by Catherine Madsen
Eminent scholar and editor, anthologist of destruction, professor of Yiddish literature and culture at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and chairman of the Center for Yiddish Studies at Ben-Gurion University, David Roskies is a presence in contemporary Yiddish studies. With his sister Ruth Wisse, he is one of the architects of the academic study of Yiddish literature. His books blend scholarly, cultural, and personal knowledge to create an authoritative picture of a vanished world.
Behind every eminent scholar of Jewish disaster stands… his mother.
Roskies’ memoir Yiddishlands (“lands,” plural, because the book spans decades, continents, and worldviews) is first of all a vivid portrait of Masha Welczer Roskies. Born into the literary culture of Vilna in 1906, Masha was a high-spirited friend, a formidable mother, and a fierce and competitive Yiddishist. David Roskies was her youngest child, and the Oedipal tie is strong.
“I’m your cavalier, Mother, am I not?” he would ask her as a little boy, to avert an outburst of temper. Masha was a force of nature: boisterous, outspoken, capable of “apocalyptic rage,” living perpetually in the high drama of Jewish instability. She was herself the youngest child of Fradl Matz, a disappointed opera singer married off at age 15 to publisher Judah Leib Matz – Fradl’s only child with her second husband, Yisroel Welczer, whom she married for love. Masha grew up with divided loyalties, trying to keep on the good side of her numerous and contemptuous half-siblings while maintaining a stubborn and virtually unexpressed love for her father. Early twentieth-century Vilna was likewise a pawn in the rivalries between Russia and Germany, whose regimes alternated with dizzying speed. By the time the Nazis came, Masha was married and living in Czernowitz (Rumania); she escaped with her young children on the last train, joining her husband in Bucharest and arriving in Montreal after many detours and near-misses. It was a personality formed in crisis, and liable to generate a crisis when there was none. In a real emergency she was remarkably coolheaded: “the worse things were, the more calmly she behaved.”
The book’s short, anecdotal chapters recapitulate the young David’s experience of threading together bits of his mother’s inflammatory gossip, learned in pieces and out of chronological order. In her youth in Vilna, Masha knew everybody who was anybody, and who was sleeping with whom; not all these secrets can be revealed even now. In Montreal her house became a literary salon for the great Yiddish writers who had fled there: Avrom Reisen, Chaim Grade, Rokhl Korn, Melekh Ravitch – even (if the family records are accurate) Itsik Manger, the Dylan Thomas of Yiddish literature, brilliant but drunken and dissolute. There was plenty of gossip on tap, all of it mingled with the ravages of Jewish history.
But the book is also Roskies’ memoir of staking out his own Yiddishland. In high school he brashly critiqued the local Holocaust memorial ceremony as hopelessly boring to young people, a complaint that led directly to his founding of the international organization Yugntruf (The Call of Youth) with New York teenage Yiddishist Gabriel Trunk. By his college years, Roskies’ fluency in the language was a passport to the friendship of Yiddish writers in Israel – and to the undercover delivery network that brought Jewish books to the Soviet Union. He began accumulating his own share of stories and secrets.
Roskies attended Brandeis in the late 1960s, just in time to be in at the founding of the Jewish Renewal movement; he gives a restless insider’s view of this influential current in American liberal Judaism. In the commune/seminary Havurat Shalom, newly minted Conservative rabbi Arthur Green – now head of the rabbinical school at Hebrew College – took charge of the group’s spiritual progress. Green and a number of his contemporaries were enamored of Eastern meditation, connecting it with kabbalistic practices. Roskies the Litvak, fascinated by learning to daven (chant the prayers aloud), found meditation desperately irritating. “The silence. If only I could handle the silence. Silence at communal meals. Silence before, during, and after prayers…. Silence, I held, was not a Jewish form of self-expression.” (p. 162–163) And in Israel, Roskies’ mentor, the novelist Leyb Rochman, had a ferocious showdown with Green over the question of whether a brilliant young rabbi had a right to live in the Diaspora.
Roskies chose a Diaspora career for himself, though with pangs of conscience. He went on to illuminate Yiddish culture in three (or more) dimensions to readers who might otherwise only have known that it was destroyed. This book reaches a new level of verisimilitude, as the intimate and turbulent record of a family &8221; including snapshots, and even a CD of Masha singing the songs of her youth in a forceful old woman’s voice. Yiddishlands presents engagingly the frivolous and gossipy side of an eminent scholar: a closeup of the Yiddish literary world as one big dysfunctional mishpokhe, trying by various conflicting methods to preserve and piece together the fragments of a shattered culture.