The ordeal of an embattled populace and the variety of a robust folk culture are preserved in this enormous anthology: an admirable labor of love executed with matchless skill by the veteran translator of Mann, Proust, Kafka, and many others.
Neugroschel’s compact introduction and headnotes make essential distinctions between classical-formal Hebrew and vernacular Yiddish, while soberly reminding us that “Countless Jewish manuscripts and books have been destroyed by Christians.” Nevertheless, what remains (much of which has long lain buried in Yiddish-language periodicals) includes a rich profusion of early religious tales (many of which revise familiar biblical stories), parables, and folktales (one of the best: a harrowing tale of demonic seduction, “The Queen of Sheba in the House of the Sun”), and the dense symbolism of early modern master Rabbi Nakhman of Braslev. Other classics include excerpts from the book generally considered the first Yiddish novel, Yoysef Perl’s Revealer of Secrets (1819), and The Little Man, a popular chronicle of village life in tsarist Russia written by the much-beloved Mendele Moyker-Sforim (a forerunner of Sholom Aleichem). In the long section devoted to “Modernism,” Neugroschel offers impressive work from Aleichem himself (the dark, powerful “Seventy-five Thousand”), the great short-story writer Y.L. Peretz, the conflicted Dovid Bergelson (a Soviet apologist who was a delicate Chekhovian stylist), and the pseudonymous “Der Nister” (whose gorgeously wrought symbolic fantasy “Beheaded” is a standout). Also among the volume’s choicest surprises: Yudl Rosenberg’s vivid retelling of the legend of Rabbi Levi of Prague and the Golem he created; Leon Kubrin’s harshly naturalistic “Apartment No. 4”; Yoysef Smolazh’s stark “The Open Grave” (which is reminiscent of Stephen Crane); and Bertha Lelchuk’s racy summa of the immigrant experience, “The Aunt from Norfolk.” The anthology concludes with excerpts from Yehuda Elberg’s Joycean The Empire of Kalman the Cripple, Chava Rosenfarb’s elegiac Bociany, and Isaac Bashevis Singer’s classic story of unshakable faith, “Gimpel the Fool.”
Several weeks’ worth of good reading, and an invaluable gathering of the best of a remarkable literary tradition.