In the 1950s, Irving Howe took it as one of his tasks to introduce Yiddish literature to an American audience. This involved not just a translation project, which he engaged in with Eliezer Greenberg, Saul Bellow, and others, but it also involved writing different introductions to collections and books on Yiddish literature. In the middle of their introduction to A Treasury of Jewish Stories, Eliezer Greenberg and Irving Howe make the case for Yiddish literature. But unlike the other introductions Howe did, this introduction, written in the 1950s, is special since it argues for Yiddish literature against the then prevailing demand for “intense” literature:
We live in a time when the literature most likely to be valued by serious people is intense, recalcitrant, and extreme; when the novel is periodically combed for images of catastrophe; and the possibilities of life seem available only through ultimates, prophecies, and final judgments. (37)
We are more interested in the true “voice of crisis” since we are “creatures of crisis.” However, Howe and Greenberg suggest that “it would be good if we could also celebrate another kind of literature: the kind that does not confront every moment the harsh finalities of experience, or strip act to its bare motive, or flood us with anguish over the irrevocability of death”(37). This literature, which comes from the “writers of sweetness,” who value those “milder emotions,” is Yiddish literature.
Howe’s characterization of Yiddish writing, against the literature of crisis, is fascinating. It suggests that against the cynicism that comes with modern literature and its obsession with crisis, Yiddish literature offers hope. The “writers of sweetness…do not assume evil to be the last word about man.” And they do not “suppose heroism to be incompatible with humbleness”(37).
These words about heroism and humbleness are the preface to Howe and Greenberg’s introduction not just of Yiddish literature but also of the schlemiel to an American audience. To do this, they make the case for sweetness, which they see as synonymous with the compatibility of heroism and humbleness:
Sweetness is a quality our age suspects. Not many of us are sweet or care to be; and those few who are seem almost ashamed of their gift. (37)
According to Howe and Greenberg, the sweetness they refer to finds its origin in worldlessness:
The East European Jews could be as greedy as anyone else, and as unscrupulous in their pursuit of livelihood; but they were cut off from the world at an all too visible point; they knew that the fleshpots, tempting as they might be, were not for them. Who in the shtetl world was not finally a luftmensch, a trader who deal in air, exchanging nothing for nothing and living off the profits? (38)
Howe and Greenberg characterized this “precarious position” of sweet worldlessness in terms of a “symbolic national gesture” – namely, “the ironic shrug.” Moreover, this precarious position is political; it made a “feeling of fraternity with the poor.”
To be sure, Howe and Greenberg argue that this worldlessness was a virtue since it challenged the status quo and resisted power: “the world of the East European Jews made impossible the power-hunger, the pretensions of aristocracy, the whole mirage of false values that have blighted Western intellectual life”(38).
To emphasize this, they put the following sentence in italics to describe the greatest moral power of Yiddish literature:
The virtue of powerlessness, the power of helplessness, the company of the dispossessed, the sanctity of the insulted and the injured – these, finally, are the great themes of Yiddish literature. (38)
Appealing to a rhetoric of identification and commitment, Howe and Greenberg argue that the “writers of sweetness” “wrote from a firm sense of identification, an identification that was simultaneously inheritance and choice; and this was the source of their moral security”(39). Their identification and commitment was to the “power of helplessness, the company of the dispossessed, etc.” This identification, claims Howe and Greenberg, has nothing to do with “shtetl nostalgia” and it is not “uniquely Jewish.” However, it is “only that the Jews – with God’s help – have had more occasion than most peoples to look into the matter.”
Howe’s appeal to the particular and the universal are, in this instance, very interesting. His reading of the “writers of sweetness” suggests that Yiddish writers have something to teach an age that has become to cynical and obsessed with heroism. But, at the same time, he suggests that more people can write in these ways and have solidarity with the poor, the powerless, and the injured. Anyone can look into the matter and become a “writer of sweetness.” However, the Jews have an advantage since their history, their worldlessness, has forced them to reflect on their state. The “ironic shrug” and the schlemiel are two figures that emerge out of this reflection.
….to be continued…