History, Freedom, and Laughter in Cynthia Ozick’s “Envy; or, Yiddish in America”


As Irving Howe has pointed out, the relationship of laughter to tears is a running theme in the work of Yiddish literature.   For Howe, laughter doesn’t efface the tears of historical suffering.  To be sure, for Howe, all the laughter we find in Sholem Aleichem’s stories – for instance – is marred by historical and existential suffering.  Ruth Wisse, in her epistolary dialogue with Howe, notes something similar but puts more emphasis on the freedom gained by way of such wit.    Nonetheless, Howe and Wisse are in agreement that history and suffering inform much Yiddish literature and humor.    This approach to Yiddish literature was, to be sure, carried on by Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, and Cynthia Ozick.   In it, they say something distinctly Jewish; moreover, they find in this relationship a hard-won freedom and self-awareness that is tenuous at best (because it is threatened with forgetfulness).  To be sure, they see Jewish wit (and the existential freedom that is at stake in such humor) in terms of Jewish history and Jewish identity.

In reading all of these Jewish-American writers, one is obliged to reflect on how they have translated the relationship of laughter and tears into English because a lot is at stake.  For all of the above writers and scholars, the meaning of Jewishness, it seems, is (or has been) wrapped up in a certain kind of Jewish humor: one that is acutely aware of history and suffering.  This requires a kind of consciousness that is fixed on the contradictions that plague Jewish life.  They must focus on difference.

From reading Howe and Wisse, one would think that Yiddish literature, literary criticism, and Jewish-American literature point out the Jewish difference which is or can be conveyed by way of the relationship of laughter to tears.  And by virtue of the emphasis they give to this relationship, they make it an imperative to pass it on.  Without this relationship, one wonders, after reading them, how Jewishness (and not Judaism), as a tradition, can survive.  How can tradition live on if this generation (and its humor) loses touch with Jewish suffering and Jewish history?  What meaning will freedom (or humor) have for a Jew if it is not won against the backdrop of history?

All of these questions are at the forefront of Cynthia Ozick’s “Envy; or Yiddish in America.”  As the story unfolds, we see the main character Herschel Edelshtein come into contact with laughter, tears, freedom, and history.   His failure, as I have pointed out, is juxtaposed to the success of his nemesis, Ostrover (the Chazer). The difference between the two is not just the prose; as Ozick shows, the difference between them is their position on Jewishness, suffering, and history.  In addition, Ostrover has a translator while Edelshtein does not.   And this is a fundamental point.  The translation that he looks for, from Yiddish to English and from European history to America, seems to be impossible to accomplish since Yiddish and the history of Jewish suffering in Europe has been effaced by the Holocaust.  Nonetheless, he tries, to the very end, to get a translator.  That is, strangely enough, his only hope.  And this makes him a schlemiel of sorts, a schlemiel of history.  However, when he comes to realize this impossibility, which would require him to sacrafice history, it doesn’t seem to fully hit home.

Nonetheless, he knows, throughout the text about this impossibility, he just can’t come to terms with it.  In different parts of the text, Edelshtein identifies this impossibility with the death of two figures from his youth (who are really the same person): Avrameleh and Alexei Kirilov.  The secular and the religious Jew die in Babi Yar.  Regardless of how they saw themselves, they were shot.  That history, however, is not something young Americans growing up after the Holocaust know and live through.  Ozick drives this home by way of a character named Hannah who was born after the Holocaust and knows Yiddish but finds Ostrover’s humanistic message greater than the old message of history, suffering, and Jewish particularity.  At the end of the story, she refuses to translate Edelshtein because of his affiliation with history, suffering, and Jewish particularity.  (We will return to this.)

Yet, in the midst of all this memory and suffering, there is humor and laughter.  Edelshtein is depicted as a “stand up comedian” who tells jokes about a dead language to a dying audience.  But he doesn’t laugh.   Following a talk by Ostrover at the 92nd St Y, that Edelshtein forces himself to go to (so as to witness how popular Ostrover had become),  Ostrover makes several jokes that denote his indifference to all questions asked to him. This upsets Edelshtein:

Jokes, jokes! It looked to go on for another hour. The condition of  fame, a Question Period: a man can stand up forever and dribble shallow quips and everyone admires him for it. (147, Jewish American Stories, ed. Irving Howe)

After hearing these jokes, Edelshtein leaves the lecture hall and runs into a man named Vorovsky (who, as it so happens, is the father of Hannah).  Edelshtein thinks of Vorovsky as a “madman” who, after putting 17 years of putting together a dictionary on mathematics, “one afternoon suddenly began to laugh, and continued laughing for six months, even in his sleep”(149).  Even after his wife and father died, Vorovsky doesn’t stop laughing.  Then he lost control of his bladder and whenever he would laugh he would also pee.  This happened at the talk since he laughed at Ostrover’s jokes.

In the midst of this, Edelshtein meets Hannah, Vorovsky’s niece.  When he learns that she knows Yiddish and is a writer, Edelshtein gets very excited and starts to have hope; he imagines that he, like Ostrover, will have a translator.  However, this introduction is cut short when Edelshtein and Vorovsky get in a fight which is rooted in the fact that both of them are failures.  And while Vorovsky tells Edelshtein that “translation is no equation” for success and that success for Edelshtein is impossible, he notes that he knows one thing that makes him happy: laughter.

But there is more to the story.  Vorovsky likes to drink.  Edelshtein in a comic dialogue asks Vorovsky to teach him how to be a “drunk.”  Vorovsky tells him that to do that Edelshtein must be crazy and a failure.  Edelshtein replies that he is “schooled in failure” and is a “master at failure.”  However, this doesn’t make him laugh.  Vorovsky is different since his failure and madness drive him to laughter rather than bitterness and despair.

Although Ozick – by way of Vorovsky -associates laughter with waste and failure, she adds another, more positive dimension to his laughter by associating it with the Messianic.   Near the end of the story, when Edelshtein goes to visit him, Vorovsky goes into a fit of laughter and urinating.  In addition, he starts vomiting as well.  Although Hannah is hesitant to let Edelshtein in, he pushes through the door to find Vorovksy in a mess of laughter and waste.  But, as we learn, this laughter is, in some ways, redemptive.  But it is mixed up with tears and waste:

Vorovsky laughed and said “Messiah” and sucked the pillow spitting.  His face was a flood: tears ran down into his eyes, over his forehead, saliva sprang in puddles around his ears.  He was spitting, crying, burbling, he gasped, wept, spat…like an animal filled with hope – vomit rolled up with the third swallow and he laughed between spasms, he was still laughing, stinking, a sewer. (170)

In response to all of this laughter mixed with tears and waste, Edelshtein starts talking about the Holocaust and death and insists that Vorovsky is laughing “at death, you’re no coward”(170).  But Vorovsky, in saying this, is interrupted by Hannah who says, “If you want t to talk business with my uncle come another time.”  Edelshtein responds with a roar: “Death is business?”  This question leads Edelshtein into a tirade against Hannah which pits history, suffering, and Europe against America and forgetfulness.

Hannah claims that “history is a waste” and that she wants nothing to do with the suffering and history of those who lived in Europe and before the Holocaust.  At this point, Edelshtein identifies what he does with Jewishness and history while what she does with its opposite: “You’re right about business.  I came on business.  My whole business is waste”(171).

Hannah goes on to make distinctions between herself and Edelshtein and refuses to translate him.  And this is the point.  If one stands on the side of Jewish history and the other does not, how could it be possible to translate Yiddish into English?   He realizes that Ostrover and Hannah think of Edelshtein as being “in the ghetto.” Ostrover “knows a reality beyond realism” (and history) and this makes him, for Hannah, better.  Moreover, Hannah thinks that Jews only think of themselves and suffer while Ostrover doesn’t think about Jews and doesn’t suffer.

Hearing this, Edelshtein decides that it is better to live in history and suffer than to deny it: “History is my prison”(174).  The fight becomes physical and Edelshtein, for the first time, feels like a father scolding his child.  He goes so far as to slap Hannah while reprimanding her.   But, following this, he feels guilty and sad. He becomes, like his beloved Yiddish, “little.”  He then begs her to become his translator.  And after repeatedly refusing, he gives up and leaves.

But on his way out, he turns to Vorovsky and says something witty; namely, that Aristotle “sends regards.” For, according to an obscure passage from Aristotle: “What distinguishes men from beasts is the power of the ha-ha-ha”(176).

Following this, the last page of the story has Edelshtein wittily responding to a person he calls, from a number a randomly came across. The conversation is about conversion.  And the person on the other end of the line wants to convert Edelshtein to Christianity.  Edelshtein wittily rejects all the claims made about Judaism and its subservient relation to Christianity.  The conversation, at some point, becomes avowedly anti-Semitic and serious. But Edelshtein uses wit to defend Judaism and history to argue that, quite simply, Judaism cannot be translated into Christianity.  They are fundamentally different and he has no desire to translate one into the other.  But the translation he desires most was made impossible by history the ideology of anti-Semitism which poisoned Jewish history and created death and suffering.   The last lines say it all: it is “on account of “you” (and your anti-Semitism) that I have no translator.”

In other words, Edelsthein knows, at the end of the story, that Yiddish was killed in Europe and that his failure is personal and collective; it is based on history, suffering, and death.  He, like Yiddish and Jewish history, can’t be translated.  And although he doesn’t laugh about it, he does understand how laughter, mixed with tears, vomit, and waste, have a place in being Jewish.   As a Jew, he inherits the promises of the Torah (and the Messiah) as well as the waste of history.  As the joke goes, “you chose us from amongst the peoples…why did you have to choose the Jews.”  (The former part is written in Hebrew, the language of the Torah; the latter part in Yiddish, the language of history.)  The joke bears this bittersweet legacy.

Edelshtein is a comedian, but he doesn’t laugh at his jokes.  And, yes, there is a place for laughter but that laughter makes sense when it is not petty and directed at self-congratulatory jibes, as we saw above with Ostrover, but when it comes out of real suffering and loss (as we see with Vorovsky).   This laughter is the sign of freedom in the face of death and suffering.  But, as Edelsthein reminds us, although laughter may be a kind of freedom for a Jew who truly suffers it doesn’t release Jews from living in the “prison-house of history.”

By refusing to adapt and continuing to fail, Edelshtein shows us how one can and even should become a schlemiel of history; for in doing so, one can be free and Jewish.  For, in being particular (in being Jewish), Ozick is claiming that one must willingly be the odd one out.  And if there is laughter, and that laughter is to be real, Ozick thinks it will most likely be mixed together with tears and the waste of history and suffering.  While this laughter may be more authentic, the fact of the matter (and the thought that we are left with) is that no translator can redeem Vorovsky or Edelshtein from history, suffering, and waste.   Ostrover’s translation from the Yiddish into English, therefore, is a fake and may deny what makes Jewishness…Jewish.  Because of the death of Yiddish in the Holocaust and because America is, apparently, not interested in history, suffering, or Jewish particularity,  but in what is “beyond realism,” there can be no translator.

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