Translated and edited by Joachim Neugroschel

In the late nineteenth and the early twentieth century, Yiddish writers continued what was basically a genre tradition, recording and illuminating everyday Jewish life in the shtetl, but, of course, selecting and omitting. For even though they often claimed to be "historians," dealing with types rather than individuals, more concerned with the collective than with individuals, they nevertheless, and obviously, created literature rather than historiography. The shtetl tended to be stereotyped in this fiction, largely in the negative, but at times lovingly.

The attempts at a quasi-historical recording of life are exemplified in Sholom Aleichem's novel Stempeniu. While attacking the Yiddish pulp writers and depicting a highly moral romance in an everyday Jewish milieu, he aimed for realism by imaginatively using the jargon of Jewish musicians in his dialogues. This jargon was so specialized that he had to provide translation footnotes for his audience. An English equivalent, used to render the jargon here, is the lingo of contemporary American rock musicians, who, in our culture, have the same erotic outsider appeal of these itinerant Jewish musicians. (The latter, however, were an accepted component in shtetl life rather than superstars of a youth culture.)
Stempeniu has an ethical resolution, promoting the traditional structure of courtship and marriage. Although critical, Sholom Aleichem is nowhere as negative as the Haskalah about the way Jewish husbands treated their wives. From a modern viewpoint, Rachel's final acceptance of marriage and materialism, though hardly as drastic as that of Stempeniu's wife, may be a rather dismal end. But for some contemporary thinking, it was good for herself and the collective.

The decay of the courtship ritual (which Sholom Aleichem later described in the Tevye stories) was at the core of evolution in Jewish life. And Dovid Bergelson depicted it with fin-de-siecle pessimism in Joseph Shorr. Reduced to the virtues of property and propriety, which none of his young urban contemporaries take seriously, the title character, a non-hero, embodies (upper-class) small-town traditionalism, which the modern age was undermining. This impressionistic novella also exposes the gap between shtetl and city Jews and between conventional, materialistic parents and the iconoclastic, metropolitan younger generation with its uprooted cosmopolitanism.

A more nostalgic picture of shtetl life at the turn of the century can be found in the hundreds of pastel sketches by Avrom Reyzen. Generally showing types rather than individuals, and using a delicate, lyrical language, he produced a low-key and loving comedie humaine of Jewish life (both in Eastern Europe and the New World). "The Dog" is a rather bizarre exception for him, since he seldom dwelt openly on horror.

A writer who focused almost exclusively on violence was Lamed Shapiro. His stories explore the psychology of both Gentile murderers and Jewish victims, especially in regard to the issue of Jewish response and self?defense, a question that he examined but could never fully resolve.

Amid the realism, soi-disant, of Yiddish fiction, there has always been a tradition of fantasy, even in modern times, when writers have competed with constant new editions of older fairy tales, legends, and romances, from the medieval Mayse Book to Yiddish versions of The Arabian Nights. Weissenberg's satirical "A Tale of a Goat" attacks superstition and provincialism with Haskalah acid and yet poetic charm, leaving the characters in an endless waiting for a "stranger," presumably the Messiah.
This Messianic yearning, of course, infused Jewish life - and now in various new forms, both religious and political, e.g. socialism, Zionism, and the like. But while the shtetl may have been assailed as static, backward, and rooted in superstition, as Weissenberg shows it to be, it nevertheless remained a tenacious social organization, despite the breakup of traditions, despite industrialization, despite large migration to big cities and foreign countries. It was not modernism that destroyed the shtetl.

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