Dec 07, 2023
“Der lebediker” (The Lively One) was the pseudonym of Chaim Gutman (1887−1961), humorist and columnist, who wrote satirical essays and musings on literature and theatre beginning in 1905, after immigrating from Belarus to New York. He went on to be an editor of or leading contributor to some of the most important humor publications, such as Der kibitser and Der groyser kundes, and to write humor columns and gossipy sketches about culture for regular newspapers as well.
The piece below is a response to Yente Serdatsky’s essay in the Fraye arbayter shtime (The Free Voice of Labor), “Our Literature” (see the translation at Asymptote). Ten years Gutman’s elder, with numerous literary short stories already published, Serdatsky was better positioned to muse on the Yiddish literary landscape, which she did without mention of gender. Gutman’s response, however, foregrounds Serdatsky’s gender and uses it as the major objection to her essay. At the time of his exchange with Serdatsky, Gutman was only 24. Gutman continued to mine such gender-based humor, notably in his 1937 book, Di eybike milkhome: Satirn, humoreskes, un lektsyes vegn man un froy (The Eternal War: Satires, Humorous Writings, and Lessons about Man and Woman).
This piece appeared in Der kibitser, 22 March 1912, p.12. It was translated by Faith Jones with Anita Norich and David Mazower.
Finally we have our Deborah the Prophetess, a Judith, a Perovskaya, a Joan of Arc!
I found myself exclaiming these words three times while reading over your article, “Our Literature” in the last issue of the Fraye arbeter shtime.
Dear, beloved Yente! For years I have waited, longed, and waited again, for someone who would come along and drag our literature out of its impoverished state, to give it a parlor-ready face, and to get rid of the spreaders of disease.
Yente dearest! I must confess that I wanted a man to undertake this task: a hero, a giant, with a great head and impressive, broad shoulders, and I’m deeply disappointed that it’s actually a woman, a weak woman, who must do this work. It pains me, and my masculine pride is wounded.
But since this is the way things have turned out, I congratulate you and cry out: The petticoat lives in Yiddish literature!
What can be done when our strongest men are busy nowadays with chess, dominoes, and checkers? What can be done!
And when I happily close my eyes, I see you, dear Yente, standing in your kitchen, in your apron, your head to one side, one hand holding an iron, the other a wooden spoon, and you’re standing in the middle of your kitchen — it is daytime, your husband is at work, the house is quiet, the sink is running, the laundry is soaking, the dishes are dirty — you stand there, Yente dear and you call out: My dear colleagues, be strong! Be proud! Walk more firmly! Carry your holy tablets in your arms! Fight! Because you are the avant garde, the flag bearers! And when I see you like that, well, I want to embrace you and kiss you, kiss you just so, collegially and warmly, until the warmth reaches Yiddish literature…
Dear Yente! I am overcome, I can speak no more. I can write no more. I want to call out, scream to everyone: you are truly a mother and not a writer!
You have saved Yiddish literature from its didacts. You’ve chucked out their Bildungs-exam, and left Yiddish literature in fate’s hands…
You’ve given our “Young Ones” courage and bolstered their sense of superiority.
In a word, Yente dear, you —
Will this do anything? Will it convince everyone? This, my dear colleague, is in God’s hands. Who can know? In any case, I am by your side, and I heartily shake your plump little hand.
With love, respect, and in the joy of battle,