Hasidic Authors Offer Readers a Thrill

By Gennady Estraikh

Published March 02, 2007, issue of March 02, 2007.
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The Internet contains scores of Hasidic-dominated Yiddish sites, including chat rooms, blogs, bulletin boards and a separate version of Wikipedia, the collaborative online encyclopedia. Reading one of the Yiddish bulletin boards, I came across the following dismissive comments of an anonymous critic: “Give a look and you’ll see that nowadays all [ultra-Orthodox] Yiddish newspapers and journals, weeklies and monthlies have a ‘thrilling story in installments.’ Such stories, or mayses, have no hands and no legs, don’t make any sense and are, generally, absurd.”

I decided to read some of these “thrilling stories” to see for myself. But rather than look for them in the press, I went to a bookstore in the heart of the Boro Park section of Brooklyn and bought two heavy volumes published last year: “The Unknown Action” by Ya’ir Vayinstock (who published “A Well-Considered Action” in 2002) and “The Stormy Challenge” by Y. Vays. After investing many hours getting “thrilled,” I can agree with the anonymous critic that at least some of contemporary ultra-Orthodox Yiddish belles-lettres are, essentially, nonsensical.

Granted, the Hasidic writers’ plots are no more nonsensical than mainstream thrillers — say, for instance, “Casino Royale” — but we are speaking about two varieties of fictional nonsense. People who read and watch James Bond’s exploits are those who function in an environment with a wide range of cultural productions, which are often judged by the same (for example, Oscar) standards. As for the dwellers of ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, who are not supposed to have access to printed, visual and audio material produced outside their milieu, these “thrilling stories” may well be their only belletristic reading. It’s tempting to compare the writings by Vayinstock and Vays with shund, popular Yiddish literary productions that were widely read a century ago or before then. Nonetheless, while shund writers usually tried to connect their parochial readers with the outside world, the Hasidic belletrists do their best to scare off their audience from any contacts with outsiders.

“The Unknown Action” has a multidimensional plot involving a mind-boggling assortment of characters: Chechen terrorists, Czech and Venezuelan mafiosi, as well as a secret sect of converts who pretend to be regular ultra-Orthodox Jews, though their real mission is to lure poor Jewish orphans into the traps of Christianity. As one of the first steps in such operations, a missionary provides the naive, vulnerable victims with nonkosher food (including pork!), which makes them more malleable to the eventual conversion.

Judging by Vayinstock’s and Vays’s novels, the authors presume that their target reader is not interested in plots based on real life. In addition, neither author knows how to create unstilted characters. For instance, women appear in their novels only as functions, illustrating the Yiddish Wikipedia’s definition of froy, “woman/wife”: “Her nature is nice and noble, and the peculiar constitution of her body makes the life of her husband and children sweet, calm and delicious.”

The male literary characters sometimes combine religious studies with earthly professions, achieving quite remarkable results within these occupations. For example, Nakhman Rimmer, the protagonist of “The Stormy Challenge,” develops a unique system for protecting computers from hackers. As a result, the Pentagon signs a contract with him; however, the poor fellow — who, by the way, is a devoted American patriot — finds himself surrounded by Russian and Chinese spies, CIA and FBI agents, and one double agent. Yet, 400 pages later, at the most critical moment, Rimmer’s life and dignity are saved by the head of his yeshiva.

Contemporary Yiddish scholarship pays relatively little attention to ultra-Orthodox milieus. Particularly little is written about the literary and spoken language of the Satmar, Bobover and other Hasidic communities. As a result, even Bruce Mitchell’s rather pedestrian study “Language Politics and Language Survival: Yiddish Among the Haredim in Post-war Britain” (Peeters, 2006) can be welcomed as a breakthrough. He notices, in particular, “a total collapse of the gender and case system” in the contemporary Yiddish written and spoken by Hasidim. Vayinstock’s and Vays’s novels convincingly illustrate this “collapse.” It’s hard to understand the logic of the writers’ gender use, especially when within one sentence the same noun appears as, say, masculine and feminine. In terms of the frequency of masculine, feminine and neuter nouns, the masculine assignment dominates, creating an almost unisex Yiddish, which — in this sense — grammatically approximates genderless English.

In general, the influence of English is so strong that my mother, or, for that matter, any Eastern European native Yiddish speaker, would find it very difficult to follow the thrilling plot. Direct borrowings represent only part of the problem. Semantic changes are even more confusing. Thus, eynmol, or “once” in English, transcends its regular adverbial meaning — “on one occasion only” or “at some point in the past” — and occurs also as an equivalent of the conjunction “once,” meaning “as soon as; if”: “Eynmol zey geyen avek, vet mir zayn zeyer shver zey nokhtsufolgn; “Once they leave, it’ll be hard for me to follow them.”

Similar semantic extensions are already known in Yiddish. A veteran among them is the verb glaykhn, “to like” (Ikh glaykh im — “I like him”), which has been used for decades in American Yiddish vernacular as a reinterpretation of the adjective glaykh (vi), “like”: “Er iz mir glaykh vi a bruder,” “He is like a brother to me.”

Prepositions also have forged new meanings. For instance, far often means “during,” modeling the English “for”: “Ikh voyn do far tsvey yor,” or “I’ve been living here for two years.” Such a phrase would have bemused my mother’s cohort of Yiddish speakers. They might interpret it as an attempt to say, in broken Yiddish, “I lived here two years ago,” similar to far a yorn, “a year ago.”

A friend of mine who came from Russia and spent some time in Boro Park told me that he could handle the Yiddish spoken around him, but it was an experience similar to communicating with dwellers of a Belorussian village, where Russian speakers would understand a lot but not everything; however, they could consult a Russian-Belorussian dictionary, whereas dictionaries of contemporary Yiddish usage do not exist. Yiddish linguists continue to organize nostalgic trips to study vernaculars of the few surviving Yiddish-speakers in Eastern Europe and take little interest in the hundreds of thousands of people residing a few subway stops away.

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