Folklore and Literature

"The more a writer belongs to his own people, the more he belongs to all people," Isaac Bashevis Singer often repeated. "A great writer is always part of his nation, its culture, its history and aspirations."

All his life, Isaac chanted this motto. "No man should lose his roots," he would repeat with deliberation. "If we cannot understand yesterday, we cannot understand today." When he decided to write exclusively in Yiddish, he explained: "Yiddish has vitamins which no other language has. We should never lose the idioms and vitamins of our mother tongue."

The language and literature of a people can reveal their character, teach us the culture and offer us the values of these people. In a brief period of one century, Yiddish literature was able to produce such masters as Sholom Aleichem, Mendel Mocher Sforim, I L Peretz, J.J. Singer, I.B. Singer, and hundreds more. "It tried to compress into a few feverish decades the experiences that in other nations had taken centuries," explained literary critic Irving Howe. It is a literature that often goes back to the Eastern European shtetl and paints a vivid portrait of the struggle and suffering of our parents, grandparents and great grandparents.

One aspect of our character which is revealed in a profound way is our intimate and personal relationship with God. God was not a distant, divine being only to be adored. Not an aesthetic God Who ruled on High, away from human beings. Rather, we Jews wrangled with God, even complained to Him. As the Hasidic Rebbe Levi Yitzchok of Berditshev proclaimed before the Almighty:

Good morning to You, Lord of the Universe!
Levi-Yitzchok, son of Sarah of Berditshev,
Have come with a claim against You
On behalf of Your people Israel.
What do You have against Your people Israel?
Why do You afflict Your people Israel?
And I, Levi Yitzchok, son of Sarah of Berditshev, say,
I shall not stir from here.
From this spot I shall not stir,
There must be an end to this,
The exile must come to an end!
Magnified and sanctified be His Name!

Another significant component of our national character is a compelling drive to know ourselves, to study our very nature evidence by the number of who Jews who seek therapy. In Yiddish literature the same study is conducted, but through the use of a different metaphor: Jewish demons, imps and hobgoblins.

Jewish demons are not fiery, fearful entities that inflict punitive lashes if we sin. Rather, the demons in Jewish folklore are playful, learned, erudite, even scholarly. "The Jewish Devil knows as much about the Bible as you do." Yiddish scholar Dr. Chava Lapin once said, "The reason they can seduce us so successfully is because they come in the name of that which is sacred."

Like the demons in I.B. Singer's stories, "The Last Demon," Zeidlus the Pope," and "The Unseen," the demon has only one mission: to corrupt God-fearing people. To flatter a man so long and to lure and tantalize him into sin so skillfully that the victim loses himself in the devil's well-laid web. These demonic character, we learn, are merely hidden aspects of ourselves; inner voices that try to deter us from our path and from life's purpose.

Just reading the language alone teaches us about our tradition (even if we read Yiddish literature in translation) since Yiddish borrowed freely from all the cultures that surrounded it. Most of all, it borrowed from the Bible, form Loshon Kodesh (Hebrew), the holy tongue. As literary critic Irving Howe noted. "The interplay of the language of piety, Hebrew, with the language of the street and the home, Yiddish, mad for remarkable literary effects. Yiddish intimately reflected the travail of wandering, exile and dispersion a language drenched with idiom, in which the thesis was Hebrew. So much of Yiddish and Yiddish literature has biblical motifs and underpinnings that without knowing it we are learning the holy text."

Isaac Bashevis Singer himself so believed in the need to remember our mama-loshon - our mother tongue - that he traveled all over the country with a speech he called "Yiddish: A Language Which Tells Its Own Story." And so often people bothered him, "Why do you still write in Yiddish? Why do you write in a dying language?" He would answer, "You know, I love to write about imps and demons and ghosts. And nothing is better for a ghost than a dying language."

And if they still bothered him, he would answer, traditionally, a question with a question: "Why Shouldn't I Write Yiddish?"

"It is the richest language in the world. Take such words as a poor man. You can say to a poor man, a pauper, a beggar, a mendicant, a panhandler....

But in Yiddish you can say: A poor shlemiel, a begging shlimazl, a pauper with dimples, a shnorer multiplied by eight, a shleper by the grace of God, an alms collector with a mission, a delegate from the Holy Land, dressed in seven coats of poverty, a crumb catcher, a bone-picker, a plate licker, a daily observance of the Yom Kippur fast and more and more."

His lectures were fiery, passionate pleas, declarations in defense of Yiddish. His words could stir in every Eastern European Jewish heart a longing to recapture his or her heritage, to study and resurrect this vital tongue.

" There are some who call Yiddish a dead language, but so was Hebrew called for 2,000 years. Yiddish was the tongue of martyrs and saints, of dreamers and kabbalists. It contains treasures that have not yet been revealed to the eyes of the world. I say, therefore, to my children: Come back to me. Learn me, and my sister's Hebrew and Aramaic. Learn my and your history. Treasures are stored up for you, saved form a thousand fires, preserved through a thousand exiles, hidden and carried forth from enemies and tyrants. Yes, you will find many treasures but the greatest of all is yourself. You will find in me your inner being, your identity, your very soul."


Dvorah Teluskin

Dvorah Telushkin is a well-known story-teller who has traveled and performed throughout the United States. Her translations of Isaac Bashevis Singer's short stories have appeared in The New Yorker and in several Singer anthologies. She lives in New York City with her husband, Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, and their four children.