Jerold C. Frakes. Jerusalem of Lithuania: A Reader in Yiddish Cultural History. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2011. xviii + 285 pp. $44.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8142-1167-0.
Reviewed by Cecile Kuznitz (Bard College)
Published on H-Judaic (September, 2014)
Commissioned by Jason Kalman (Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion)
A Tour of Lithuanian Jewish Culture through Yiddish Texts
In 1935 the literary critic Shmuel Niger observed, “About no Jewish community, except for Jerusalem, of course, has so much been written as about the Jerusalem of Lithuania.” We can now welcome one more volume to this canon, Jerold C. Frakes’s Yerusholayim d’lite: Di yidishe kultur in der lite (Jerusalem of Lithuania: A Reader in Yiddish Cultural History). The author, one of the few American scholars of Old Yiddish literature, has done much to make premodern works in the European Jewish vernacular accessible to the English-reading public with anthologies such as Early Yiddish Texts, 1100-1750 (2004; rev. ed. 2008) and most recently Early Yiddish Epic (2014). He also shed light on biases lurking in seemingly dry linguistic studies in his often-overlooked The Politics of Interpretation: Alterity and Ideology in Old Yiddish Studies (1989). With this new book, Frakes contributes to two separate genres, as noted on the copyright page: “This is an anthology of Yiddish-language texts about Jewish Lithuania, demonstrating its cultural importance in Jewish history during the last four centuries. It also functions as a Yiddish reader for intermediate and advanced readers of Yiddish” (p. iv).
Indeed, for the fluent Yiddish reader the book serves as an overview of Jewish culture in the city of Vilna specifically and the region of Lite more broadly, which encompasses present-day Lithuania, the Baltic states, Belarus, and northeastern Poland. In this it joins a distinguished lineage extending to Shmuel Yosef Fuenn’s 1860 Kiryah ne’emanah (Faithful city) through a spate of works in the years around World War I starting with the two-volume Vilner zamelbukh (Vilna anthology) (1916-18) to postwar collections, such as Leyzer Ran’s monumental Yerushalayim de-Lita (Jerusalem of Lithuania) (1974). Its nearest analogue is Vilne in der yidisher literatur (Vilna in Yiddish literature) (1980), part of the Musterverk series edited by Samuel Rollansky. Rollansky’s work, like Frakes’s, comprises a range of texts including prose fiction, poetry, and memoir. Yet Frakes by no means duplicates Rollansky’s efforts, as the overlap in content is limited to two poems.
Another similarity of Rollansky’s and Frakes’s books is that both were conceived as pedagogical tools. The volume under review began as a set of readings that the author compiled for his students in the Vilnius Yiddish Institute’s summer language courses, and each chapter is followed by a glossary in English. It thus sits alongside Heather Valencia’s Mit groys fargenign (With Great Pleasure) (2003), an anthology of Yiddish literature for students, as a supplement to the reading selections available in various textbooks. Yet as noted above, Frakes goes beyond belles lettres to include nonfiction genres, such as memoir, history, and journalism.
As both a tool for the Yiddish classroom and a resource for students wishing to read on their own, the book has several notable features. Each text is preceded by an introduction that provides background and context. Each is rated on a scale of 1 to 4 in terms of difficulty, 1 indicating the level of a second-year Yiddish learner. Yet all selections are glossed for a level 1 reader, meaning that someone with only one year of language study but sufficient patience to work through long vocabulary lists should be able to read all chapters rated levels 1 to 3. These tools make relatively difficult texts accessible to the intermediate student.
In addition to a range of genres, the book covers a wide chronological scope. Frakes includes texts from as early as the Mayse bukh of 1602 (available in English as Moses Gaster, Ma’aseh Book: Book of Jewish Tales and Legends ), and although they can initially appear baffling even to a fluent reader of modern Yiddish, his helpful introductory notes and glossaries make these premodern selections comprehensible. Given Frakes’s background, it is not surprising that the volume includes examples of Old Yiddish literature, but it also offers samples of prose, poetry, academic writing, and a Hasidic novel from the late twentieth century.
Any serious Yiddish reader will eventually have to contend with a variety of spelling systems, which can flummox students taught only the standard YIVO orthography. Frakes preserves the original spelling of texts, which range from premodern to daytshmerish “Germanized” to Hasidic (an example of Soviet orthography would have been useful). All glosses use YIVO orthography, aiding readers in finding their way through this thicket of unfamiliar spellings.
Frakes’s catholic approach to genres, periods, and orthographies extends to his overarching theme. While many selections focus on Vilna and some relate to Lite more broadly, others have only a tenuous connection to either topic. One suspects that Frakes included an excerpt from the Mayse bukh more because it is a classic Old Yiddish text than because its author hailed from Mezritsh. As Frakes notes, I. L. Peretz depicted Litvak figures and Izi Kharik lived in Belorussia, yet the Polish and Soviet Jewish cultures with which these writers are identified are distinct from the Lithuanian Jewish culture that is his focus.
Frakes ties together his selection of primary sources with background texts that he composed at a level 1 difficulty. These include several introductory chapters surveying the history of Vilna as well as chapters interspersed throughout the book on important figures and institutions, such as the Vilna Gaon, the Bund, the Strashun Library, and Abba Kovner. In a few cases, primary documents cleverly serve this function, such as a 2003 article from the Foverts newspaper that provides biographical detail on the rabbinic sage known as the Khofets Khayim as well as an example of recent Yiddish journalism.
One wishes that the design of the book more clearly distinguished the original texts composed by Frakes from the primary source material. More substantively, while Frakes’s background chapters and introductory notes are highly useful, they are occasionally marred by errors. Perhaps eager to claim the pioneering Yiddish linguist Ber Borochov as a Litvak, Frakes writes that he lived in Vilna and was “an early star scholar” of the YIVO Institute there (p. ix); in fact, Borochov never settled in the city and died eight years before YIVO’s founding. He dates the Karaite movement to pre-Talmudic times and H. Leivick’s play about the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising Der nes in geto (The miracle in the ghetto) to 1940 (pp. 22, 155).
Such small lapses make the volume less than ideal as a history textbook. Nevertheless, those wishing to improve their Yiddish through exposure to a wide range of authentic texts, as well as Yiddish readers wishing to learn more about the rich culture of Vilna and its region, can only be grateful for this latest addition to the literature on the Jerusalem of Lithuania.
. Shmuel Niger, “Vilne,” in Vilne: A zamelbukh gevidmet der shtot vilne, ed. Yefim Yeshurin (New York: Vilner branch 367 arbeter-ring, 1935), 777.
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Cecile Kuznitz. Review of Frakes, Jerold C., Jerusalem of Lithuania: A Reader in Yiddish Cultural History.
H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews.
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