Mining for mayses in the mamaloshn
Bennett Muraskin’s aim in writing The Association of Jewish Libraries’ Guide to Yiddish Short Stories (Ben Yehuda Press) was at once simple and expansive: He would “select appropriate stories to introduce students to Yiddish literature and provide a way to find the source stories in the original language.”
For people delving into the literary heritage of the mamaloshn, “the ability to find and read the best stories in English and in the original language can only help in Yiddish literacy,” a goal, he said, that is near to his heart.
Muraskin, a resident of Parsippany, serves as adult education director of the Jewish Cultural School and Society, which meets at the Cooperman JCC in West Orange, and as a regular columnist for Jewish Currents: A Progressive, Secular Voice.
He told NJ Jewish News he sees his compilation as an ideal resource for a host of users — book clubs, adult education classes, synagogues, cultural organizations, colleges, and educators — and a tool to enhance any setting in which the aim is to introduce people to the rich world of Yiddish literature.
It was his own futile search for such a guide many years ago that led him to embark on the endeavor.
While the stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer and Sholom Aleichem were known through existing anthologies — including a famous 1954 treasury of Yiddish stories compiled by author Irving Howe — there was no wide-ranging reference guide to direct students to a larger field of work. In 1997, he put together a shorter version of the current guide.
When scholars in the world of Yiddish literature learned of the list, a number of them — particularly Gella Schweid Fishman — encouraged Muraskin to expand the work, some helping out by putting him in touch with experts who could assist Muraskin in tackling the task.
Acknowledging that the Guide is by no means comprehensive — though it includes a range of work from the classics of Sholom Aleichem and Mendele Moycher Sforim to those written by Holocaust survivors in postwar America — Muraskin emphasized two main goals: to include as many stories as possible cited by literary critics as being of the highest quality, and to include “women’s voices” — which were largely missing in any previous listing.
And while Muraskin denies a political agenda guiding his choices, he did acknowledge a certain theme running through many of the stories. He was drawn, he said, to authors who were “secular innovators, iconoclasts breaking new ground,” whose writings, selected through “humanist criteria, reflected an egalitarian, inclusive world view…critical of the old religious establishment.”
“Much of modern Yiddish literature,” he said, “is an expression of Jewish humanism, the writers pushing back against both Jewish and gentile authorities.” Many of the authors “were advocates of universal ideals of freedom of thought, social justice, and human dignity.” As such, the stories included in the Guide often focus on “people, often women, who are oppressed by and are seen breaking away from a patriarchal system and an entrenched rabbinate.”
The genres represented range from progressive religious to secular “because that’s the very nature of Yiddish literature arising from the Haskala, the Enlightenment,” and, as such, often include “a lot of overtly left-wing content.” An overarching theme in the Guide’s selected works is “the difficulty of survival in Eastern Europe” and a concurrent commitment to “human solidarity in the fight to overcome poverty and oppressive conditions, and — once the writers reached the shores of the goldene medina — the very particular struggles to adjust to life in the New World.”