The Flavor of Galut
Yisroel, the First Jewish Omnibus.
by Joseph Leftwich.
Beechhurst Press. 723 pp. $6.00.
This is the American edition of an anthology first published in Britain in 1933. It gathers together short stories—some excellent, some fair, some deplorably amateurish—by 19th- and 20th-century writers of Jewish blood. The editor’s emphasis on “blood” accounts for the exclusion of the half-Jewish Marcel Proust and the inclusion of John Cournos, a Jewish convert to Christianity; it also accounts for the grotesque lumping together of Franz Kafka, Arthur Schnitzler, Vicki Baum, Edna Ferber, Waldo Frank, and Anzia Yezierska.
This jumbling of values cannot be excused on the ground that the editor’s primary concern is Jewish authenticity and racial and spiritual affinity, not literary merit. Many of these stories, including those by less than minor writers, are not on Jewish themes at all, and Mr. Leftwich concedes that “in presenting this collection of short stories by Jews working in different countries and different languages, I wonder if there really is any unity between them.” If this is so, then Mr. Leftwich’s taste alone is to blame, and nothing betrays the quality of that taste more clearly than his statement that Anzia Yezierska’s fiction on immigrant themes is among the best in a genre “which in many of its practitioners degenerated into crude sob-stuff.” It has always been this reviewer’s impression that Miss Yezierska is the sob-sister par excellence in this genre.
The editor’s claim that his anthology is “on the whole representative and even comprehensive” (although “some writers who ought to be in have for technical reasons chiefly been left out”) is not warranted. His Yiddish section, for example, has nothing by J. M. Weisenberg, I. J. Singer, or I. Bashevis-Singer, masters of the Yiddish story, but does include that pathetic amateur, Moysheh Oyved, a London antique dealer with a penchant for writing, and Leo Kenig, a dilettante essayist. Singer and Weisenberg did, as a matter of fact, appear in the original, 1933, edition, but were left out of the revised, 1945, one—of which this American edition is a reprint—because of “war-time paper difficulties.”
The Hebrew section features Saul Tchernichovsky, who, though ranking with Bialik as a poet, achieved nothing comparable as a writer of prose. Bershadsky, Yosef Chayim Brenner, and the still active Gershon Shofman—all three among the architects of Hebrew fiction—are omitted. The Russian section includes Vladimir Jabotinsky, Zionist leader and versatile writer, but known primarily as a political journalist, not as a writer of fiction. It omits the 19th-century L. Levanda, who was praised by Tolstoy and other eminent Russians, yet was altogether a Jew of Jews. The contemporary Soviet poet and fiction writer Boris Pasternak (whose work has recently been issued by New Directions) is likewise omitted.
One can see the justification for the editor’s reluctance to include excerpts from novels, but this was no reason to omit Abraham Cahan. The author of The Rise of David Levinsky also produced several long short stories that, on all counts, belong in the American section ahead of Thyra Samter Winslow’s peripheral “Jewish work.” Herman Bernstein, a dedicated shtadlan and a great reporter, is represented by satire, not reportage; Ben Hecht, Dorothy Parker, S. J. Perelman, and the Yiddish satirist Moyshe Nadir, are absent altogether.
It is Mr. Leftwich’s stubborn “feeling,” which none can challenge, however difficult it may be to understand, that his anthology “as it stands, with all its incompleteness, is an entity, and must remain as such,” and that additions—thus the inclusion of writers who have come into prominence since 1933—“would need an altogether new volume.” This is why some of the best fiction produced by American Jewry is missing from the American section.
But even if this were a perfect anthology, this reviewer would still take exception to its title, which is pretentious, deceptive, and even offensive. Yisroel is a formidable, pregnant word. To append it to a collection of short stories is to suggest that the entire literary genius of the Jewish people has been poured into a single literary genre.
In his well-written, well-informed “foreword,” the editor speculates, inconclusively, on what Jewish writing is. Perhaps he should have defined it for himself with greater clarity before assembling his anthology. We would suggest that one quality, at least, characterizes all the important writers of Jewish blood who have no visible roots in the Jewish community, or have been born into a non-Jewish faith: this is the flavor of galut, of spiritual dispossession. The term is used here not as Zionists would use it, but as some of the Reform rabbis of an earlier generation did. But in their galut these writers carry out Israel’s traditional mission amongst the nations as witnesses to and critics of Gentile civilization. Marcel Proust qualifies as a Jew by this test. All truly great writers, whatever their descent, are in galut in this deeper sense—not excluded, but self-excluded. The only difference is that a writer who is a Jew or half-Jew may be less than great and yet possess this quality and thus appear to be better than he really is. Arthur Koestler is a case in point. This quality is very real.