translations from Hebrew; by Mani Leyb, the “Knight of the Yearned-for Blue”; by Menakhem Boreysho; by the exceedingly clear fables of Nokhum Yud; by Moyshe Nadir, both as a poet and as a brilliant humorist and mocker of the American “allrightniks”; and certainly by the prose writers who had come from the old country and had struck roots in the new ground, such as I.J. Singer, Joseph Opatoshu, Isaac Raboy, Dovid Ignatoff, Dovid Pinski, Leon Kobrin, Peretz Hirshbein, and others. Osip Dimow, Leon Kobrin, Sholem Asch, H. Leyvik, Fishl Bimko, and many others enriched American literature with their dramatic works.

All of these creators, each in his own way, did everything so that Yiddish literature in America should stop feeling the way it had felt at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. Nevertheless, its literary potential, especially after the second World War, was maintained by virtue of newly arrived refugee writers, and, even more important, readers.

E. The Second World War and Afterwards

During the Second World War, the Nazi cannons were unsuccessful in choking off Yiddish activity. In the ghettos and the camps, in the partisan squads and the underground movement, on the fronts, on the road to death and heroism, the Yiddish writers did not let the pens out of their hands. Among the greatest publications of this tragic era were the works of Avrom Sutzkever and Yitskhak Katzenelson, especially his “Song of the Murdered Jewish People.” “Our history,” wrote Professor Sheyntukh about Katzenelson’s ghetto poems, “which is studded with cruel edicts, persecutions, and pogroms, as well as the murder of thousands and even tens of thousands of Jews, has no precedent for the Nazi killing-era.”

The Yiddish cultural center in the Soviet Union moved during the war to Moscow, where the publishing house “Der Emes” (The Truth) was located. There too were the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee and the Jewish State Theater, and the radio constantly broadcast performances by Yiddish writers and cultural activists. Production of books in Yiddish did not stop, and in the crisis year 1943, 24 Yiddish books appeared. During the war years, three literary anthologies were published: “For the Homeland in Battle,” “Homeland,” and “Toward Victory.” Dozens of Yiddish writers, generally of the younger generation, died in battle, and not all of them had managed to publish even one volume of poetry.

Was it possible, after Yiddish literature in its European centers and peripheries had lost their greatest and best forces, to continue creation in Yiddish and to undertake to erect a sort of intellectual pantheon in Yiddish? Today we can say with certainty that such a Biblical song of Yiddish creativity in memory of the “murdered Jewish people” was created, and all the Yiddish writers, whatever their talents and possibilities, contributed. The work is continuing even today, in Israel, in France, and in America.

As was the case a hundred years ago, at the time of the first Czernowitz Language Conference, Yiddish is free: free from a Jewish country, for Israel has not recognized Yiddish culture to this day; free from money, which is given by hundreds of Jewish organizations and individuals for other purposes, but not for Yiddish culture; free from book publishers, because it doesn’t pay them financially to publish Yiddish books.

At that time, a hundred years ago, there was a quarrel about whether Yiddish was a folk-language or a national language. The history of the world has seen to it that Yiddish should remain free from folk-masses too. Today, Yiddish in the secular sector is an elite culture. The existence of today’s Yiddish literature is dependent on a few writers who have to publish their books at their own expense and then distribute them by themselves. Most of them publish in the only secular Yiddish weekly newspaper in the world, the Forverts, whose fate lies in the hands of the Forward Association, most of whose members usually read the English Forward and not the Yiddish Forverts.

The dream of Khayim Zhitlovsky, one of the initiators of the Czernowitz Language Conference, that Yiddish should be the basis of a modern secular Jewishness, has not been fulfilled. It appears that Bergelson was more nearly correct when he wrote that “there is a growing tendency to weaken the soul by means of the alien language that is the expression of an alien soul.”

Today, the fate of secular Jewishness no longer lies in the hands of the masses—such masses simply don’t exist. The universities on which such great hopes for reviving Yiddish rest are not capable of fulfilling those hopes; they have other agendas and goals.

Today, Yiddish has a place in the hearts of individuals, each of whom has his own motivations, his own “Why Yiddish?” These individuals create families in which they speak Yiddish with the children; large or small groups or “communities”; Yiddish clubs; and study groups in Yiddish. We should support all of that, strengthen and develop it, each in his own place and every day. We should remember and declare at every opportunity, like a prayer, that wherever the Yiddish word dies, an alien language appears; assimilation comes with its non-Jewish associations and non-Jewish soul.

The paradox is that at the point of our death, as many “experts” believe to be the case, we are only at the beginning of a long road on which Yiddish and Yiddish creativity will acquire a new face and a new content. The foundations of Yiddish, which were erected by generations and have survived time and trials, are too strong to be just transformed into archeological ruins.