Swimming in a Sea of Invisible Ink: A Note on Ozick’s “Envy; Or, Yiddish in America.”

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One of the more interesting characteristics of the schlemiel relates to his/her timing.  The comic character is belated: s/he comes too late to the party or is out of sync with what is going on.  But what is most interesting about this belatedness is how the schlemiel relates to it: the schlemiel can either be oblivious to being belated or painfully aware of it.   However, even in the latter case, which often leads to bitterness, there is still a blindness that prevails.  And the schlemiel, it seems, is swimming in, as it were, invisible ink.  Sometimes, however, that ink can be a bitter sea.

Edelshtein, the main character of Cynthia Ozick’s, “Envy; Or, Yiddish in America,” is a case in point.  He is caught up in a dying dream of being recognized in America as a Yiddish writer.  Yiddish, as he notes, died in Europe.  But this doesn’t keep him from being enthusiastic about it.  Besides writing in Yiddish and maintaining a journal entitled A Bitterer Yam (the “Bitter Sea”) he goes from synagogue to synagogue and Jewish community center to Jewish community center to talk about Yiddish.  The narrator likens him to a “television stand-up comic” whose humor is bitter, sardonic, and falls dead (like the language he dreams in).  Nonetheless, he continues to talk about Yiddish and write in Yiddish although he knows it is dying and will not live on.  And, regardless of his humor, he lives a belated existence and continues to swim in bitterness.

However, there is hope; but, for him, it is not hope.  It comes in the form of a man named Yankel Ostrover.  He and Baumzweig, the editor of A Bitterer Yam (which Baumzweig’s wife jokingly calls Invisible Ink), can’t stand him:

Edelshtein’s friendship with Baumzweig had a ferocious secret: it was moored entitled to their agreed hatred for the man they called der chazer.  He was named Pig because of his extraordinarily white skin, like a tissue of a pale ham, and also because in the last decade he had become unbelievably famous. When they did not call him Pig they called him shed – Devil.  (133, Jewish American Stories ed. Irving Howe)

Ostrover, they complain, is not a real Yiddish writer.  Like a pig, he appears to be Kosher (pigs have split hooves on the “outside,” but they do not “chew their cud” and are not kosher in the “inside”) but is not.   His writing in the Yiddish lacks the greatness of all the famous Yiddish writers.  And his topics are, in his view, vulgar.  And, as Edelshtein learns, his popularity is largely based on his translator and is, in many ways, the function of good luck.  And that’s the point.  Edelshtein has bad luck and this kills him.  He feels he is more deserving and is pained by the fact that the youth – the next generation of Jews – love Ostrover while he can only speak to older Jews who give no hope of carrying the tradition on.  In other words, the tradition of Yiddish isn’t really be carried on, in his view, by Ostrover.  Something else is.

Edelshtein is a schlemiel of a rare type because his hope is impossible.  He cannot admit to himself that he has failed or that Yiddish in America is closer to what Sidrah DeKoven Ezrahi – in Booking Passage – would call a “virtual shtetl.”  To be sure, the person, she argues, who was translated into Yiddish and became a central figure in this virtual shtetl was I.B. Singer.  His “Gimpel the Fool,” translated into English by Saul Bellow and published in the Partisan Review, marked the beginning of the new wave.

However, Edelshtein’s resentment is based on the fact that he didn’t make it and not just Yiddish.  He is the schlemiel because he believed he, himself, could actually preserve the core of Yiddish when America wanted something else, something in English that may have some link to Yiddish – one it will never know.   He comes to late, it seems; but Ostrover seems to come in on time.  The difference between the two is, as a I mentioned above, a matter of luck; but it also has to do with the fact that America wants to have a “virtual shtetl,” one, so to speak, in its own image.

And in this virtual shtetl there seems to be no room for the bitter failure and his journal A Bitterer Yam; or is it, rather, Invisible Ink?  After all, who will read him and carry on his legacy?   He comes too late and the tradition that goes on, it seems, isn’t Yiddish, it’s virtual.   Edelshtein – because he is belated and afflicted by bad luck – seems to be swimming in a bitter sea of invisible ink because no one will read him like they read Ostrover and his virtual Yiddish novels.

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