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At the Mercy of the World

NO STAR TOO BEAUTIFUL: Yiddish Stories From 1382 to the Present, Edited and translated by Joachim Neugroschel, W.W. Norton: 710 pp., $39.95

October 06, 2002|KENNETH TURAN | Kenneth Turan is a Times film critic and the author of "Sundance to Sarajevo: Film Festivals and the World They Made."

"Do you have a story for me?"

"All kinds, all kinds.... "

These words, the closing ones in a tale by Y.L. Peretz, are the best possible epigram for the anthology that contains them, Joachim Neugroschel's massive "No Star Too Beautiful: Yiddish Stories From 1382 to the Present."

A prodigious job of research and translation, this ambitious volume contains work from writers as well known as Peretz, Sholom Aleichem and Isaac Bashevis Singer and as obscure as the anonymous 18th century author of "The Princess and the Seven Geese."

Even when it comes to the 20th century, Neugroschel has sought out work from storytellers rarely if ever translated before--such as Menakhem Kipnis, who offers an unconventional take on the legendary fools of Khelm, and Bertha Lelchuk, author of the O. Henry-ish "The Aunt From Norfolk," who "supposedly ended up in Hollywood in 1940, playing bit roles under various names," Neugroschel tells us.

Though the book has unaccountably left out such modern masters as Chaim Grade and Joseph Opatoshu, overall it does fulfill Neugroschel's stated aim to "show the overwhelming variety of Yiddish fiction" and to do justice to the breadth of a language that was vibrant enough to have 11 million speakers worldwide by 1939, before the Holocaust and the Soviets wiped out the greater part of its writers and readers.

If you assume Yiddish fiction confined itself to "Fiddler on the Roof" territory, Neugroschel has some surprises for you. A tale by Y.Y. Trunk concerns the life of Roman philosopher Seneca, while another, "In the Mountains" by Hersh Dovid Nomberg, turns on what is likely the first tobogganing accident in Yiddish literature. These stories were nothing if not ambitious, which seems to be why Neugroschel took his title from a line from Bertolt Brecht's "Mother Courage": "I've seen so many storm the sky. No star was far too beautiful or far too far."

"No Star Too Beautiful" is the first all-purpose Yiddish anthology since 1954's classic "A Treasury of Yiddish Stories," edited by Irving Howe and Eliezer Greenberg. That book had a more specific scope, including fewer writers and covering a more limited time. But while Howe and Greenberg used a variety of translators, Neugroschel has chosen to render every story himself, an approach that, as shall be seen, causes some difficulty.

While Neugroschel clearly knows a great deal about his subject, "No Star" suffers from an assumption that the readers know just as much. Though the situation vis-a-vis Yiddish that Howe and Greenberg described half a century ago ("It is a literature virtually unknown to Americans") no longer exists in a post-Bashevis Singer world, Neugroschel's introduction, as well as his author notes, are too skimpy by half, especially when compared, for instance, to the much more comprehensive critical apparatus of the recent "Jewish American Literature: A Norton Anthology."

Still, it doesn't do to be too picky about this book. If the Talmud is famously described as a vast sea, Yiddish fiction is one as well, and one that has been too long undiscovered and uncharted.

Encountering the literature over a six-century reach turns out to be revealing in unexpected ways. What's on view here is more than just a succession of stories, it's the history of a people, a record of what Jews were concerned about and how those things shifted and changed. To read through "No Star" is surprisingly like observing the life cycle of an individual, from unsophisticated beginnings to the getting of wisdom to, in the case of Yiddish, a bleak and unfortunate denouement.

The first record of written Yiddish, Neugroschel tells us, are 11 words jotted in a prayer book in Worms, Germany, in 1272. The earliest manuscripts in Yiddish appeared in 1382, and the first part of "No Star" is devoted to the Old Yiddish period that lasted from that year to the mid-18th century.

"Neglected as Yiddish culture may be," Neugroschel writes, "the Old Yiddish period is even more overlooked." It's not hard to see why, as these mostly anonymous fairy tales and wonder stories are frankly more fascinating to analyze for what they show about the medieval Jewish state of mind than to actually read. Stories of pious men having forced sex with savages indicate how much Jews felt at the mercy of the gentile world, while a tale of the son of a rabbi who becomes the pope without his parents knowing about it is the kind of wish-fulfillment fantasy that only the most downtrodden engage in.

In the 18th and 19th centuries came a series of battles for the Jewish soul. The rise of Hasidism and its emphasis on ecstatic, joyous worship, as opposed to the legalistic rigidity of the established orthodoxy led ultimately to one of the great works of Jewish literature, the mystifying, elliptical, surprisingly modern "Tales of Rabbi Nakhman of Braslev," first published in 1815.

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