Radiant Days, Haunted Nights: Yiddish Folktales Are Like the Brothers Grimm With Rabbis

05/25/2011 03:00 pm ET

Joachim Neugroschel is a very busy man. Born in Vienna as the son of a Yiddish poet (and a mother forbade the use of Yiddish in the home), he's one of the premier living translators of German into English, and probably the premier living translator of Yiddish literature. Among his many translations are several edited anthologies of Yiddish folk tales, defined broadly -- tales of anonymous authorship from an oral tradition, tales by known authors which contributed to the oral tradition, and tales by known authors which emulate the oral tradition, both realist and extremely fantastical. His prose is clean and readable, and his influence over the collection is all-encompassing: he's the translator, editor and curator, bringing to light many works that had never previously been translated into English. They are often so bizarre as to attract academic interest, but are usually enjoyable enough to children.

Many of the stories in Radiant Days, Haunted Nights, the most recent of these anthologies, do not read as especially Jewish -- an evil eye here, a rote blessing of God there, and rabbis all around, but otherwise many of the tropes are the same: heroes with magical powers only vaguely attributed to God if at all, evil enemies and pure random luck conspiring against them, and a grim sense of fate as a mercilessly cruel force. Indeed, the book begins with the grotesque morality plays of Gitl bas Yuda Leyb, a remarkable early 18th-century woman writer whose sense of God's mercy would have made Flannery O'Connor blush: the morals of her anecdotes always seemed to boil down to the need to trust in God, because everything good can be destroyed at a moment's notice.

As with all folktales (which are, by definition, the tales of the people, not of the ruling class), the protagonists and all other sympathetic characters tend to be poor. Aristocrats may be evil or they may be good, and they may even be future in-laws, but they are never front and center. Even when a character is nobly born, like Bovo, the main character of the last story, and one of the most beloved characters in all of Yiddish literature, he's quickly deprived of his nobility by cruel fate or a bitter enemy.

I read this book straight through, which may have been a mistake. Most anthologies are best read as bathroom books, dipped into now and again rather than plowed through. The stories didn't seem remotely exotic, whether they were didactic folk parodies, as with one written by Sholem Aleichem; latter-day folk exegesis, as with one by Sholem Asch; or nearly impenetrable Kabbalistic allegory, as with several by Der Nister. Though I'd never heard these stories, I felt I'd heard stories just like them all my life, and read them in books of fairy tales from Russia and Germany -- the twin borders of the Pale of Settlement, where these stories were brewed. Like Yiddish, nothing in these stories is new: they're just familiar words with a Jewish twist.

This isn't the place to start with Yiddish literature, though many of the most famous Yiddish authors (other than Isaac Bashevis Singer) are included. It's an interesting sidenote to overall Yiddish literature, an academic study of several angles of Yiddish folk treasury. Because of the haphazard material, it's not the best folk anthology, either -- the old, familiar collections of Russian or German tales are generally better-tailored to bedtime reading. But there's nothing like this book. It's worth reading, or dipping into, just for a flavor. It's a beautiful tradition.

Rating: 77

Crossposted on Remingtonstein.

P.S. I may not have fully explained my grade -- I had a mixed reaction to the book, albeit mostly positive. It's an impressive achievement, and part of the highish grade reflects my sense of admiration that the translator brought all this stuff to light. It's not remotely all of a piece, and the stylistic dissonance feels weird when it's all pushed together -- though this is partly a function of my reading it straight through, which, as I said, usually isn't the best way to approach an anthology.

Not all of the pieces work: like I said, Der Nister's turgid, flowery, evocative prose is basically incomprehensible. Far more interesting -- though barely more comprehensible -- are two brief stories by Moyshe Leib Halpern, better known as a poet, which resemble the surrealism of Russian futurist Daniil Kharms. This book is a fascinating taste of many ends of Yiddish storytelling all at once, but not nearly as satisfying as the great works by the masters. They remain the best place to start with Yiddish literature -- Isaac Bashevis Singer, whose Satan in Goray (rating: 85) is a harrowing tale of living amid massacre in Eastern Europe, or the humanist stories of Sholem Aleichem, whose Tevye the Milkman inspired the musical Fiddler on the Roof.