Naturalism and Itsik Meir Weissenberg (1878-1938)

By Sherman, Joseph | Midstream, July-August 2007 | Go to article overview

Naturalism and Itsik Meir Weissenberg (1878-1938)


Sherman, Joseph, Midstream


Born in the Polish town of Zelechow, Itsik Meir Weissenberg started kheyder at the age of three. Although fascinated by the stories of the khumesh, he proved a mischievous and unruly pupil and never did well at formal study, preferring to spend his free time playing with animals in the countryside. Physically strong, as a teenager he created a Jewish self-defense group to fight the attacks of Polish hooligans. Although he tried several trades, he was chiefly attracted to Yiddish literature, and made his writing debut in 1904, when Yitskhok Leybush Peretz (1852-1915) published two of Weissenberg's stories in his periodical Di yidishe bibliotek (The Jewish Library). Titled "Der kitl" (The Ritual Robe) and "Dor hoylekh ve-dor bo" (A Generation Goes and A Generation Comes), these tales unsentimentally depicted the lives of ordinary people in idiomatic and highly naturalistic prose, and greatly impressed Peretz, to whom Weissenberg grew especially close.

In 1906 Weissenberg published his best-known novella, A shtetl which portrayed the internecine conflict between shtetl workers and bourgeoisie during the 1905 revolution. In both fide and content, it offered a deliberate riposte to the nostalgic image of harmonious shtetl life created by Sholem Asch (1880-1957) in his immensely popular 1904 novella of the same title. In Weissenberg's shtetl, workers and property owners are equally violent, power-hungry, and vengeful, and even the synagogue, the sacred space of Jewish life, is turned into a battlefield. This harsh satire established Weissenberg as one of the leading young yiddish writers of his day, and until the outbreak of World War 1, he produced a steady stream of short stories, among the best known of which is "A tate mit bonim" (A Father with Sons, 1908). It portrays parents and their two sons who are all uneducated, coarse, and violent Jews; even the mother, the least aggressive member of her family, unwittingly causes the deaths of two of her babies. This tale offered a startlingly unusual perspective on Jewish life in Eastem Europe, as did "Kreyndele" (Little Kreyndel, 1911), the biography of an orphaned Jewish gift sexually and mentally abused by two Jewish beggars, and then, given a night's shelter by a rich exploiter, she is robbed of the charity money she has collected to pay for the writing of a Torah scroll.. "A mayse nit a tsig" (A Story with a Goat, 1908) mocks superstition by recounting the conduct of a rich old woman who refuses to shelter her poorer sister in her apartment. When the sister dies, a sway goat settles in the wealthy sister's home, resisting all attempts to drive it away. Convinced that this goat is possessed by an evil spirit come to exact her sister's revenge, the rich old woman dies of terror, whereupon the goat moves near her grave in the cemetery, sowing panic in the community because even the town's rabbi is unable to drive it away.

In 1915, Peretz's sudden death left a cultural vacuum in Yiddish Warsaw. Weissenberg, who considered himself Peretz's legitimate successor and aspired to his authority, launched a new, apolitical periodical titled Yidishe zamelbikher (Jewish Anthologies), six volumes of which appeared between 1918 and 1920. Young writers, frustrated by newspaper editors who refused to publish their works, embraced Weissenberg as their champion, since, like Peretz in his last years, he regarded newspapers as corrupting influences on public taste, and insisted on the need to separate literature from journalism. He established his own printing operation, and among the earliest to benefit from his encouragement was the 22-year old Oyzer Varshavski (1898-1944), whose first novel Shmuglars (Smugglers, Warsaw 1920) Weissenberg published at his own expense. Shmuglars has since come to be regarded as among the best Yiddish novels of the twentieth century.

In 1922, on his return from a visit to New York, Weissenberg was elected chairman of a sub-section of the Warsaw Association of Jewish Writers and Journalists, which planned to use money donated by the New York Jewish Writers' Association to publish the work of young Yiddish authors. …

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