Dan Miron, one of the greatest living scholars of Yiddish literature, has argued that Yiddish literature took on a project that was consistent with Haskalah (the Jewish Enlightenment), on the one hand, and the modernist concept of the artist on the other. In his book A Traveler Disguised: The Rise of Modern Yiddish Fiction in the Nineteenth Century, Miron convincingly argues that Mendel Mocher Sforim should in fact be regarded as the real origin of Modern Yiddish fiction and that Sholem Aleichem followed Sforim’s lead.
Miron’s brilliant argument starts off with pointing out the main problem for the Eastern European Haskalah; namely, that Yiddish, as a language, was not “beautiful.” It is, in the view of the German Haskalah, an ugly “caliban” language. It is inferior to Hebrew. But if the Haskalah wanted to reach the Jewish masses, so as to educate and improve them, then it would be ridiculous to use Hebrew; after all, Yiddish, not Hebrew, was the language they were most familiar with. That said, many Haskalah writers turned to Yiddish but none succeeded because they didn’t find a way of, in Miron’s words, “dramatizing” Yiddish.
For Miron, Mendel Mocher Sfroim, whose real name was S.Y. Abromovitsch, succeeded because he saw himself as a clown of sorts. He took on an ironic, schlemiel-like narrator who spoke directly to his audience. The irony is not that he is a clown but that he is an actor and can take on any personality. He is and is not one of the people; Abromovitsch is not Mendel Mocher Sforim but he acts as if he is. Sholem Aleichem does the same. And this brings out a kind of irony about everything is said.
By being a comic narrator, Yiddish fiction becomes modern. To be sure, comedy and the presence of the comic artist in the text, for Miron, make Sforim and Aleichem’s fiction modern. And, as a modern critic, Miron points this out for his modern readers. We must, in effect, be aware of the irony behind this; namely, that the artist is “tricking” us.
Citing Y.L. Berdichevski, Miron argues that the modern Yiddish writer needs to be a circus performer of sorts. He is a “mimetic genius” who is able to convey his views while, at the same time, appearing to be one of the people:
First, he is a dedicated artist. To achieve his goal, he must absorb himself in his work, “lose whatever he possesses in it.” Second, he is a mimetic genius. He evokes comparisons from one distinct area, that of theater or even the circus. One may compare him to a tightrope dancer who skillfully keeps his perilous balance between the historical bias of the language toward the exclusive mentality of the “the Jew” and his own intellectual bias toward “foreign” ideas and concepts. One may even compare him to a ventriloquist who is able to assume a voice or voices distinctly different from his own master and with mimetic subtlety, with such accuracy of nuance, as to make them express his own “ideas” without letting his audience become aware of his trick. (84)
In other words, the schlemiel – like its author – is double. The schlemiel appears naïve and absent minded but in reality is not. Schlemiels are and are not alienated from the community. They are a part of it and yet they are the odd ones out. In other words, the schlemiel, like the author, walk a tightrope and this provides them with a form of aesthetic freedom in a community that would, otherwise, not accept their “foreign” views.
By walking the tightrope, common Yiddish readers are indirectly exposed to a kind of theatricality. And it is this theatricality that, according to Miron, has an educational and an aesthetic purpose. Comedy, in effect, allows the artist to be an insider and an outsider to his own culture. And this duplicity is something that the artist ultimately would like to inculcate in his readers. In mimicking characters in the ghetto, one gains a distance yet, at the same time, this mimicry is endearing. It shows that the author wants to be a part of his people and by accepted by them; yet, by way of a dramatic form of comedy (theatricality) the author is free from them. The vehicle of this comic closeness and distance is the schlemiel. His mimetic genius is that of the author. Moreover, for Aleichem and Abromovitsch, who both had a version of the Haskalah project, humor was the best means for teaching “mimetic genius” as a means of becoming…modern.
Given the emphasis on Enlightenment values and thinking, we often don’t see or hear anything about comedy or theatrical mimesis as a key ingredient. Miron is novel in this claim. His claim is interesting when read against Leo Strauss who has argued, in the introduction to Philosophy and Law, that the Enlightenment’s main weapon is mockery. The difference between the two is that the narrators and schlemiels of Sforim and Aleichem’s books don’t mock their characters directly. Their art is the art of indirect caricature. It is the work of the “mimetic genius” who can speak like all of us but who, ultimately, is caricaturing what we all take for granted. It is, as Antonin Artaud might say, a “theater and it’s double.” The schlemiel’s comedy is his mask.