Apr 27, 2018
Yiddish scholars tend to discount contemporary Hasidic cultural production. They regard the term “Hasidic culture” as a misnomer, believing that Hasidim eschew and denounce art and literature in favor of religious practice. For instance, in his classic linguistic study Yiddish: Turning to Life, Joshua Fishman writes, “Hasidim lack a fully conscientious or ideological approach to the language; nor do they value the development of literature, poetry, and other areas of modern language usage. For them Yiddish is part of a separate, Hasidic life.” This attitude is in need of a reconsideration, but a comprehensive examination of the current-day Yiddish Hasidic oeuvre would be overwhelming, and likely book-length in scope. Instead, this essay will track specifically the rise in Hasidic cultural, and particularly literary, production that occurred largely as a result of World War II: from the negligible literary output of prewar Hasidic society to the flourishing Hasidic literary culture that has arisen in the seventy years since then. This essay will also demonstrate that contemporary Hasidim are documenting their own culture, whether consciously or not, and will argue that scholars, students, and lovers of Yiddish lose a significant opportunity by overlooking Hasidic work because of a perceived lack of artistic quality.
For the most part, traditional Jewish communities, including Hasidic ones, did not participate in the creative output of modern, secular Yiddish works that flourished in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, either as creators or consumers. Alhough Hasidim eschewed the works of Enlightened Yiddish writers, the writers themselves often didn’t return the favor. A number of them, such as I. L. Peretz, S. An-sky, and Israel Joshua Singer, sought inspiration for some of their stories in Hasidic communities.
1Hasidish un di goldene keyt, a collection of I. L. Peretz’s work published between 1894 and 1912, features stories and a three-act drama about Rebbes and their Hasidim. (New York, NY: Congress for Jewish Culture, 1986). S. An-sky’s most famous play, The Dybbuk, features the mystical aspects of Hasidism. (Original title: Tsvishn tsvey veltn, 1913-1916). I. J. Singer’s Yosha Kalb takes place in a Hasidic world and like Der dibek, features supernatural elements typical of Hasidic lore.
These writers featured Hasidim in their work not only because they were interested in writing about this world, but also because there was an attentive readership for such stories. As the scholar of Jewish history David E. Fishman notes, “Vilna’s Yiddishists were enthralled by Peretz’s Hasidic tales and by S. An-sky’s depiction of a suffering Hasidic master and his followers in The Dybbuk . . . The unfamiliar world of Hasidism was mythic, poetic, and exotic to them.”
David E. Fishman, The Rise of Modern Yiddish Culture (Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2005), 121.
As a result, despite the lack of Yiddish literature written by Hasidim themselves, their prewar traditional communities were, to some degree, documented and preserved, albeit not by community members themselves.
After World War II, popular support for Yiddish literature dwindled. Even the best-known secular Yiddish writers, such as Chaim Grade and Isaac Bashevis Singer, saw a steadily declining readership of their work; only through their English translations could they earn enough to live. 3 3 In a letter written by Chaim Grade to his friend and patron, Abraham Bornstein, Grade writes, “If not for you and Rikel [Bornstein’s wife], I wouldn’t even think about publishing Beys HaRav [a book he was working on during that time], because not a single book in Yiddish covers more than its costs. Even my best publication—and one of the best in Yiddish!—Der shtumer minyan [The Silent Quorum], barely sold half. Five hundred pieces are still lying around in three different places. And that’s with me being a bestseller! And to you I can reveal what I hadn’t written to Dr. Isaacman, that there still remains 300 copies of Di kloyz un di gas [Synagogue and Street. English translation title: Rabbis and Wives], and 250 of Volume 2 of The Yeshiva.” September 28, 1978. Abraham Bornstein Archive. ARC. 4* 1503, folder 32. National Library of Israel, Jerusalem. However, Yiddish was still being spoken and read.
On the streets of Brooklyn, where Hasidim had established communities in the aftermath of the war, Yiddish was the lingua franca, thanks mostly to the influence of the Rebbe of Satmar, Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum. According to Bruce J. Mitchell, who has studied the use of Yiddish among postwar Haredim, “Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum (1887-1979) has been by far the most influential figure in Yiddish language maintenance during the post-war period.” 4 4 Bruce Mitchell, Language Politics and Language Survival: Yiddish Among the Haredim in Post-war Britain (Paris: Peeters Publishers, 2006), 55. In New York, Rabbi Teitelbaum emerged as the leader of the Hasidim. While other Hasidic Rebbes also established courts in New York, none had attracted as many loyal followers as he or wielded as much influence. 5 5 The Rebbe of Lubavitch, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, has had—some would argue—as much of an impact on post-war Hasidism as Rabbi Teitelbaum. However, for the sake of clarity and brevity, this paper’s discussion about Yiddish Hasidic culture is limited, for the most part, to mainstream Hasidic sects, such as Satmar, Belz, Vizhnits, Pupa, Bobov, etc., in the United States. Despite the hostility between some of these sects and Satmar, it would be difficult to argue that any of the other Rebbes wielded as much influence as Teitelbaum, certainly in his insistence on Yiddish, but also in the establishing of Hasidic norms in areas such as dress codes and education for boys and girls. Therefore, when Teitelbaum made speaking and reading Yiddish a priority for his Hasidim, this had a large impact throughout the Hasidic world. His insistence on Yiddish stemmed from his conviction that it was imperative that his Hasidim keep a distance from the non-Jewish world, and that English was an entryway into that world. He also felt that modern Hebrew was the language of the Zionists, whom he considered equally, or possibly more, impure.
But while instructing Hasidim to speak Yiddish was simple, asking them to read Yiddish—and in the case of the girls’ school, to study from Yiddish texts—proved more problematic. In America in the 1950s there was a dearth of the kind of Yiddish reading material that Rabbi Teitelbaum deemed acceptable. The New York Yiddish newspapers, such as the Forverts (Forward) and Der morgen zhurnal (The Morning Journal), and the literature produced by modern, secular writers like Chaim Grade were all proscribed by Teitelbaum. Instead, many Hasidim, particularly Satmars, relied on imports from Israel for their Yiddish literary entertainment. The Yiddish media most commonly consumed by Hasidim was Dos yidishe likht (The Jewish Light), a weekly black and white periodical published by Moshe Ehrenthal in Jerusalem. And ironically—considering Satmar’s rivalry with Lubavitch 6 6 For more on the rivalry between Satmar and Lubavitch, see, for example, Jerome Mintz’s Hasidic People: A Place in the New World, Chapter 5: “Satmar, M’lochim, Lubavitch: The Struggles Between the Courts.” (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), 51-59. —many Satmar Hasidim also subscribed to Di yidishe heym, a periodical produced by Lubavitch. 7 7Di Yiddishe Heym published its first issue in 1958 and continues to be published to this day. http://www.chabad.org/search/keyword_cdo/kid/3474/jewish/Yiddishe-Heim-The-Magazine.htm
By the mid-1950s, Satmar had its own newspaper, providing more kosher reading material in Yiddish as well as opportunities for Hasidim to write professionally about topics of particular interest to them. Under Rabbi Teitelbaum’s auspices, the Satmar leadership purchased the newspaper Der yid from Dr. Aaron Rosmarin, 8 8 Dr. Aaron Rosmarin was an editor of Der morgn zhurnal (The Morning Journal), but when the paper was bought by Der Tog (The Day), another Yiddish newspaper, in 1953, Rosmarin was let go. Consequently, he started his own newspaper and called it Der yid. Compared to the Tog-morgn zhurnal (an amalgam of Der tog and Der morgn zhurnal), Der Yid was considered more sympathetic to Orthodoxy, including Satmar’s anti-Zionist stance. Satmar purchased the newspaper in 1956. The first issue under Satmar’s auspices was published on Friday, February 17, 1956. after which it was transformed into appropriate reading for Hasidim, meaning that it abided by laws of modesty in both language and content, and its pieces did not pretend to be objective journalism, but rather supported the Satmar perspective on all issues, including Israel, American politics, and general news.
However, despite this gradual increase in Hasidic Yiddish publishing in the 1950s, one significant lacuna remained, namely, suitable textbooks for the girls’ school’s Yiddish curriculum. In a biography of Binyamin Hersh Berkowitz, the first official principal of Yiddish studies of the Satmar girls’ school, the biographer recalls, “In the early years [of the school’s founding], the Rebbe [Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum] was very pained over the terrible shortage of study-books in Yiddish, which would be suitable, with pure, pious viewpoints, able to be used in the girls’ school.” 9 9The Rebbe’s General, chapbook published by Mosdos Bnos Chayil (Gevaldig Publishers) on the occasion of their annual dinner, year 5777 (2016-2017), 91. The chapbook doesn’t name an author; hence the use of the generic “biographer” above. This challenge was unique to the girls’ school, because the boys could study directly from a Khumesh or Talmud, which was not permitted for the girls. 10 10 See p. 13 of The Rebbe’s General, where the biographer describes Rabbi Teitelbaum’s unswerving principle that according to daas Torah, girls are prohibited from studying Torah commentaries, such as Rashi’s interpretations, directly from the source, “because the foundation of the girls’ school is purely to teach them to be pious Jewish daughters, to follow the path of Torah and fear of God.” See also p. 41 for more on this topic. Consequently, Rabbi Teitelbaum determined that the Satmar girls’ school would design their own religious studies curriculum in the Yiddish language and create textbooks accordingly. He charged Berkowitz with the task of writing, commissioning, and publishing textbooks for Yiddish instruction in the girls’ schools under their own imprint, Bais Ruchel Publishing. Though its first books were mainly about halacha (Jewish law), emunah (faith), and middos (good character traits), eventually Bais Ruchel also produced leynbukher (reading primers), which featured stories and some poetry intended for entertainment. The “entertainment” generally came along with a moralistic message, as the stories were meant not only to amuse, but also to teach the girls how a good Jewish child thinks and acts. For example, the first stanza of a poem in a second grade leynbukh reads:
We are strong because our Creator protects us,
Our armor is Divine weaponry,
If our Torah protects us,
What more do we need? 11 11 Mrs. Weinstock, Yiddish Leynbukh 2 (Brooklyn, NY: Bais Ruchel Publishing, 1971), 82. Translations by the author.
Other stories and poems in that leynbukh describe Jewish holidays, try to instill middos (“Just Don’t be Lazy” is one title; “Sheyndele Obeys her Mother” is another), or relate anecdotes about tsaddikim. One story/skit, titled “Why We Always Only Speak in Yiddish” features a character uttering the following piece of dialogue:
In an English home you speak English.
In a Spanish home you speak Spanish.
In a Puerto Rican home you speak Puerto Rican.
In an Italian home you speak Italian.
In a French home you speak French,
And we Jews, why shouldn’t we speak Yiddish? 12 12 Ibid., 143.
It is true that these stories were merely part of a school curriculum, but for many Hasidic children 13 13 Based on anecdotal interviews with Hasidim who came of age in the 1970s and 1980s, boys would often read their sisters’ leynbukhs. This makes sense, considering how few Yiddish publications were available to them at that time. growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, these schoolbooks formed a bulk of their Yiddish reading, creating an impact similar to that of the public schools’ literature canon on the average schoolchild. For the demographic of Hasidic youth, the stories in these leynbukher constituted Yiddish literature as they understood it.
Gradually, however, Yiddish literary publication for Hasidim grew. The 1970s and 1980s saw a moderate increase in the publication of Yiddish books—one notable author was “Menachem Mendel” 14 14 Menachem Mendel Meshi Zahav is one of the most prolific writers of Yiddish stories. It is estimated that he has published about three hundred books, including children’s storybooks. Many of his stories are rewrites of works already produced either in “outmoded” Yiddish or in other languages. He resides in Israel. For a partial listing of his works, see https://archive.org/search.php?query=creator%3A%22Mena%E1%B8%A5em+Mendl%22. of whom more discussion follows soon—but it was not until the 1990s and, particularly, after 2000, that Yiddish Hasidic culture saw a dramatic increase in producton. The changes were obvious not only in literary output, but also in music, print and visual media, and various forms of live entertainment.
One of the initial game-changers in Hasidic Yiddish print media was Maalos (Virtues), a monthly magazine that first came out in 1996 and is still operating today, published by Sarah Jungreisz. Although Maalos abides by the same stringent standards as other Hasidic publications—it provides moral instruction, features no images of women, is anti-Zionist, etc.—it places more emphasis on literary excellence than its predecessors. For example, its fiction serials include historical fiction, 15 15 See, for example, Der letster (The Last), a historical fiction story published in issues Taamuz and Av, 5758 (1998). YA fiction with a psychological bent, 16 16 See, for example, Ver bin ikh (Who Am I?), a serialized novel published in issues Av 5776 (2016) through Teves 5777 (2017). and articles or stories that employ lyrical language and poetic techniques. The nonfiction pieces run the gamut from well-researched scholarly write-ups to biographies of noteworthy personalities; from self-help columns on marriage, parenting, and business to thought-provoking or controversial essays on mental health and art. As the first of its kind in caliber and content, Maalos redefined what a Hasidic magazine could do. Additionally—and perhaps unintentionally—Maalos serves a similar function to the work of prewar classic Yiddish writers like Peretz and Ansky: it documents Hasidic life by highlighting the people, the pressing issues, and the tales that are central to modern-day Hasidim.
Two newspapers, Di tsaytung (The Newspaper) and Der blat (The Page), established in 1988 and 1999 respectively, were game-changers too, albeit for somewhat contradictory reasons. Di Tsaytung, a “neutral”
Though newspapers catering to Hasidim are customarily affiliated with a particular Hasidic sect, Di Tzeitung has eschewed any such affiliation.
Yiddish newspaper founded and owned by Abraham Friedman, was the first to publish some pieces in response to news and articles printed in the New York Times or other mainstream, secular, English-language publications, and sometimes even translations of the articles themselves. In doing so, the newspaper placed itself in direct conversation with a secular interlocutor, and by extension, the Hasidic reader of the newspaper was then doing the same. 18 18 Certainly, Di Tsaytung wrote its own articles too, including polemics and analyses of the politics of the day; however, the translations of or responses to articles in secular newspapers was innovative for a Hasidic publication at that time, which is why this point is highlighted. Considered the “classy” paper by Hasidim because of its elevated language, Di tsaytung granted the secular viewpoint—at least in politics or other universal issues—a legitimacy it hadn’t been accorded before. It could be posited that Der blat, a Satmar newspaper created as a political vehicle for the nascent “Aroni” 19 19Der blat was established as a direct result of the Satmar succession feud. For a detailed account of the feud, see Samuel Heilman’s Who Will Lead Us?: The Story of Five Hasidic Dynasties in America, (Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2017). faction, merged the secular world with the Hasidic in a different way, by ushering in a more informal language style that is characteristic of much secular print media. The quality of Der blat’s journalism wasn’t necessarily lesser than the sort Hasidim were accustomed to; rather, the language employed was more conversational—and at times, more sensationalist—than the conservative, rather staid reporting typical of Der yid or Di tsaytung. Der blat also regularly published a spread of color photographs, including images of people, for entertainment purposes (rather than because they constituted significant news), something which hadn’t been done in an official capacity up to then. These innovations proved so successful both in attracting readers and in initiating dialogue about various issues that soon, Der yid had adopted many of Der blat’s features and stylistic choices.
Over the last ten years, more Yiddish magazines by and for Hasidim were founded than in the previous fifty years combined. In 2014, Moment, a glossy weekly magazine published by Joel Kraus in New York, released their first issue; they now claim to have 150,000 readers globally. Like Maalos, Moment features sophisticated, well-researched articles. They pioneered the practice of featuring images of Hasidic personalities on their cover page in the style of secular glossies, a practice that could never have passed muster pre-2000. In general, the articles in the Moment are more liberal in outlook than those in the Maalos, or for that matter, those in any Hasidic print medium in Yiddish that preceded it.
Other popular Yiddish magazines established relatively recently and currently in distribution in the United States include, among others, Der blik (The Gaze; a publication of Moment Magazine),
20https://twitter.com/ahblicklive?lang=en. Der Blik doesn’t have a website.
Di vokh (The Week),
21https://twitter.com/deevoch?lang=en. Di Voch doesn’t have a website.
Yidish tribune (The Jewish Tribune),
22www.yiddishtribune.com Der shtern (The Star),
23https://twitter.com/dershtern?lang=en Der blits (The Lightning),
and Baleykhtungen (Illuminations). 25 25Baleykhtungen doesn’t have a web site. Contact info is 718.532.4122.
All these magazines cater to an adult or YA readership and perhaps feature a token section devoted to children. But in 2014 Kindlayn, the first Yiddish language weekly magazine created specifically for children and teens, was established. Like the Moment, Kindlayn boasts professional graphics and a variety of stories in various genres, including graphic art narratives, that aim to inform, teach, and entertain. Considering that a magazine for children garners few ads and must therefore be sustained by sales of the magazine itself, it is a clear indicator of the magazine’s success—and by extension, of the sizable readership of literary works in Yiddish among Hasidic youth—that Kindlayn has already engendered a competitor, Kinderlekh, which released its first issue in 2017. Yiddish print media by and for Hasidim has come a long way from its meager output in the 1960s and 1970s.
The growth of print media in Hasidic culture didn’t happen in a vacuum. Yiddish literature in book form was experiencing its own evolution as well. In the 1970s and 1980s, the publication of a new Yiddish novel was a rare event—in general, readers were forced to wait for Menachem Mendel (mentioned earlier in this paper), the most prolific writer for the Hasidic demographic, to write one—but the last decade has seen an average of fifty new titles of fiction books (not including storybooks for young children, which boast about thirty new titles)—on the bookstore shelves per year. 26 26 Based on information supplied by several bookstore owners in Brooklyn. A far cry from the simplistic or hagiographical stories in Bais Ruchel Publishing’s leynbukher or in Dos yidishe likht, the Yiddish books published in the current market include mysteries, thrillers, graphic novels, comic books, first person accounts, biographies, self-help, and more, most in striking hardcovers.
Ironically, one of the best selling novelists in the Hasidic Yiddish fiction field today, Yair Weinstock, writes in Hebrew, and it is only through translations that Yiddish readers have been introduced to his work. His novels captivate Yiddish readers mainly for their convoluted plot arcs and keen atmospheric sensibility. For example, Di umbakante aktsye (The Obscure Mission), which was published in 2006, opens with the following lines, which instantly establish a sinister mood and a sense of doom, much like the novel’s secular counterparts of a similar genre:
Night fell. It was a dark night only dimly lit by some stars. The frost of winter’s end reigned among the tall Kavkaz mountains.
In the secret headquarters of the Chechnya guerilla fighters, it wasn’t cold. There, turmoil, fear, and confusion reigned. There, such tremendous hatred blazed—to everyone and everything that looked Russian—only an atomic reactor was capable of producing its equivalent. 27 27 Yair Weinstock, Di umbakante aktsye (Brooklyn, NY: Mekor Chaim Publishing in collaboration with Kinder Shpiel, 2006), 7.
Publishers who specialize in Yiddish books appropriate for Hasidim include Gevaldig Publishers,
28https://gevaldigpublishers.com. Works include Ershte flamen oyf di amerikaner eyz by B. Gertner and Feste shtrik by Sh. L Schischa, among others.
and more significantly, the publisher/distributor, Kinder Shpiel, both based in New York.
29https://kindershpiel.com. Extensive catalogue of books available on website.
Kinder Shpiel, especially, has facilitated the upsurge in print of Yiddish comic books and graphic novels, including the popular Shpiglitzky series and books by “Gold” and Gadi Pollack.
Gadi Pollack is a well-known illustrator of Jewish comic books and magazines in English and Yiddish.
In general, most of their books (and Yiddish Hasidic books in general) are published with a younger audience in mind; with some exceptions, the older demographic finds more suitable material in magazines such as Maalos or Moment, and in newspapers. But in light of the recent rapid development of Hasidic Yiddish print culture, an increase in book-length works for adults should hypothetically be expected in the near future.
Certainly, print is not the only area where Hasidic culture has evolved. Beyond the scope of this paper—as discussed earlier—but beneficial to its theme would be an intensive exploration of the progression of Yiddish music. 31 31 Like literature, Yiddish popular song had belonged to the secular Jewish milieu before World War II, but has become a vital feature of Hasidic culture today. Musicians and singers who must be central to a study of this gradual change are Rabbi Yomtov Ehrlich, and, later, Michoel Schnitzler and Lipa Schmeltzer, as well as the more modest contributions of singers Mordechai ben David and Avraham Fried. Their influence, it may be argued, has fueled, or perhaps even led to, the current abundant release of a plethora of Yiddish songs composed and performed by Hasidim, many of which have found a broader audience in the greater Jewish community. Yiddish composed and sung by Hasidic girls and women rarely gets broad recognition; for an introduction to it, see Ester-Basya (Asya) Vaisman’s essay “‘Hold on Tightly to Tradition’: Generational Differences in Yiddish Song Repertoires Among Contemporary Hasidic Women” in Choosing Yiddish: New Frontiers of Language and Culture, edited by Lara Rabinovitch, Shiri Goren, and Hannah S. Pressman, and published by Wayne State University Press in 2013. Other areas of Hasidic culture that necessitate a more extensive examination than this essay can achieve are Yiddish web sites run by Hasidim, such as Katle kanye, Kave shtiebel and iVelt, all of which play important roles in cultivating literary advancement; the print journal Veker that has resulted directly from the Kave shtiebel site; Yiddish plays performed live or projected on screens (and later transferred to DVDs), such as Interin shverd (Beneath the Sword), Interin bild (Beneath the Picture), 32 32 See https://yiddishplays.com for a list of “Interin” plays. Mysteria (Mystery), 33 33http://epicshpielproduction.com/ and more; the Kol Mevaser phone line phenomenon; Joel Gluck’s artwork and Betzalel Gallery; and the Amud Aish Memorial Museum. 34 34http://www.amudaish.org/
The recent rise in cultural production by and about Hasidim means that the bulk of work representing Hasidic communities is now produced by Hasidim themselves. This increase in Hasidic self-representation means that sociologists and scholars have a larger, more nuanced, and more authentic, though perhaps less objective, canvas to study. Because Hasidism has always been a social movement at its core, looking at what its general society produces, as opposed to what its rabbinical elite does, provides a clearer, more accurate depiction of the community at large.