Review of The Communist Satyricon: Sem Liptsin’s She Sold her Husband and Other Satirical Sketches, translated and edited by Zeke Levine

Binyamin Hunyadi

Sem Liptsin’s She Sold her Hus­band and Oth­er Satir­i­cal Sketch­es by Sam Liptsin, trans­lat­ed by Zeke Levine (Far­lag Press, 2023). 128 pages. $14.95.

In a 1935 review of satirist Sem Liptsin’s (1893–1980) probably best-known book, Nit gedayget [Don’t make a fuss], 1 1 Sem Liptsin, Nitgedayget: Tsu zingen un tsu zogn (New York: Arbeter ordn, 1934). the literary critic Shmuel Charney (1883–1955) had some harsh words for the writer, whom he styled the “vitsling” [jokester] of the Arbeter ordn [Workers’ Order]. Charney claimed that Liptsin and the literary group of proletarian authors with which he was associated, the Proletpen, were living proof that even so-called writers could mistake journalistic scribbling for literature. He made a comparison between Liptsin’s satirical sketches and a book of satires that came out in Tel Aviv in the same year by the scarcely known humourist Peysekh Gordon (?–?), 2 2 Peysekh Gordon, Tsu kaykhn far gelekhter: Humoristishe mayses, sharfzinige vitsn, aforizmen un glaykhvertlekh, vol. 1 (Tel Aviv: Gordon, 1934). concluding that the common denominator between the two works was, to put it mildly, a complete lack of talent. Ultimately, remarked Charney, it did not matter where someone positioned themselves on the political map; the decisive factor was the quality and style of the written Yiddish word, or the lack thereof. “[T]alantlozikayt, azoy vi talant, makht nisht keyn untersheyd tsvishn rekhts un links” [The lack of talent, as such, does not discriminate between right and left], argued Charney. 3 3 Shmuel Charney, “Geleynt un geshribn: Fun a lezers un shraybers notitsbukh,” Der tog, 24 March 1935, 4.

There was nothing new in such negative sentiments that Charney harbored against (leftist) political satire in Yiddish. Even when socialist Moris Vintshevsky (1856–1932), better known as the Der meshugener filozof [The Crazy Philosopher] to his readers, and his ardent acolyte in the Yiddish anarchist circles, Dovid Apotheker (1855–1911) (Der hinkediker shlimazl [The Limping Good-For-Nothing]), first conceived of the genre, those advocating for a more refined, elitist, and non-political Yiddish literature were troubled by the popularity and political messaging of these authors. To the critics’ satisfaction, the popularity and mass appeal of these authors did not last for long. Vintshevsky’s fame and standing in the community of the post-1905 Yiddish speaking immigrant generation in the United States was mostly due to his role as the editor-in-chief of the journal Tsukunft (which he was unable to rescue from the brink of bankruptcy in 1910). Kalmen Marmor (1876–1956), 4 4 Kalmen Marmor befriended Vintshevsky, wrote a monography on him, edited the ten volumes of his collected writings, and organized his trip to the Soviet Union in 1924. an American communist critic and cultural activist, later annexed Vintshevsky into his imagined canon of radical and proletarian Yiddish writers that he popularized both in the United States and the Soviet Union, leading to a reclamation of Vinchevsky as a cult figure and important pioneer of communist proletarian literature.

Meanwhile, Apotheker’s tenure as a writer for the New York based anarchist weekly Fraye arbeter shtime was discontinued in 1905 by its legendary editor-in-chief Shoel Yanovsky (1864–1939). Though Apotheker returned to work in one of the central satirical periodicals of the first decade of the twentieth century in New York, Der kibetser (later known as Der groyser kibetser, ‘The Big Kibitzer’, 1908–1914), edited by a fellow satirist Khayem Gutman (Der lebediker, ‘The Lively One’, 1887–1961), his work had been largely ignored and even shunned. A typical example of this is an article published not long before Apotheker’s death, in which the author fended off the rumours that Apotheker had anything to do with the editing of Der kibetser and claimed that these were purposefully and vilely spread by the journal’s rivals (principal among which was the competing Der groyser kundes (‘The Big Prankster’, New York, 1909–1927), as part of a smear campaign intended to drag Der kibetser’s artistic respectability through the mud. 5 5 Dos menedzhment fun ‘Kibetser’, A derklerung fun ‘Kibetser’”, Der kibetser, 3 November 1911, 2.

Sem Liptsin’s career was significantly different from these two other forerunners of political satire. Liptsin came to New York in 1909 and was shortly swept up by the Yiddish socialist movement, while simultaneously working as a tailor in one of the sweatshops in the Lower East Side. As a speaker for socialist causes, Liptsin spiced up his speeches for effect with jokes and humorous anecdotes, which were often quoted even in press reports, referring to him as the “griner yingl” [the ‘green’ i.e. ‘new immigrant’ youngster]. Thus, to cite Liptsin’s own words, his work was in print even before he published his own writing. 6 6 Moyshe Kats, “Sem Liptsin – der humorist: Tsu der hayntiker fayerung fun Sem Liptsinen un zayn bukh, ‘Krig un zig’”, Morgn-frayhayt, 2 May 1942, 3. After the establishment of the communist Frayhayt in 1922 he became a regular contributor to the journal. It wasn’t long before Liptsin was considered one of the Yiddish communist daily’s most popular columnists, who, as one of his critics wrote appreciatively, walled himself in (ayngemoyert) among the columns of the Frayhayt/Morgn-frayhayt. 7 7 Yisroel-Ber Beylin, “Sem Liptsin – der getrayer folkskemfer un folks-humorist”, Morgn-frayhayt, 13 May 1944, 3. By the time his 1935 Nitgedayget came out, Liptsin had already published 14 collections of variegated satirical writings. A major difference between Liptsin and the abovementioned representative Yiddish satirists was the partisan nature of his (political) satire. He enjoyed a constant, unrelenting popularity in the communist camp, in the interwar and postwar periods, even at the height of the Red Scare, which resulted in the steady but inevitable isolation and decline of the Yiddish communist movement.

In this recently published volume, Sem Liptsin’s She Sold her Husband and Other Satirical Sketches, Zeke Levine’s selection of Liptsin’s (mostly) post-war writings gives a fascinating overview of the communist satirist’s quaint short sketches. It is an important and refreshing addition to our understanding and rediscovery of the inter- and post-war period’s Yiddish proletarian literature. The mere fact of selection is already an achievement in and of itself, as Liptsin’s output was truly tremendous, so much so that the sheer amount of his writing had even been criticized by his most ardent admirers in the communist press. When in an interview a critic approached Liptsin with the suggestion that perhaps his work should benefit from a more careful editing process, Liptsin brushed off the remark in a perfect proletarian fashion by saying that he was a simple tailor, no literary expert, and as such had no understanding of distinctions between low- and highbrow literature, and that his writings were merely an expression of his heart’s desire. 8 8 The lack of Liptsin’s self-editing had already been the subject of an early article in the communist press, the first issue of Signal: Borekh Fenster, “Tsu der hoykh fun der proletarisher humor: ‘Far royte oventn’ fun Sem Liptsin,” Signal, 1 (1933), 22. Liptsin was also often presented as a communist political activist, whose literary creativity was only a by-product of his political activism and grew directly out of it. For today’s readers Liptsin’s satire may serve as an amusing reminder of a time when an ideological reading of reality was the central mode of grappling with the hardships and challenges of the day.

Levine’s collection, however, overrepresents prose among Liptsin’s work and personal artistic proclivities. By contrast to other famous satirists in the US and Eastern Europe, Liptsin was not primarily cherished as a prosaist, with his sketches, monologues, and short stories. Rather, he was widely loved for his poems and songs composed in the tradition of Yiddish proletarian poetry rooted in the writing of such classic poets as Dovid Edelshtat (1866–1892), Yoysef Bovshover (1873–1915), and Moris Rozenfeld (1862–1923). From the very beginning of his political activism, he penned (and published) songs and poems that enjoyed wide acknowledgement, and which were often sung by workers in protests, gatherings, commemorative events, and in the picket lines.

Moreover, another genre which helped lay the foundation for Liptsin’s fame amongst the masses was his dramatic writing. The popularity of Liptsin’s one-act plays was no less than that of his short stories and poems, and in these short dramatic pieces he successfully touched on such issues as inter-generational conflict arising from differing worldviews, the consequences of political and social inertia and the responsibility of the politically active towards their nuclear family and society at large, which often come into conflict with each other. Seemingly these one-act plays have the same simplicity that characterizes some of his satirical writings but here the dramatic action and how it plays out can give rise to more complex interpretations. Had Levine included songs, poetry, and dramatic writings among his selections, the volume would give a more accurate representation of Liptsin’s output.

Though She Sold her Husband mainly brings together works from Liptsin’s later period, one may trace throughout its pages the characters, literary motives, figures of speech, and tonalities that also permeate his earlier works. Thus, one may find in it, among other things, the constant pressure of unrelieved anxiety over landlords and housing (in the stories “Landlords”, 6–14, “Rumes with Foynitshur”, 24–29), the tensions between neighbours in tenement buildings (“Elye Nu…”, 29–33, “A Televi…shhh!”, 102–106), and a monologue by the opinionated busybody type with their skewed, sometimes peculiar view of life and of others (“A Twenty Pound Turkey”, 71–76). An important thematic addition in Liptsin’s post-war work is the geography of leisure. A visit to Coney Island (“The First Trip to Coney Island”, 14–18), Brighton Beach (“Brighton Beach”, 81–87) and a vacation in a Zimmer (or according to the parlance of the day, a “kokhaleyn” [cook alone]; “In the Hotel Kochalayn”, 76–81) somewhere in the Catskills are among the resort locales visited by the Jews in these short stories. This shows a shift from the daily struggle for survival in the interwar period, on which most of Liptsin’s writing was focused in those decades, to a greater thematization of the somewhat ideologically and intellectually dull post-war existence of the economically rising Jewish middle classes in the post-WWII era. This change of emphasis may also be explained by the fact that members of the communist party, and leftist intellectuals in general, were at the receiving end of the McCarthyistic persecutions of the 1950s, and thus had to tone down any too overt political themes in their satire.

The short story “The Aesthete: A Character Study” (18–24), offers a fascinating window into how attitudes shifted within political satire. This story, in which the figure of a Yiddishist, Mr. Drizzle, is lampooned is, on its surface, similar to Der Tunkeler’s “Yidishistn: A monolog fun a Kiyever yid” [Yiddishists: A monologue of a Jew from Kiev]. 9 9 Der tunkeler [Yoysef Tunkel], “Yidishistn: A monolog fun a kiyever yid”, Der moment, 31 May 1918, 4; 10 June 1918, 3. The story was included in the collection Yoysef Tunkel, Yechiel Sheyntukh (ed.), Sefer ha-humoreskot ve-ha-parodiot ha-sifrutiot be-yidish: Mivchar ketavim humoristiim al yehudei mizrach-Eyropa ve-tarbutam be-Polin bein shtei milchamot ha-olam (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1990), 122–130. Yet, while Der Tunkeler’s depiction of the Yiddishist(s) is bittersweet as it is reflected in the image of a panic-struck father, Todres, who is at a loss how to react to the Yiddish-loving craze of his two children, Liptsin had much less tenderness for his Mr. Drizzle. He applies to his Yiddishist the epithet “the fat belly”, which he commonly applied to negative characters. The difference between the two approaches shows the deep ideological rift not only between Yiddish communists and cultural activists belonging to other political camps, but also between the historical, cultural, and social circumstances of Yiddish and its cultural activists that produced the Todreses of Der Tunkeler and the Mr. Drizzles of Sem Liptsin. Der Tunkeler’s satire was written against the backdrop of the failed Russian revolution of 1905, resulting subsequently in a return to or awakening interest in Jewish folklore, tradition, and language among many Jews: his Yiddishists are riding a wave of interest in Yiddish that is fuelling Jews’ political sentiments. Liptsin, however, depicts his Yiddishist in the milieu of the US as someone who has become alienated from the real (cultural and social) needs of the Yiddish speaking masses, and who chooses instead to retreat into a fantasy of Yidishkayt at a time when popular needs have shifted.

It is regrettable that Levine does not specify the location of original publication of the short stories in the volume, which makes it hard for those interested to go back to the sources and compare the English translation with the original Yiddish texts. This is also unfortunate since it would be fascinating to see whether Levine based his translations on the original versions of the stories as they were published in the daily communist press or on later anthologized versions. In the latter case the pieces would have already undergone a second round of editing (not all of Liptsin’s writings appeared in book form) and at times they were re-written or altered significantly. Moreover, Liptsin was one of the few Yiddish authors (and probably the only satirist) from a Western country whose book was accepted and published during the Cold War Era behind the Iron Curtain. 10 10 Sem Lipstin, Dovid Sfard (ed.), Mit a freylekh ponem (Warsaw: Yidish bukh, 1963).
Given these circumstances, access to the original texts could have given readers a glimpse into the kind of Jewish humor that was not deemed subversive by the regime and passed as permissible.

A recommendable feature of Levine’s collection is that he does not overburden the reader with definitions or explanations of Yiddish terms and restricts the use of foreign terms to a bare minimum. A short glossary at the end of the volume does not go into all the historical and sociolinguistic intricacies of, for example, what a kheyder is, but rather only provides such information as would enable anyone not professionally familiar with Judaism and Yiddish culture to navigate the stories with ease. I felt that the English translations successfully reproduced Lipstin’s flowing style, which he clearly based on the Yiddish spoken on the streets of New York. There are no footnotes introducing the reader to the cultural and historical background of the stories, which further contributes to their easy readability.

In the short (personal) postface by the translator and editor of the volume we read of Levine’s first encounter with Liptsin’s oeuvre and his first impression of the author’s photographic appearance. He then summarily describes the main stages of Liptsin’s long career, which span over half a century. However, one fact remains insufficiently addressed, namely the partisan nature of Liptsin’s writing. Liptsin’s name was inextricably linked to the Yiddish communist movement in the United States. The positive reviewers mentioned in the postface were either hard-line communists or fellow travelers. As already noted, Liptsin captured the hearts of many from the very beginning of his career, but the artistic quality of his writings was far from being uncontested. From its origin in the nineteenth century, Yiddish political satire continually attracted similar controversies with respect to its artistic qualities, for unlike other branches of Yiddish literature it could not raise its subject matter above the level of day-to-day political feuds between different political factions.

We can only hope that after this short, but certainly valuable, contribution to the understanding and appreciation of political satire in Yiddish, further volumes will follow that present to an English reading public of such classics of Yiddish satire as Moris Vintshevsky, Yoysef Tunkel, or Khayem Gutman, uncovering for modern readers their distinct humoristic voice, once loudly heard the world over by the Yiddish-speaking masses.

Hunyadi, Binyamin. “Review of The Communist Satyricon: Sem Liptsin’s She Sold her Husband and Other Satirical Sketches, translated and edited by Zeke Levine.” In geveb, March 2024:
Hunyadi, Binyamin. “Review of The Communist Satyricon: Sem Liptsin’s She Sold her Husband and Other Satirical Sketches, translated and edited by Zeke Levine.” In geveb (March 2024): Accessed Apr 22, 2024.


Binyamin Hunyadi

Binyamin Hunyadi has a PhD in Yiddish studies from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is a research assistant at the "Index to Yiddish Periodicals" project by Beit Sholem Aleichem at the National Library of Israel, Jerusalem.