Weekly Reader A Sense of Place
October 24, 2021
Literature is almost always about a sense of place. Even when we talk about diverse bodies of work, their place of origin is the primary descriptor. A work might sometimes be described by nationality, but just as often it might be said to represent a continent, a region, or even a single neighborhood. Yiddish literature is no different. Its writers spoke of the Old Country and the New, the country and the city, Litvaks and Galitsiyaners, the home and the street. This week we’re sharing some Yiddish stories that have special connections to a particular place. Dig in and enjoy.
The Hotel That Doesn't Exist
A page or two in and you’ll understand this novel’s title. We learn that there are hotels that are known to everyone. After taking a room, people from abroad fill out two forms: a white one and a green one. The white one is sent to the police. The green one is also sent to the police, but it then winds its way up through the bureaucracy, sometimes reaching the heights of the ministries. It’s Paris in the 1930s. The world of this novel is the world of Casablanca: refugees, shady operatives, people with no clear connection to society. The Spanish Civil War takes up more and more space in the novel. What is this book, and why was it published in Montevideo?
Montreal on My Mind
Yiddish has long had a home in Montreal—for the first half of the twentieth century, in fact, Yiddish was the third-most-spoken language in the city. After a show at the Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre or a lecture at the Montreal Jewish Public Library, Yiddish speakers could be found debriefing over a smoked-meat sandwich or a signature, slightly honey-sweet Montreal bagel. You can still find many of these famous local eateries along the Main and in Mile End to this day.
New York was a mecca for visiting Yiddish writers and actors in the early decades of the last century. On arrival in the city, most made their way to one of three legendary addresses. The editorial office of The Forward, the world’s best-known Yiddish daily, was one. Another was the Café Royal, storied hangout of stars and celebrities. The third was a home in the Bronx where the door was always open and the aroma of home cooking filled the hallway. A combination of salon, sanctuary, and sisterhood, this was the home of Yiddish poet Bertha Kling and her husband, Yekhiel.
Land of Dreams
This radio play by actor, writer, and translator Caraid O’Brien is an adaptation of Sholem Asch’s haunting World War I drama The Dead Man. It takes place in the rubble of a decimated synagogue in Poland directly after the war, where the surviving Jewish community gathers together to decide how to rebuild their lives. Dealing with dislocation, madness and death, all they have left is a powerful hope for a prosperous new future. They consider moving to Palestine or America or staying and rebuilding in Poland when a Jewish soldier returns from the front to tell his neighbors that he has found a new land where Jews won’t be persecuted, with food and jobs for everyone. They hope this dream is true.
Stranger in a Strange Land
In this strange and uncertain story, the writer’s mysterious biography almost steals the show. Izabella—née Beyle Friedberg, aka Beyle Spektor and Isabella Arkadyevna Grinevskaya— was born in 1852, 1853, 1854, or 1864 and died either in 1938 or 1944 in Constantinople or Leningrad. Sources indicate she was a prolific translator into Russian from Polish, German, French, Italian, English, Armenian, and Georgian. Izabella became a follower of the Baha’i faith and wrote two plays in Russian about its teachings; she traveled to Baha’i communities, settling in Constantinople in 1910. Despite this colorful life, her story “Among Strangers” is a bit more conventional—the tale of a man who dreams of life in the big city. Perhaps she could relate.