Jun 21, 2016
The following is an excerpt from an article originally published in the edited volume Joseph Opatoshu: A Yiddish Writer between Europe and America (Oxford: Legenda Books, 2013), pages 173-187. This excerpt is reprinted here with permission from the author and from Legenda Books, as part of In geveb’s publication of the first translation of Joseph Opatoshu’s short story “Lintsheray.” Click here for all of our recent translations, blog posts, and articles exploring how Yiddish American culture confronts the concept of race.
It is safe to contend that no other Yiddish writer offers a more graphic examination of racist violence toward African-Americans than Opatoshu does in the thirty-five or so pages of this story. Its central action is the pursuit and lynching of a young African-American man, Bukert (one wonders if this might be a mistaken rendering of the name Booker?). In short episodes the story progresses from the perspective of Bukert’s grandfather Jim—the association of his name with the African-American protagonist of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn is irresistible—his mother and siblings; the sheriff of Burke, Georgia; 1 1 Burke is the name of an actual county in Georgia that currently forms part of the Augusta metropolitan area. the white townspeople who anticipate the lynching; the lynch-mob leader McClure, whose daughter apparently has been violated by Bukert—though this is in turn retaliation for McClure himself having violated Bukert’s sister; and eventually Bukert’s own flight, capture, and tortuous execution by the lynch mob.
The panoramic perspective of this story provides a focused and urgent example of Opatoshu’s lifelong commitment to an aesthetic of literary realism, a practice that in its broadest dimensions serves to illustrate, valorize, and critique the processes by which a society rationalizes and modernizes itself. 2 2 This critique manifests itself perhaps most vividly in the melancholy of the nineteenth-century domestic novel, which typically conflates passion with pathos. Like the great novelists of nineteenth-century European literature, Opatoshu uses literature to hold a mirror up to his society as a synthetic and synchronic whole. The problem, however, for Yiddish literature in America—a problem that makes this belated investment in realism provocative and useful for an understanding of the realist project generally—is determining to what extent a writer such as Opatoshu can effectively represent his adopted nation in Yiddish, when one of the few universal traits of American public life, in his day as much as at present, was the monolingual hegemony of the English language. As the ensuing discussion will argue, Opatoshu’s artistic shortcomings in this instance enable the story he narrates to provide an invaluable, if complicated, insight into the sociology of racism; the use of realist narrative strategies in a Yiddish story about lynching captures the contradictions of American racism because the story’s very existence is, in a sense, contradictory.
In a 1954 essay Opatoshu offers his assessment of Yiddish culture in America over the previous six decades, starting with the Sweatshop poets and the first issue of the journal Di Tsukunft, and concluding with perhaps surprising optimism about the continued vitality of Yiddish in America after the Holocaust. Two comments from the essay are especially relevant for assessing Opatoshu’s own writing—nowhere mentioned in his remarks—and its approach to American themes: of America itself Opatoshu writes:
There is a rhythm in America that is alien to Europe; not the external rhythm that is only skin deep, but the inner rhythm that comes from getting to be at home in the country, with the average American, of whom one out of two traces his ancestry back to four or five peoples. 3 3 Joseph Opatoshu, “Fifty Years of Yiddish Literature in the United States,” in YIVO Annual of Jewish Social Science, vol. ix, ed. Koppel S. Pinson (New York: YIVO, 1954), 80. This article was originally a public address given at the 28th Annual Conference of the YIVO (Yiddish Scientific Institute); as far as I am aware, no Yiddish version of it has ever been published.
On the location of Yiddish in the United States he writes, by contrast:
Yiddish literature in the United States, though far from its source of origin, assumed an artistic form in many respects superior to the work of the first masters; reminding one that the great Polish works of Mickiewicz and Słowacki were written not in Poland but in France and Switzerland. 4 4 Ibid., 79.
These observations crystallize the general argument of the essay, that one of the challenges to writing in Yiddish in the United States is the multicultural mix of dynamism and danger that characterizes American society and distinguishes it from the ostensibly homogeneous culture of Eastern European Jewry with which Yiddish writers continue to identify their ethnic origins.
In addition to serving as a linguistic and cultural home, Eastern Europe remained an important economic base for Yiddish writers in America until the outbreak of the Second World War, as Opatoshu’s decision to debut the collection that includes “Lintsheray” in Warsaw underscores.
Even when writing on American subjects, Yiddish literature thus remains the work of an exiled and peripheral culture.
For the American Yiddish writer, consequently, the natural habitat for Yiddish culture, and the primary measurement of cultural authenticity—a value in Opatoshu’s critical universe, whatever readers luxuriating in their own post-modernism may think of the concept—is to be found for the American Yiddishist, like the Polish nationalist in exile, not where he or she is, but where he or she is from. Given both the enormity of Opatoshu’s output as well as the intellectual curiosity that motivates the entirety of his career, it should nonetheless come as little surprise that the challenges of writing about America in Yiddish motivate some of the author’s most interesting and innovative fiction. To an equal degree, however, it should come as no surprise that this fiction in many respects actually confirms the focus he prescribes for Yiddish fiction on its own ethnic integrity as well as its orientation not to the American present but to the traditions of a Jewish past.
Although Opatoshu deserves credit in “Lintsheray” for his capacities of moral imagination, emotional empathy, and political indignation when confronting the most egregious human rights problem in the United States at that time, the story not only reveals the inevitable limits that a talented writer in particular encounters when trying to depict a fundamentally foreign culture—a less talented or ambitious writer would never approach these limits in the first place—but also suggests analogous limits for representing ethnic difference within the discourse of Yiddish fiction generally. At the outset of the story, Opatoshu provides a description of an African-American character, the grandfather Jim, which reads as a compendium of dehumanizing stereotypes:
אױף דער שװעל אין שאָטן איז געזעסן אַן אַלטער נעגער. . . די צו לאַנגע הענט אַרומגעפֿלאָכטן אַרום די פֿיס און די שװערע דלאָניעס מיט צעשפּרײטע פֿינגער . . . האָבן דאַכט זיך אָנגערירט די ערד. ער האָט געדרימלט מיט האַלב פֿאַרמאַכטע אױגן־לעפּלעך. זײַן קורצע פּלאַטשיקע נאָז מיט די צעעפֿענטע נאָז־לעכער, די קרײַזלעך אױפֿן קאָפּ, װאָס זענען געקראָכן ביז צו די ברעמען, די נאַקעטע הענט מיט די פּלײצעס, װי מיט אַ גרױער, אױסגעקראָכענער פֿעל אַרומגענומען — אַלץ האָט דערמאָנט אַן אַלטן אוראַנג־אוטאַנג.
At the threshold in the shadows sat an old Negro… His distended arms hung around his feet, and the heavy palms with outstretched fingers … seemed to touch the earth. He dozed with half-shut eyes. His short, flat nose with flared nostrils, the curls on his head which extended to his eyebrows, the bare arms with shoulders covered in grey fleece—all of this resembled an aged orangutan. 6 6 Joseph Opatoshu, “Lintsheray,” in Rase, lintsheray, un andere dertseylungen (Warsaw 1923) 8. Further references in parentheses. [Note from the In geveb editors: the full Yiddish original and new English translation can be found here: http://ingeveb.org/texts-and-translations/a-lynchi…]
This unfortunate description indicates that Opatoshu resorts to the same clichés when describing an unfamiliar ethnicity that other writers of his day better acquainted with Black people and ethnic difference recycled habitually. 7 7 Another emigrant from Poland, but one who adopted the English language along with the habits of an English gentleman, made even more purposeful and misanthropic use of these inherited clichés: “And between whiles I had to look after the savage who was fireman. He was an improved specimen; he could fire up a vertical boiler. He was there below me and, upon my word, to look at him was as edifying as seeing a dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat walking on his hind legs.” See Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness  (New York: W. W. Norton, Inc, 1988), 38. As with Opatoshu, Conrad’s repetition of demeaning and stereotypical images is ambivalent, since although his narrator remains committed to a racial world-view that explicitly dehumanizes Africans, the story he tells provides one of the most devastating critiques of European colonialism at its apex.
A more interesting literary and linguistic problem presents itself, however, when describing Black characters not as an ethnic type, but as people interacting with other people. For example, when Jim greets the sheriff and his deputies at his door he takes note of the occasion by calling them “ongeleygte gest,” welcome guests, sounding more like Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye the Dairyman than an African-American from the Jim Crow South (13). In conspicuous contrast, when Bukert’s mother hears the unwelcome news that he is wanted for the rape of McClure’s daughter Carrie, she crosses herself silently and fervently (ibid.), a gesture more characteristic of Polish Catholics than of American Protestants. These two details point to a larger problem in Opatoshu’s approach to portraying Black people, one that ultimately resonates with other Yiddish depictions: Are African-Americans, as a the powerless degraded people, to be likened to Jews, or to Slavic peasants? 8 8 Berysh Vaynshteyn, the Yiddish poet who wrote most intensively and successfully about African-Americans, represents this dilemma sequentially in his first collection of poems, Brukhvarg [Remnants] (New York: Farlag Khaverim-komitet, 1936). Dividing the work into thematically arranged chapters, the section titled Neygers (Negroes) is sandwiched between the chapters Mishpokhe (Family) and Yungen fun der volye (Youths on the outskirts), i.e. equidistant between Jews and Slavs, the familiar and the outsider. Does the perspective of the description assume that they are identical to Jews, or inversely Other?
This problem, ultimately, is as much linguistic as it is psychological or political. Though American discourse, and particularly African-American discourse, is as rooted in the Bible as Yiddish discourse is, it is nevertheless difficult beyond Opatoshu’s rhetorical assumptions to find equivalences between English idioms and Yiddish ones; consider in this regard the remark of a farmer who has come with the sheriff to serve papers on Bukert at the beginning of the story: “Afile damols ven s’vet dikh hern dos letste blozn fun shoyfer, vet a neyger zogn ‘omeyn’ nokh dem galakhs droshe” (Even when you’ll hear the last blast of the Shofar, a Negro will still say ‘Amen’ after the Priest’s sermon 14). Although American Protestantism shares with Jewish eschatology a concept of “Gabriel’s trumpet” ushering in either apocalypse or redemption, dos letste blozn fun shoyfer neither captures the Southern idiom nor does it bring the image it signifies closer to a Jewish means of expression. Similarly, dem galakhs droshe is neither a Protestant minister’s sermon nor a Catholic priest’s homily. By the same token, when Jim exclaims “vi ikh bin a krist” (as sure as I’m a Christian, 15), it fails to match either the rhetorical power or the literal meaning of “az ikh bin a yid” (sure as I’m a Jew!, x), because unlike the inextricable equation of Yiddish with Jewishness—an equivalence that Opatoshu resists in this passage—Christianity in America can be affirmed neither univocally nor monolingually.
The problems Opatoshu encounters when imagining a Black character go beyond the linguistic challenges of rendering an anglophone consciousness in Yiddish; they return the reader’s attention to the more essential, and essentializing, question of how literature relates for Opatoshu to the history and traditions of a specific language and culture. When Jim inevitably associates Bukert’s fate in the twentieth century with his own childhood memories of slavery, the author renders his thoughts by writing:
די בײַטש איז געפֿלױגן איבערן לײַב מיט אַ פֿײַף, זיך אײַנגעגעסן אין בלוט און אַן אײַנגעבױרענע שרעק, װאָס מעגלעך זײַנע אורעלטערן האָבן איבערגעלעבט אין די אַפֿריקאַנער װעלדער, װען זײ זענען געקראָכן אױף אַלע פֿיר, זיך אױסבאַהאַלטן נישט צעוריסן צו װערן פֿון אַ װילדער חיה – די זעלבע שרעק האָט זיך גענומען װעקן אין אַים. (16)
The whip flew over the skin with a whistle, eating its way into the blood, and a natal fear that maybe his ancestors experienced in the African jungles when they crawled on all fours to hide themselves so that a wild animal would not tear them to shreds—the same fear was awoken in him.
Although the image of African ancestors crawling on all fours is undeniably racist, the larger comparison equates the white slave driver with wild animals, a more pointedly dehumanizing image that serves to reverse the logic of white supremacy by rendering the white racist much lower on the evolutionary scale than the Black people whom he brutalizes physically and terrorizes psychologically. Because Opatoshu has inherited a discourse about Black people from white racism, however, it can only inhabit the limits set by that discourse in its imaginative poverty. Had Opatoshu been describing Jewish suffering, by contrast, he could have, and would have, drawn on a ready-made mythopoesis derived from biblical narrative, folk legend, rabbinical rhetoric, and the whole history of the Jewish Diaspora. Describing the travails of American Black people, however, he reverts to an image of a primal, a-historical past.
The rhetorical problem of finding the language to describe Black suffering bespeaks and begets a narrative problem of how to align the narrator’s obvious sympathies for Black characters confronting the injustice of American racism with the obligation of translating these experiences into a recognizable Yiddish idiom. This challenge is a consequence of the author’s need to confront two languages simultaneously within the monolingual decorum of literary realism; the disconnection of English with Yiddish results in what might be described as a “polytonal” narrative situation, like a musical composition played in two keys at the same instance. Although literary modernism, particularly but not exclusively in Yiddish, often cultivates such linguistic dissonances, polytonality in a realistic discourse is as disruptive as it is in a tonal composition, because it underscores the irreparable disconnections between the social elements that the realist narrative would be expected to dramatize and thus reconcile. This artistic flaw nonetheless contributes to the story’s moral value: by capturing the contradictions of American racial discourse, Opatoshu makes of American racism an object that in turn exposes the inability to reconcile the social dissonances of the culture for a rational and national modernity. 9 9 It comes as no surprise, of course, that even ninety years later these disconnections continue to play out, in symbolic terms as much as institutional and social ones. To offer an instance that is significant precisely because of its banality, while I was writing the conclusion to this essay, my mother—she should live and be well—called to describe a Christmas parade she had just attended (2012) in Natchitoches, Louisiana, not far from where my parents live. At the climax of the parade an all-Black troupe of the “Shriners” (Ancient Arabic Order of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine) marched, followed in close proximity, but with no interaction whatsoever, by an all-white group of Confederate Civil War re-enactors. America is not an imagined community, it is several. Opatoshu’s failure as a realist, moreover, underscores his temporal, political, and thematic affinities with contemporaneous Yiddish modernism. Even unwittingly or unwillingly, it is perhaps the fate of the peripheral writer to approach the avant-garde, if only by virtue of his or her status between languages and cultures.