The works of Yiddish writer and satirist Moyshe Nadir in English translation are gaining a wider audience these days. The newest addition to this growing collection is Nadir’s acerbic comic play “Messiah in America,” translated by Michael Shapiro and published by Farlag. The Yiddish word farlag actually means publishing house.
Both the selection of the text and the Yiddish name of the publishing house hint that this work belongs to an alternative culture, critical of mainstream commercial book publishing. Readers see an immediate relevance in Nadir’s satire, particularly in today’s tense political climate. It’s sharp, fresh and to the point. As Joel Schechter points out in his preface to the book: “Unfortunately, Nadir’s works continue to be relevant decades after he wrote them. The American issues with immigration, huge disparities in income, and racist and religious discrimination remain in their new and old forms, at times very significantly.”
“Messiah in America” mocks the American “show business” model which often ignores moral principles in the pursuit of profit. Producers are ready to serve the basest instincts and satisfy the vulgar tastes of the audience, as long as it brings in the money. Perhaps the most scathing scene in the play relates a shockingly racist game, played at a circus, that passes itself off as progressive because it claims to predict the interests of the people. Nadir spares no one in his satirical fervor – not the religious Jews, nor the Zionists, nor even the socialists. His main target, though, is American capitalism.
Tellingly, he made an exception for Communists. In 1932, when “Messiah in America” was first published, Nadir was still writing for the Communist Yiddish newspaper Morgn Freiheit, which published his “Latest Works” in seven volumes. His disappointment with Soviet Communism came later, when Stalin made a pact with Hitler in August 1939.
Shapiro succeeds in capturing Nadir’s playful yet sharp wit. Not an easy feat, since the original is peppered with insider Yiddish phrases that are not easy to translate. Nadir’s humor has deep Yiddish roots. He plays with the stereotypical differences between Litvaks (Jews with Lithuanian heritage) and Galitzianers (those who descend from the Jews of Poland); he mocks the belief in the Messiah and ridicules the Morgn Freiheit’s competitors. Since modern-day readers may not be familiar with these socio-historical references, detailed footnotes and commentaries have been added.
“Messiah in America” is a great example of a new wave of translations from Yiddish to English. The Yiddish literary legacy is varied, and academic researchers naturally pursue their own interests, usually tackling forms of Modernist creativity. But Modernist poetry and prose is just a small portion of the rich Yiddish literature that entertained a great many groups of readers and audiences, from religious Hasidim to secular Communists. Despite the huge ideological differences between these groups, they all used their own style of Yiddish to create one culture.
It’s been argued that the coming generations will be introduced to Yiddish culture solely through translations. Because of this, it’s essential to choose a wide range of materials to translate, due to the wide range of interests. Until now, three types of Yiddish literature have benefitted from being translated: Modernist poetry, specifically of the American variety, women’s fiction and poetry and Holocaust literature. There’s also a growing interest in the radical leftist legacy portrayed by Yiddish.
During the 1920s and 30s, most Communist, Socialist and Anarchist Jewish writers published their literature in English in order to gain a wider audience. Later, however, especially during the McCarthy era, the leftist Yiddish activists withdrew into the background.
In the 1950s, Yiddish fiction took on a more nostalgic bent, as seen in the fiction of two great, apolitical writers, Isaac Bashevis and Chaim Grade, befitting the conservative mood at the time. Moyshe Nadir remained taboo among the Yiddish neo-conservatives because of his former Communist leanings. Apparently, Nadir’s rich literary legacy had to wait till the 21st century to be rediscovered as one of the wittiest and liveliest writers in Yiddish literature.