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Der Nister and Symbolism in Yiddish Literature

By Sherman, Joseph | Midstream, July-August 2005 | Go to article overview

Der Nister and Symbolism in Yiddish Literature

Sherman, Joseph, Midstream

Pinkhes-Pinye Kahanovitsh (1884-1950), modern Yiddish literature's leading symbolist, is best known under his pen name, Der Nister (The Concealed One). 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 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 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.

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