The Jewish Book of Fables
By Eliezer Shtaynbarg
Edited and translated from the Yiddish by Curt Leviant
Syracuse University Press, 256 pages, $34.95.
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Eliezer Shtaynbarg (1880-1932) taught children Yiddish and Hebrew and wrote and directed plays for them in his native Bessarabia. Learned in biblical and Talmudic literature, he also edited a Yiddish magazine of the arts, Kultur, and maintained at least some connections with writers of literature for adults, including Hayyim Nahman Bialik of Odessa, who championed Shtaynbarg’s work during his lifetime. But the writing for which Shtaynbarg has become known and cherished are his Yiddish poems written in the form of rhymed-verse fables. Curt Leviant has translated a selection of these for the first time in English in “The Jewish Book of Fables,” wherein the translator hopes to make the case that there was more to Shtaynbarg’s accomplishment than the entertainment of young readers. The book is part of the Dora Teitelboim Center for Yiddish Culture’s book series.
For several millennia, actually, the fable as a literary genre was meant for adults. In both Jewish and non-Jewish literary history, the tradition of fables — short narratives with a moral or caution, in which the characters are usually animals — has an ancient pedigree, indeed, and a multicultural one. Leviant locates the earliest Hebrew references to fables in the Old Testament (The Books of Samuel, Judges and Kings), and he notes that fox fables are mentioned in the Talmud (circa 500 BCE). Aesop, the Greek slave whose wit and wisdom earned him his freedom and who is universally considered to be the father of the fable in the narrative form as we know it, was born in 620 B.C.E. During the earliest years of the first century C.E., the Latin poems of the Roman writer Phaedrus served as a source for the “Romulus” collection of fables, which, by the Middle Ages (when fables were exceptionally popular among writers in both Hebrew and romance languages) was more widely circulated than the fables of Aesop.
Like the ancient and medieval fables, later celebrated collections — such as those of the Frenchman Jean de la Fontaine and the American Joel Chandler Harris, whose 19th-century “Uncle Remus” stories are based on dialect tales he had heard told by slaves when he was a child — have encapsulated in them considerable acquaintanceship with misery, either on the part of the author or of the sources of the stories. It may be, in fact, that deeply tragic experience is necessary to the invention of any good fable. The difference between Shtaynbarg and these other fabulists is that Shtaynbarg let the tragedy show.
Yet if Shtaynbarg’s fables are on a par with those of Aesop and La Fontaine, why haven’t they been translated before? One answer might be his relegation, almost from the start, to the province of children’s literature. Although the tone of Shtaynbarg’s poems, at least in Leviant’s translation, is threaded through with the optimism and charm one uses to speak to children in a public context, the view of life they present is far darker than anything in Aesop’s fables, and their lessons can be very deeply ironic, sometimes to the point of sarcasm. Underlying them seems to be a vision so bleak that death is preferred. “The Smoke and the Cloud,” one of the more lyrical fables, may have been written to be read to a child riven by a tantrum, yet it contains an element of tragic renunciation that one shudders to think of a child’s psyche absorbing, without sufficient life experience to encourage the belief that it is possible to improve conditions on earth through action, or at least to try to improve them.
Like a naked soul already disembodied, black
smoke rises from a chimney stack.
It twists and swirls,
snakes and curls
up to the blue.
It spirals till it meets a little cloud
right near the sky. “What’s with you?
Where you going? Down to that hell? Don’t be
a fool!” smoke cries aloud
to little cloud. “Ask me!
I’ve just come from there. Once I was a tree.
How I grew, what blossoms I possessed.
Pleased God and folk alike. In my cool, dense shade
I screened the weary from the broiling sun, made
Friends with everyone, and welcomed every guest.
Now I see it wasn’t worth it, and I’m sorry.
My kindness was repaid — with what? With iron I was sawed, then set ablaze.
So if you prize your life, hold dear your days,
watch yourself. Rise with me to the starry
heights, to little sparks, pure souls sans bodies with no peers.
Look how they wink and summon us upstairs.”
“No, I cannot. I must descend. Something tears
me downward.” “I wonder
why, my child?” “Because my heart is full of lightning, thunder,
and of tears.”
One turns the page, thirsting for something upbeat, and, grimly, one finds “A Story Without an End,” about Reb Chaim, who assaults his donkey relentlessly with “a whipping stick” because the animal is so burdened that he falls down. The concluding quip is a scourge in itself:
… So on and on it goes, without an end.
The donkey doesn’t stand because he’s being beaten and
he’s being beaten because he doesn’t (under) stand.
Children’s books from Germany and Eastern Europe in the early part of the 20th century tended, as a group, to be much harsher than children’s books today, with kids baking themselves in ovens and other images one doesn’t wish to dwell on — along with healthy doses of antisemitism and racism tossed in as casually as foxes and lambs. Nevertheless, for a parent in 2003 to imagine reading the above to a child as a bedtime story — rather than to oneself, in despair, after the child has fallen asleep — requires an act of imaginative surrender that is simply terrifying. What is such a fable preparing the child for? What circumstances of daily life would be necessary for a parent and a child to be able to laugh together at such a story? What thickets of irony are needed for a child to see the tale as amusing, rather than as a cautionary nightmare about the chaos of the entire universe, and how would a child acquire such sophistication of perspective?
It is difficult, if not impossible, to see these fables as children’s literature, rather than as searing meditations by a contemporary of Franz Kafka and Klaus Mann. They are brilliant and profoundly disturbing in the way of great modernist art. Shtaynbarg’s ambitions as a writer must have been devastated when Bialik’s planned edition was derailed by the war. As he wrote in “The Mirror and the Angel”: “‘Before he wins his fame, an artist must first pass / away. After my death they all will sing my praises/ Like the saying goes: “After one is gone, the whole world he amazes.”’”
The New York Public Library has a small group of catalogue entries by Shtaynbarg in Yiddish in its children’s and juvenile collections, beginning with his 1921 alphabecedarius, Alef bey’s (published by Kultur). Many of them contain illustrations as well, as Aesop’s and La Fontaine’s fables are presented today to young readers — with visual prompts. Shtaynbarg’s first collection of fables, Mesholim, was not published until after his death, at 52, although the poet was able to work on the galley proofs. A Yiddish volume published in Europe in 1932 without its author around to promote it did not face the best of futures, one might think. The library’s catalogue doesn’t list it. However, amazingly, one does find Yiddish editions from Argentina (1949) and Uruguay (1970), as well as from Israel (1954). The Yiddish readers who loved these fables (one of them was Irving Howe, who oversaw the translation of some into English) clearly passed them along to their children and grandchildren; as immortality goes, other writing has fared much worse.
Still, one looks to this new volume to validate that love as a literary feeling for adults, to place Shtaynbarg within a cultural context that includes, in Leviant’s claim, Isaac Bashevis Singer and Lamed Shapiro. It certainly does that, although it has to overcome some large obstacles, beginning with the title, which does little to evoke the collection that is actually contained in the book. For comparison, consider the English translation of the fox fables of Berechiah, in a collection entitled “Fables of a Jewish Aesop.” When one reads it, one finds the title to be exact: Berechiah based his fables on ancient Greek, Roman and some Arabic models. It doesn’t take much perusal of Berechiah, whose tone is much sterner than Shtaynbarg’s yet whose material is far more orderly and conventional, to see the tremendous innovation in Shtaynbarg’s handling of the fable form. “The Book of Jewish Fables” is a marketing device, really, and it serves neither the reader, who is led to presume it contains something much lighter, nor the writer, whose extraordinary individuality is — once again — curtailed.
A second obstacle to accessibility in this collection is the translation. Leviant has courageously attempted to preserve the original’s rhymes, verse forms and scholastic wordplay, to the extent of arbitrarily breaking the final words of some lines “to help capture the humorous or playful quality of Shtaynbarg’s original verse.” To a general reader of English, however –– someone unfamiliar with the nuances and charms of Yiddish syntax –– the widowed syllables (“Just a mik-/ va”), the consistent misuse of “like” instead of “as,” and the tortured inversions to toe the line of the rhymes (“‘Have you read books? To read how nice is.’ ‘Feh! Too boring! One look at title page suffices.”) interfere with the process of understanding. Still, Leviant is clearly a wordsmith, and when he throws in “absquatulate” to make an off-rhyme with “speculate,” he does suggest something of the intricacy and learning in Shtaynbarg’s work, if not its grace. Furthermore, a reader quickly appreciates how challenging the Yiddish (on the facing page of each translation) would be to render in English, while keeping all the musical and ironical elements intact. The fables Leviant is able to translate without tormenting the English — “The Mirror and the Angel,” “The Cat and the Salami” — are real triumphs.
In the spirit of how Shtaynbarg has been published in the past, “The Jewish Book of Fables” is also illustrated, and rather lavishly, with both black-and-white wash drawings for some individual poems and also a portfolio of four-color illustrations, all by the illustrator Dana Craft. A skillful draftsman and evidently a very sensitive reader, Craft has been able to suggest both the gamboling lambs one might expect when one opens Shtaynbarg’s fables and the rapacious wolves that turn out to be lurking within them. To an extent, his cartoon animals evoke memories of some Disney animations from the 1930s, with their soothing songs and happy endings and fearsomely dark passages, but they also go beyond that in some pages, clearly bringing this writer forward through World War II into our own chaotic moment.
All in all, a strange, somewhat flawed book, yet everything that is strange about it makes it haunting.
Mindy Aloff writes a weekly “Letter from New York” for the Dance View Times. She currently teaches at Barnard and Sarah Lawrence colleges.