(Courtesy: Jewish Enciclopedia)
DER NISTER (Yidd. “the concealed one”; pseudonym of Pinkhes Kahanovich; 1884–1950), Yiddish writer.
Born in Berdichev, Ukraine, he received a traditional Jewish education but also read secular works in Russian from an early age. His spiritual and literary growth was significantly influenced by his older brother, Aaron, a Bratzlaver Hasid whose personality and mysticism are echoed in the character of Luzi in Der Nister’s greatest work, Di Mishpokhe Mashber, vol. 1, Moscow, 1939; vol. 2, New York, 1948). In his youth Der Nister was associated with Zionist socialist circles. Some evidence of this association and possibly of his attendance at the Poalei Zion conference of 1905 as well as of his impression of Ber Borochov at the conference can be found in the novel Fun Finften Yor, which remained in manuscript form in his literary legacy and was published in Sovetish Heymland (January 1964). Around 1905 he left Berdichev to avoid serving in the czarist army. Up until World War I he led a fugitive existence, chiefly in Zhitomir, employing the passports of others and supporting himself by giving private Hebrew lessons.
At the age of 23, Der Nister published his first book, Gedanken un Motivn (“Thoughts and Motifs,” Vilna, 1907), a modest volume which reveals what was to be a life-long preoccupation with such universal themes as man’s divine-satanic duality, the eternal opposition between aspiration and reality, and the pendulum swings of human emotion. I. L. Peretz probably assisted Der Nister in publishing his second work, Hekher fun der Erd (“Higher Than the Earth,” Warsaw, 1910), and his Kiev admirers David Bergelson and Nachman Mayzel assisted in publishing his third book, Gezang un Gebet (“Song and Prayer,” Kiev, 1912). Living in Kiev from 1918 to 1920, Der Nister contributed to Eygns and Oyfgang (1919), collections which may be regarded as the foundation of Soviet-Yiddish literature. In addition, he was a skilled translator of world literature and a writer of children’s verse and stories whose rich fantasy and linguistic virtuosity have rarely been equaled.
In 1921 Der Nister left the Soviet Union, first for Kaunas (Kovno) where he almost starved, then for Berlin, a gathering point for literary emigrants. After several years in Berlin, where he published Gedakht (2 vols., 1922–23), the first collection of his visionary and fantastic tales, he moved to Hamburg where from 1924 to 1925 he worked for the Soviet trade mission. In 1926, at a time when the Soviet Union was doing all in its power to promote Yiddish culture and was luring back emigrM writers, Der Nister returned to the Soviet Union, settling in Kharkov.
The painter Marc Chagal (front) with teachers and children at the Malakhovka children’s colony near Moscow in 1923. Chagal settled in Paris in the same year. Behind Chagal sits the Yiddish writer Der Nister, one of many who had returned to the Soviet Union to participate in Yiddish cultural life. He became a victim of the campaign against “Cosmopolitans” in 1952.
Up until 1929 Der Nister contributed to those periodicals still open to “fellow-traveling” writers. With the ascendancy of the “proletarian” critics in that year, Der Nister’s work came under sharp attack for its symbolism and mysticism. For some time he published nothing, attempting in the years 1931–33 to find a place for himself on the hostile literary scene through writing ocherki, a form of reportage then regarded as progressive. Editing and translating continued to be the mainstays of his precarious livelihood. These were years of great anguish for Der Nister, who realized he could not adapt himself to the demands of realistic reportage nor abandon a style he had spent his life developing. Around the year 1935 he resolved to write his family saga, a resolve of desperation as well as a cunning strategem on the part of a writer whose creative life was in danger of extinction. In a letter written around 1934 to his brother in Paris, Der Nister made his desperate position absolutely clear: “… the writing of my book is a necessity; otherwise I am nothing [oys mentsh]; otherwise I am erased from literature and from life…”
The death sentence on Soviet Yiddish literature may have been prepared as early as 1939, the year in which Der Nister won critical acclaim with the first volume of Di Mishpokhe Mashber. In that year the Soviet authorities suggested that Yiddish works appear only in translation, a danger side-tracked by the war, and one which Der Nister outspokenly opposed. The war years 1941–43 found Der Nister in Tashkent, and later in Moscow, where he lived in great penury. During and immediately after the war Der Nister was close to the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee in whose service he had accompanied Ukrainian Jewish immigrants to Birobidzhan. There he had pressed parents to petition for Yiddish-language schools. This activity supplied one of the charges of anti-Soviet “nationalism” leveled against him following the suppression of Jewish cultural life in the Soviet Union in November 1948. Not long after this date Der Nister was arrested and he died in a prison hospital.
Early Literary Period: 1906–1929
Prior to 1929 Der Nister wrote as he wished; after 1929 he worked under the shadow of repression. In the period 1906–29 he wrote his highly original mystical visions and fantastic tales, developing a style unique in Yiddish literature. From the outset he had sought a universalist synthesis of the Jewish mystical tradition and world mythology, introducing into his earliest stories figures such as Buddha and the Virgin Mary, hitherto regarded as alien to Yiddish literature. The themes of his first volume Gedanken un Motivn recur in later works, where, however, they are not so explicit. The first volume reveals a tragic view of life wherein suffering is ultimately redeemed through love.
Der Nister’s pervasive sense of man’s dual nature finds expression in the antithetic pair of stories “Poylish” and “Cleopatra” (Literarishe Monatsshriftn, nos. 1 and 4, Vilna, 1908), where sanctified love and demonic lust are vividly contrasted through imagery derived from Jewish tradition on one hand and classical tradition on the other. The dualistic principle informs Hekher fun der Erd, a conscious attempt to write modern kabbalistic tales. A similar mystic direction is manifest in Gezang un Gebet, a volume of verse whose first poem, “Mir,” is a deeply felt meditation on the mystery of Jewishness and its destiny in the absence of spiritual guides. In these poems despair is countered by a vision of youth who rediscover the ancestral path.
Critics dealt harshly with Der Nister’s first books, which they were unable to grasp, thus stimulating him to experiment in other directions. Doubtlessly influenced by the criticism of Peretz, Der Nister, after 1912, de-emphasized description and introduced firm narrative structure into his visionary and fantastic tales, preserving their symbolic and ambiguous qualities while making them interesting as stories. Just as Peretz for his purposes renewed the hasidic hagiographic tale, so Der Nister revived the hasidic symbolic tale created by R. Nahman of Bratzlav, discovering, as had R. Nahman before him, a popular and flexible medium for ideas which could not be broached directly. The years 1913–29, from the appearance of “A Tale of a Hermit and a Kid” (Di Yidishe Velt, no. 10, Vilna, 1913) to the sharply criticized “Unter a Ployt” (“Under a Fence,” Di Royte Velt, 5 no. 7, Kharkov, 1929) witnessed Der Nister’s cultivation of a mode altogether congenial to him.
Just as the characteristic symbols—e.g., the Well of Tradition and the Lonely Tower—and the mystic dualism of the Russian symbolists are reflected in Der Nister’s tales of this period, so too are the verb inversions and lyrical effects practiced by the Russian symbolists absorbed in Der Nister’s Yiddish style. The hypnotic rhythms of Der Nister’s long sentences, their deliberate sound structure, the repeated use of “and” (possibly derived from the biblical conversive vav), and the archaic diction (derived from the taytsh tradition, i.e., from old Yiddish Bible translations) result in a strangely compelling, at times surrealist atmosphere.
Later Literary Period: After 1929
The extraordinarily complex “Under a Fence” represents Der Nister’s covert protest against Soviet cultural regimentation as well as anguished self-accusation for abandoning his symbolic art. However, his subsequent efforts to write realistic reportage could not quell his characteristic impulse, and Dray Hoyptshtet (“Three Capitals,” Kharkov, 1934), subtly resists the required orthodoxy.
Der Nister—aided by shifts in Party policy in the 1930s—saved his artistic conscience by writing Di Mishpokhe Mashber, a family saga which appears to heed the requirements of realism while serving the author’s own far from orthodox literary purposes. This novel, only two of whose three or more projected volumes have been published (a third volume may exist in manuscript somewhere in the Soviet Union), is perhaps the single greatest achievement of Soviet Yiddish prose. As suggested in its title, Di Mishpokhe Mashber—mashber is Hebrew for “crisis”—was conceived as the portrait of a traditional and rooted society in dissolution. Der Nister intended to portray East European Jewry from the 1870s to the revolutionary period. The two volumes published, which constitute Part One of the projected whole, cover less than a year during the 1870s in Berdichev, the most Jewish of all Ukrainian towns. The view taken of Jewish life, and particularly the magnificent picture of Bratzlaver Hasidism, indicate deep sympathy rather than the prescribed anti-religious bias. What Der Nister has done in this supposedly “realistic” novel is to transform the nameless characters of his mystic tales into name-bearing particular persons. The central characters of the novel are precisely the same agonized seekers one finds in his tales and their concerns are the same. There is a remarkable continuity in Der Nister’s creative career.
Der Nister’s war and postwar writings are impressive for the candor and courage with which strong national feeling is expressed, but undistinguished as literature. The informer of “Flora” (in Dertseylungen un Eseyen, ed. by N. Mayzel, New York, 1957) is a stereotyped villain, yet the story is of immense interest seen in its historical context. Nowhere else in Soviet Yiddish literature is a rabbi presented in so positive a light. Der Nister dared to envisage a Jewish future linked to the Jewish past—a brave view to uphold in the land of the Soviets.
Unpublished manuscript material of Der Nister’s from various periods has appeared in Sovetish Heymland (no. 2, 1967), including a chapter from volume three of Di Mishpokhe Mashber, and in the collection Vidervuks (“New Growth,” Moscow, 1969). Important Der Nister materials came to light in 1960. The above-cited 1934 letter excepted, they were still in manuscript in 1970, but were due to be published.