(Courtesy: Theodor Herzl Foundation)
Pinkhes-Pinye Kahanovitsh (1884-1950), modern Yiddish literature’s leading symbolis is best known under his pen name, Der Nister. Born in Berdichev, Ukraine, on November 1, 1884 into a family of fervent Korshev Hasidim, he was traditionally educated. An avid reader of both religious and secular literature, he especially admired Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, Y. L. Peretz and Sholem AleichemSholem Aleichem
His love of both secular and religious literature was encouraged by his older brother Aaron, a Kabbalist and follower of Rabbi Nakhman of Bratslav, and this influence proved long-lasting.
Between 1905 and the outbreak of World War 1, Kahanovitsh worked as a Hebrew teacher in Zhitomir, and avoided being drafted into the Russian army by becoming what was called in Hebrew a nelem, one who lived covertly under aliases. For his pen name, however, he took the Hebrew word nistar, “concealed”–the opposite of mefursam, “known”–the religious and mystical connotations of which deliberately evoked the mystical tradition of the lamed-vovnikes, the Thirty-Six Righteous Men who ensure the continued existence of the world. Nister repeatedly drew on this legend in his work, since he regarded the creation of literature as a sacred duty that linked the Jewish past with its present.
After a brief attempt to write poetry in Hebrew, Nister returned to Yiddish, his mother tongue, publishing his first Yiddish poem in the Vilna periodical Folksshtime in 1907; later the same year, he sponsored the publication of his first book, Gedanken un motivn–lider in proze (Thoughts and Motifs–Poems in Prose), in which he blended rhymed with unrhymed passages. In 1910, during a trip to Warsaw, he met Y. L. Peretz, the self-appointed rebbe of Yiddish literature, who published both Nister’s short novel A togbikhl fun a farfirer (Diary of a Seducer) and his first collection of Kabbalah-inspired stories, Hekher fun der erd (Higher than the Earth), in his journal Yudish. By avoiding realism and reviving instead the language of Jewish mysticism in a contemporary and secular context, however, Der Nister situated himself on the fringes of mainstream Yiddish letters, since his politically engage critics, though admiring his mastery of language, neither understood nor respected his eclectic subject matter.
Between 1910 and 1913, Nister experimented widely with forms in both poetry and prose, focusing on works for children, two of which were illustrated by Marc Chagall: A mayse mit a hon (The Tale of a Rooster) and Dos tsigele (The Little Goat). Children’s literature formed an important part of Der Nister’s oeuvre for the rest of his creative life. Deploying the fantasies of childhood rather than those of tradition or religion, his tales for young people were influenced by those of Hans Christian Andersen which Nister translated into Yiddish. He also perfected the short story form, within the parameters of which he poetized Yiddish prose. In 1913, he published a complex tale under the deceptively simple title “A mayse” (A Story) which, in its blend of folklore, symbolic figures, and enigmatic dialogue, marked the beginning of his mature symbolist work. Reworked, this tale was republished under the title “Der nozir un dos tsigele” (“A Tale of a Hermit desert and a Little Goat”). (1) Gedakht (Imagined), Der Nister’s first symbolist prose collection in two volumes, was published in Berlin in 1922-23, and a revised one volume edition appeared in Kiev in 1929, the same year in which his final collection of symbolist short stories, Fun mayne giter (From my Possessions) appeared. These works mark the pinnacle of Der Nister’s symbolist narrative achievement.
Between 1915 and 1920, Der Nister was actively in the Kiev Group of Yiddish literati led by Dovid Bergelson. It included some of the most promising Yiddish writers of the time, among them the poets Peretz Markish, Dovid Hofshteyn, and Leib Kvitko, the critics Nakhman Mayzl and Yekhezkl Dobrushin, and for a short time the poet Kadya Molodowsky. The scarcity of paper in 1920-21, the years following the Revolution and the Civil War, made printing virtually impossible, and Nister’s dire financial straits made him consider emigration emigration: see immigration; migration. as an alternative to what he called “these hunger years.” In 1920 he moved from Kiev to Malakovka, a Jewish orphanage on the outskirts of Moscow, where a group of writers, teachers, and artists, Chagall among them, were experimenting with new concepts in child education. This work brought no material improvement, and in 1921 he moved to Kovno in Lithuania, then a transition-point for many Yiddish and Russian intellectuals. Sadly, there his financial situation worsened, and he was compelled to relocate again, this time to Berlin where Yiddish publications blossomed owing to the low costs of publishing and the liberal atmosphere of the Weimar Republic.
There, between 1922 and 1923, Nister published most of his symbolist work. Yet apart from a favorable review in 1924 by Aaron Tseytlin, himself a Yiddish writer rooted in Jewish mysticism, and a seminal study of his prose style published in 1928 by the grammarian Isaac Zaretski that highlighted the chief linguistic peculiarity of his style–his recurrent use of the conjunction “un” (and)–Nister’s work was scarcely noticed and barely read. Nevertheless his productivity placed him at the forefront of Yiddish modernists. He saw the writer as a “leader” and his work not as a means of livelihood (hant-parnose) but as festivity (yontev), defining the creation of literature as a vocation (barufung) and a mission (misye), thus identifying it with religion. He consequently attempted to free his work of political engagement, taking no position on such issues as Zionism, assimilation, and leftist ideologies although, keenly alert to the moods of the society around him, he published penetrating observations on growing antisemitism in Germany.
His first job in Berlin was as co-editor of the new Yiddish literary bi-monthly, Milgroym (Pomegranate ), handsome deciduous and somewhat thorny large shrub or small tree (Punica granatum ), the first issue of which appeared in 1922, but which ceased publication after only two years, following radical condemnation of its “empty aestheticism in the Soviet-Yiddish periodical Shtrom (Stream), founded in Moscow also in 1922 by a group of writers including Dovid Hofshteyn, Aaron Kushnirov, Yekheskl Dobrushin and Ezra Fininberg. Der Nister and Bergelson immediately resigned from Milgroym, publicly distancing themselves from its orientation in an open letter published in Shtrom’s third issue. By the late 1920s, political ideologies had become increasingly polarized, and made it impossible for Yiddish writers, who had until then contributed to literary journals in the Soviet Union while also publishing in the West, to have it both ways: harsh political reality demanded that Soviet authors should make unambiguous commitments.
A long with other Yiddish-Russian emigre intellectuals–Markish, Hofshteyn, Kvitko, and Bergelson among them–Der Nister returned to the Soviet Union after five years of voluntary “exile” in Germany. Like the others, he appeared to consider the Soviet Union either the best option or the lesser of two evils, and he settled in Kharkov in 1926. But following years of neglect by literary critics, Der Nister was now crushed by a negative review by Dovid Hofshteyn (June 1928), which sharply criticized the symbolist movement in general and Der Nister in particular. As the 1922 attack on Bergelson by Moshe Litvakov, the head of the Yevsektsia, the Jewish division of the Communist Party, had made plain, literary criticism was the chosen mode for bringing straying writers into ideological conformity by stressing their need for strict self-censorship.
Political pressures notwithstanding, in 1929, as mentioned earlier, Der Nister published a collection of stories entitled Fun mayne giter (From my Possessions) which went virtually unnoticed. As Der Nister sorrowfully noted in a letter to his brother Motl, symbolism was an “unwanted article” in the Soviet Union. More intolerant reviews followed: his writing was labeled obscure, and he was branded a reactionary. From 1930 on, those few reviews of his symbolist work that did appear grew increasingly savage and contemptuous in tone, and Der Nister was reduced to silence for some years.
By the end of the 1920s, when Stalin had achieved supreme power, unqualified enthusiasm for the revolutionary process had been severely tempered. The Soviet Yiddish intelligentsia was crushed between menacing Jew-hatred in Western Europe, and problematic loyalty to an increasingly repressive Soviet regime. Der Nister, like all other Soviet Yiddish writers, tried to tread a fine line between moral and physical survival. Since he regarded writing as essential to his very existence, his return to the Soviet Union left him no choice but to toe the Party line. But as he noted to his brother, “to pass from symbolism to realism is […] not a matter of technique […] one must turn one’s soul inside out.”
His publication in 1934 of a volume entitled Hoyptshtet (Capital Cities), about the chief cities of three Soviet Republics, marked a new beginning, since now he turned to what is called in Russian ocherki, realistic, politically neutral journalism, one of the few literary forms that permitted artistic survival under Stalin. Yet his work continued to be viewed with deep suspicion; by the late 1930s he was banned from publishing and had to survive on what he could earn as a translator. The publication in the Soviet Union of his major novel Di mishpokhe Mashber (The Family Mashber)(2) was made possible by mere chance: Nister had apparently offered assistance after a car accident to an influential member of the Party’s nomenklatura who wished to express his gratitude and used his influence with the relevant Party organs. The first volume of Mashber appeared in Moscow in 1939; seven years later, the second volume was published in New York. This novel, acclaimed as Der Nister’s masterpiece, is said to belong to a projected trilogy whose third and final volume is still missing. This saga of a Jewish family in Berdichev during the second half of the nineteenth century, although superficially the portrait of traditional Jewish life facing dissolution, is by no means a conventionally realistic novel. Instead it makes use of elements far closer to Der Nister’s symbolist period: its chief characters, the three Mashber brothers, for example, strikingly parallel the writer’s earlier wanderers and truth-seekers.
Der Nister spent the early years of World War 2 in Tashkent in Central Asia, returning to settle in Moscow only in 1943. His engagement with the horrors of Nazism is reflected in the striking work he published between 1943 and 1946–faln, “cases” of persecution during the German occupation of Poland that were often reported to him at first hand by Jewish refugees. The coldly objective descriptor that he gave to these accounts was intended to indicate a narrative strictly bound to reality, and they gained in power from their seemingly detached narrative manner. The first collection of these, entitled Khurbones (Holocausts), appeared in Moscow in 1943, and an expanded edition, including work written before 1946 and entitled Dertseylungen un eseyen (Narratives and Essays), was published posthumously in New York in 1957.
In the wave of anti-Jewish persecution that Stalin initiated in 1949, Der Nister was among the first to be arrested; he died after an operation in a prison hospital on June 4, 1950, thus escaping the fate of death by shooting that overtook many of his oldest friends and fellow Yiddish writers on August 12, 1952.
Of recent decades, modern critical approaches have done much to dispel the view of Der Nister’s “impenetrability” and his symbolist tales have been recognised as major works. (3) They are influenced by folktales, myths, legends, Hasidic hagiographies and first-person confessionals, and borrow from the Romantic-Gothic fantasies of E. T. A. Hoffmann. Chiefly, however, they extend symbols and images first encountered in the Tales of Nakhman of Bratslav, from which they also derive the device of the story-within-a-story. Like their European models, Nister’s symbolist stories are populated by talking birds and beasts, by supernatural beings with human emotions, and by a subterranean world of demons, witches, satyrs, and malicious gnomes. Employing dream-like repetitions to create a sense of infinite circularity, and frequently centered on interrelated pairs like father-son, god-man, king-servant or master-disciple, they dramatize the conflict of the powerless against the powerful. Der Nister’s gods are fickle, theatrical manifestations devoid of sanctity; their antagonists, on the other hand–hermits, wanderers, vagabonds–are bound to a burdensome and inescapable duty; instead of freedom, their lot is endurance. His complex images use metaphor and language to suggest rather than to define, techniques that align him with the Russian poet Aleksandr Blok’s conception of the symbolist as “a possessor of occult knowledge.” Der Nister achieves his effects primarily through his style–its musicality, rhythm, rhetoric, and repetitions, which create the often-noted “liturgical” quality of his work.
The story “Muser” (Moral Instruction), here translated for the first time into English, first appeared in the New York Yiddish periodical Di tsukumft (The Future) in January 1923, and was republished without alteration in volume 2 of the collection Gedakht (Berlin, 1923). It is typical of Der Nister’s symbolist work. Its chief character, a contemporary writer, finds himself swept away at night by frightening dreams, which he is compelled to record in writing. While it is impossible to be prescriptive about the tale’s precise meanings, with hindsight, it is perhaps possible to see the opening parable of the wolf as the author’s comment on the impossibility of human freedom, a theme advanced in the subsequent images of the aged eagle. Haunting evocations of prison blend with harsh illustrations of the capriciousness of earthly good fortune to suggest a world in which survival is exclusively a matter of submission. Characteristic of Der Nister is the style of this tale, which employs near-liturgical repetition and formalized diction to create that sense of alienation typical of symbolist writing from Nakhman of Bratslav to Franz Kafka.
(1.) For an English translation of this story, see Der Nister, “The Hermit and the Little Goat” in Joachim Neugroschel (editor. and translator.) The Dybbuk and the Yiddish Imagination: A Haunted Reader (Syracuse University Press, 2000), pp.237-57.
2.) For an English translation, see Der Nister, The Family Mashber, translated by Leonard Wolf (New York and London, 1987).
(3.) Several of Der Nister’s best symbolist stories have been translated into English. See the anthologies compiled by Joachim Neugroschel: Great Works of Jewish Fantasy (New York, 1976); The Shtetl: A Creative Anthology of Jewish Life in Eastern Europe (New York, 1979); No Star Too Beautiful (New York, 2002),
JOSEPH SHERMAN, a former editor of the South African quarterly journal Jewish Affairs, is currently Corob Fellow in Yiddish Studies, University of Oxford. Apart from having published a range of scholarly essays in the field of Yiddish literature, he has also translated into English Isaac Bashevis Singer’s novel Shadows on the Hudson (New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998) and Dovid Bergelson’s novella novella Descent (New York, Modern Language Association of America, 1999). He is currently writing a book on Dovid Bergelson.