Oct 28, 2021
After a year of communicating, teaching, spending time with family and friends at a distance, over Zoom meetings and Google chats and emails and phone calls, it may be high time to think with our students about how we might make meaning out of that experience, and how it could inform our understandings of history and literature and make us more attentive readers. One way of doing so is to highlight texts that thematize the challenges, the pain and doubt and longing, that occur when communicating across space and different contexts.
The literary and historical archive of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe to America in the early twentieth century is rife with examples of such strained communication: postcards sent home with promises of steamship tickets, staged photographs from portrait studios in which immigrants portray their success, letters sent to and fro, newspapers with transnational circulations.
Leon Kobrin’s short story “Blessed is the True Judge” takes as its theme the question of what can and cannot be communicated from a distance. A work of popular, melodramatic fiction that draws upon stereotypes of the self-sacrificing Yidishe mame and her foil, the rebellious, Americanizing, newly-socialist immigrant daughter, “Blessed is the True Judge” centers on an exchange of letters that communicate the growing sense of loss and lack of comprehension between family members torn apart by the exigencies of history.
The author of the story, Leon Kobrin (1873-1946), born in Vitebsk (then part of Imperial Russia, now in Belarus) emigrated to the United States in 1892, first working menial jobs in Philadelphia and then moving to New York City where he began a career as a journalist, writer of short stories and novels, and translator, and ultimately gained fame as a playwright. His most famous play was the tragedy Yankel Boyle (1908, based on his own 1898 story), about a Jewish young man who loses his mind because of his inability to make decisions about his love life. For many years Kobrin worked as a playwright exclusively for the theater company of the Yiddish theatrical superstar Boris Thomashevsky. Kobrin was a popular writer prone to melodrama whose characters nevertheless often exhibited psychological depth. 1 1 See: https://yleksikon.blogspot.com...
“Blessed is the True Judge” was one of Kobrin’s many short stories about the turmoils of migration to America and the intergenerational strife caused by the disruption wreaked on migrants’ family life.
What follows are suggestions of activities, discussion questions, and writing prompts a teacher might pose for college or high school students working their way through the story. These activities are designed for those teaching the story in English translation, though they can be adapted for a Yiddish-speaking/reading audience. In addition to using the prompts below, instructors teaching the story in its Yiddish original could draw attention to Kobrin’s language use, especially the shift to an overly formal register when Reb Monye composes his letters. Instructors may wish to turn to brivnshtelers to give students a broader context in which to understand the elevated language and formulaic structure of Reb Monye’s writing. One example of such a text can be found here.
I most recently taught the story in English in the context of a mini-course on epistolary fiction, but the story and the activities provided below could also fit into courses on literature of immigration more broadly, as well as courses oriented toward representations of women. Instructors are warmly invited to write to [email protected] to have your own questions, activities, or ideas added to this list – we will of course credit you for your additions!
Opening Brainstorming Exercises:
1. The Letter as an Object: The inclusion of letters in the narrative calls attention to the material aspect of writing itself. Ask your students to create a list on the blackboard of their associations with letters: What is a letter? What is a letter made of and what goes into the experience of sending or receiving a letter? You may wish to divide your list into three categories: Institutional components (post office, shipping, government interference/censorship, etc.); Material components (paper, pen, handwriting); and Formal/literary components (greeting, date, questions, storytelling).
Following the brainstorming, you may want to offer a summary or have students work together for a working definition of what a letter is and how it operates within the story. Here’s one sample:
A letter is a written document sent from its writer to a recipient, traveling across a space and taking time in transit before it is delivered (if it indeed reaches its destination). Sending a letter requires resources such as paper, ink, money for postage, a postal service, and literacy in the language of the exchange.
Using this brainstorm as a branching off point, ask your students where each of these specifics are represented within Kobrin’s stories, and what they reveal about the social structures underpinning the story itself.
2. The Use of Cliché: Like much popular literature, this is a story that deals in clichés, in character types and ideas that would have been widespread and easily interpretable, and would have set up predictable expectations for how characters might act and how the story would progress. Ask your students to identify the clichés they see in the narrative. Here is a possible list:
- The self-sacrificing, passive “Yidishe mame” 2 2 See You Never Call! You Never Write! A History of the Jewish Mother. By Joyce Antler. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007)
- Her opposite, the assimilating, modernizing immigrant daughter
- The proud, ignorant scholar
- The town of Pogromovka – a small anytown named for anti-Jewish violence
- Intermarriage as the ultimate act of betrayal/decline
Then, ask your students: Why would a popular writer publishing stories in the newspaper choose to work within clichés? What purpose do they have? What pleasures might an audience experience through predictability? (You may wish to compare the text to a predictable popular film, like a teenage romantic comedy set in a nondescript high school hallway with lockers, in which key characters are the nerd, the jock, the creative type, the popular kids, etc). Is there a good time and place for cliché, and if so, what is it?
- Snowball Effect: At the start of the story, there is already a gap between Hannaleh and Basha that gets exaggerated by their separation. In what ways are they unequal at the story’s start? How do these differences get exacerbated? In what ways does Kobrin set the expectation that this story has only one direction (things go from bad to worse) at its beginning?
- Problematizing Authorship: The epistolary (letter-writing) form gives Kobrin a chance to ventriloquize – to speak as though in the words of his characters. But in whose words are these letters? Who is the writer? The scribe, Monye, stylizes Basya’s writing, itself a figment of Kobrin’s imagination – so a fictional woman’s voice is filtered through multiple male authored perspectives (and then through Kirzane’s translation) – how do you as a reader navigate all this mediation?
- Problematizing Readership: Basya reads her daughter’s letters in two different ways: she has Monye read them out loud to her (even though he doesn’t understand all the words), and she also holds the letters and “would look through the thin sheets of written-on-paper, as though she could read them.” What does it mean to read a letter? How would you describe these different reading strategies, their aims, and the affective experience of reading in this way?
- Failed or impossible communication: In addition to the letters and the dialogue, two moments of communication stand out as instances of failed or impossible communication: Monye speaks to his goat, who responds with a “Meh” sound, and Basya speaks to her husband Moyshe, who is in his grave. What is the relationship between these moments and the letters discussed in the text? Is Monye any more or less able to communicate with Hannaleh than a goat? Is Basya any more or less able to communicate with Hannaleh than with the dead?
- Exploitation: Hannaleh references her growing political awareness and her fights for justice for workers in an American context, and it is precisely these words that Monye cannot understand, and refers to as curses. What do you make of his inability to recognize the word “exploitation” and to what extent is the concept of exploitation - whether Monye understands it or not - operative in the context of Pogramovka?
- All human beings are brothers: Why does the story end in an intermarriage? How does the intermarriage epitomize the growing gap in Hannaleh’s and Basya’s worldviews? What are the potential social consequences for Basya and for Hannaleh in the intermarriage?
- Perspective: How might this story be different if it were told from Hannaleh’s perspective, and we, as readers, accompanied her as she immigrated and then later received and read her mother’s letters? How would the story be different if Hannaleh’s letters were represented in full, rather than us only seeing the summaries of what Basya can make of them?
- Alone or in a small group, rewrite one of Basya’s letters in her own voice, unmediated by Monye, and discuss the comparison between her version and Monye’s.
- Write out one of Hannaleh’s letters in full, including some things that you think Basya and/or Monye might not have fully understood in their reading of these letters and discuss how Hannaleh’s perspective is obscured in Basya and Monye’s misreading.
- Invite your students to write a personal essay reflecting on the way that their own communication has been curtailed or mediated when it is conducted at a distance. In what ways do the platforms they use, the conventions of writing or of speaking in various platforms or structures, determine what they say or how they say it? What kinds of literacies, technologies, and resources are required for meaningful communication at a distance – and how do gaps in education, generation, or resources interrupt such communication? In what ways do students’ experiences with communicating at a distance relate to Kobrin’s story?
Comparative Essay Prompts:
- Olga Litvak has suggested that Kobrin’s story may have served as an inspiration for Sholem Aleichem’s better known story “Chava” from his Tevye cycle. Invite your students to compare these two texts and their attitudes toward socialist universalism in relation to intermarriage. 3 3 Olga Litvak. “Khave and Her Sisters: Sholem-aleichem and the Lost Girls of 1905.” Jewish Social Studies, vol. 15, no.3, 2009, 1 – 38.
- When Leon Kobrin’s translation of Israel Zangwill’s “Children of the Ghetto” was presented for the first time in Yiddish, Zangwill is reported to have said to Kobrin, “Now I realize that I have translated you, not you me!”
Contributor Page for Century Illustrated Magazine, Vol. 99 (1920).
Invite your students to explore “Children of the Ghetto” and draw parallels between Leon Kobrin’s writing (they may also want to look at Leon Kobrin’s “A Lithuanian Idyll” translated by Isaac Goldberg and “A Poor Boy’s Life” translated by J. Neustadt) and Zangwill’s work.
- Students knowledgeable about modern Yiddish literature may already be familiar with the concept of brivnshtelers from Sholem Aleichem’s fictional characters Menakhem Mendl and Sheyne Sheyndl who address one another in parodic versions of formulaic, brivnshteler-type writing. Invite students to compare Kobrin’s reflections on formal and informal language with Sholem Aleichem’s epistolary narrative. What kinds of social commentary is each author making through the juxtaposition of formal language and intimate personal relationships? What differences can your students identify between Sholem Aleichem’s narrative and Leon Kobrin’s, and how do those differences shape your students’ understandings of either text?