December 13, 2018

Jewish newspaper puts best Yiddish fiction forward

If there is one fact about Isaac Bashevis Singer that signifies his remarkable achievement as a writer, it is that the Nobel Prize winner started out in America as a contributor of short pieces to the Forward, the largest Yiddish-language newspaper in the world and the newspaper of record for Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe and Russia in the early to mid-20th century.

But Singer is hardly the only famous writer whose work first appeared in the pages of the Forward, as we discover in “Have I Got a Story for You: More Than a Century of Yiddish Fiction from the Forward” (Norton), a rich and rewarding treasury of Yiddish writing edited by Ezra Glinter, a critic-at-large for the Forward’s current incarnation as an English-language publication.

For example, Singer’s older brother, Israel Joshua Singer, already was a celebrity among Yiddish writers when Isaac arrived in America, and he is represented in the collection with “Bakhmatsch Station,” which first appeared in the Forward in 1943. At one crucial moment in the story, the narrator describes a case in which the guilt or innocence of a man accused of espionage turns on the translation of a court document from Polish to Russian. The narrator introduces us to a converted Jewish doctor in Bolshevik Russia who is called on to translate the document. The narrator of Singer’s story — a Polish Jew — contrives a clever approach to the problem of translation.

“With great effort, the Christianized doctor recalled the forgotten Yiddish letters he had learned as a child,” Singer writes in the guise of his narrator. “Smiling, he read one line after another of what I had written in between the lines of the court proceedings. Laughing, he translated it all into Russian. ‘I guarantee you he’s innocent, Comrade Commissar,’ he said.”

Another celebrated contributor is Abraham Cahan, the founding editor of the Forward and, as Glinter puts it, “the most influential Yiddish journalist in history.” 

Cahan is probably best remembered for his classic coming-to-America novel, “The Rise of David Levinsky,” and he is represented in the collection with another work of fiction, “Shneur Zadobnik and Motke the Hatter,” an account of the very different fates that awaited two particular Jewish immigrants in the Goldeneh Medinah (golden land). “Jews say that if you change where you live you’ll change your luck,” muses the narrator of the story, “but is America really that different?”

Stories by other famous (or once-famous) writers, including Sholem Asch (“The Jewish Soldier”), Chaim Grade (“Grandfathers and Grandchildren”) and I.B. Singer himself (“The Hotel”), also appear in “Have I Got a Story For You,” but most of the 42 stories in the collection, all of which are published in English for the first time, were written by men and women whose names and tales will be wholly new to the reader. And yet, they represent only a fraction of what amounted to the great civilizing mission of the Forward, which was carried out “from the front cover to the back page, through every news report, opinion column, cartoon, poem, recipe, essay, political polemic and theater review,” as Glinter writes. 

Still, Glinter has confined himself to making selections from the works of fiction that appeared in the Forward, a daunting task in itself. 

“Often the paper would be running two or three novels at once, in addition to short fiction, belles-lettres and poetry,” he explains. “For more than a century, the Forward produced an immense trove of literature, most of which remained untapped — until now. The sheer number of stories in the collection amounts to a kind of literary potpourri that will catch the eye of the reader according to his or her interests.”

Because my own parents grew up in Brownsville in Brooklyn, N.Y., for example, I turned to “Brownsville Looks to the Heavens” by B. Kovner. I learned that it is the pen name of Jacob (Yankev) Adler, a humorist who contributed slice-of-life sketches to the Forward for some 70 years and who is represented with eight stories, the most from any single contributor. The narrator of the Brownsville story stands on Pitkin Avenue and notices that “men, women, policemen, and a couple of runny-nosed, filthy-cheeked small children idled in a circle of heads, raised to the sky.”

“Did something happen?” the narrator asks a bearded man in the crowd.

“Don’t ask me! I saw people staring up at the sky, so I looked too.”

“What do you make of this crowd?” he asks a young blonde girl.

“Ask me something easier.”

To his credit (and my surprise), Glinter is careful to note the importance of Yiddish newspapers other than the Forward, which he describes as “not the only Yiddish newspaper to publish literature, or even the best. It was simply the biggest, the wealthiest, and now the longest-lasting.” For that reason, he insists, “the writers in these pages turned out to be the winners of a kind of posthumous lottery.”

Still, “Have I Got a Story For You” is so full of pleasurable and surprising discoveries that the reader is the real winner of that lottery.

JONATHAN KIRSCH, author and publishing attorney, is book editor of the Jewish Journal.