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The Cross and Other Jewish Stories
By Lamed Shapiro
Yale University Press
Yiddish dreams about America as di goldene medine envisioned a new utopia that beckoned the Jews of Eastern Europe when their lives in the shtetl fell apart. These hopes gave rise to a massive wave of immigrants that brought 2 million Jews to the US between 1880 and 1920. Among the newcomers were young Yiddish authors who established modern Yiddish literature. They lived in urban settings where they produced proletarian poems and stories.
Their names, as well as the prose and poetry they wrote, are unfamiliar today. This book is an attempt to rescue one of them, Lamed Shapiro, from oblivion. He belonged to a group of rebellious young writers, known as the Yunge. They hatched the notion that they could generate a unique 20th-century American Yiddish literature.
Their rejection of tradition led to the fantasy that they were going to create in America a culturally fertile world in Yiddish. This aspiration ran into the pressure to assimilate and to adopt English as the common language. Most American Jews today cannot speak or understand Yiddish. Nostalgic efforts to revive Yiddish have had little success, although the National Yiddish Book Center is thriving and courses in Yiddish are offered by several universities.
In 1985, the New Yiddish Library Series was established to publish translations of Yiddish novels and short stories. Several such books appeared, written by Sholom Aleichem, I.L. Peretz, S. Ansky, S.Y. Abramovitsch and Itzik Manger. This new book by Lamed Shapiro is part of that series. Like the other books, it has new translations, a scholarly introduction, notes and a glossary.
Shapiro was born in Ukraine, near Kiev, in 1878. He moved to Warsaw, then to England and, in 1906, he came to the US. He returned to Warsaw and worked for a Yiddish newspaper. He later lived in Zurich before settling permanently in the US, where he lived in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles until he died in 1948. In New York, for a short time, he worked for the Forverts, the largest Yiddish daily newspaper, but he left after quarrelling with Abraham Cahan, the paper's autocratic editor. In subsequent stories, he satirized the Yiddish press. Shapiro also worked briefly for an anarchist journal, a communist magazine and, in 1933, he started Studio, a publication that contained stories, poems and essays, many written by him. This journal failed after three issues.
During all this time, Shapiro wrote short stories, 16 of which are presented here. They are grouped into three sections: Pogrom Tales, The Old World and The New World. Those stories dealing with pogroms are brutal and violent, gruesomely portraying the cruel ferocity of the Cossacks. Shapiro saw the barbarism and sadism of the Cossacks as a demonstration of the permanent conflict between Christians and Jews.
The stories about the Old World depict the shtetl as a dying relic, with a desolate future. There is equal pessimism in the final section dealing with the New World. Shapiro sees American Jews as alienated refugees who are overwhelmed by the consumer culture.
Shapiro's bleak portrayal of human existence is presented in an impressionistic style which produces a series of vignettes that demand an observant reader. Those who pay attention will be rewarded by profound, emotional insights that richly exemplify the talent of these early American Yiddish writers.
The writer is the founding dean of the Wurzweiler School of Social Work, Yeshiva University, and dean emeritus, School of Social Work, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.