The Arty Semite

A Postmodern Yiddish Satire Set in Nowhere, Arizona

By Mikhail Krutikov

  • Print
  • Share Share

A version of this post appeared in Yiddish here

The modern period in Yiddish prose began with Yisroel Aksenfeld’s novel “Dos Shterntikhl” (“The Headband”), written some time in the 1820s, which opens with a detailed description of the shtetl “Loyhoyopolie.” The name, which can be translated as “Nosuchville,” is a neologism, made up of the Hebrew words meaning “never was” and the Slavic geographical suffix, “polie.”

Boris Sandler

Aksenfeld’s artistic intention was to create a literary portrait of a shtetl that was both general and concrete. Loyhoyopolie, which incorporates features of real places, represents a typical shtetl in the Podolia region of Ukraine in the first half of the 19th century. In the decades that followed the publication of “Dos Shterntikhl,” Aksenfeld’s device was taken up by the classic Yiddish writers Mendele Moykher-Sforim and Sholom Aleichem, in the form of Glupsk and Kasrilevke, also symbolic Jewish towns.

This is one source of Forverts editor Boris Sandler’s new novella, “Keynemsdorf.” The other comes from Yiddish folklore, namely, the tales of the Wise Men of Chelm. Putting the two together, Sandler tells the story of Keynemsdorf, a shtetl located “in a forgotten corner of Arizona.” It’s inhabitants, who call themselves the “Free Citizens of Keynemsdorf,” speak a language similar to Yiddish, made up of archaic Daytshmerish and vestiges of Galician or Bessarabian dialect. The book is provided with a short glossary, ironically intended, since almost everything is understandable anyway.

So who are the “Free Citizens of Keynemdorf”? On one hand, their way of life has a recognizable Jewish flavor, which extends to their constitution, city hall, and town library. Maybe they originated from Jews, like a lost tribe long separated from the Jewish world? Or maybe the opposite — converts, who took on certain Jewish customs and at some point got lost in Arizona?

The narrator of the story, Eddie Hoffman, is another well-known figure in Yiddish literature — a travelling salesman; he travels around the United States selling roach powder. He is a gossip and not overly smart, but with a certain moxie. In short, a character type out of Sholom Aleichem’s stories — or present-day Brooklyn.

By happenstance Eddie winds up in Keynemsdorf, where the residents welcome him with great honor, dubbing him the “Red Litvak.” Eddie gives a detailed ethnographic report on the customs and lifestyle of the Keynemsdorf residents: They are very conservative in their worldview, hold fast to their traditions, and have strange ideas about the surrounding world. One is again reminded here of Sholom Aleichem’s “Little People With Little Ideas.” Clearly, this is meant to be a parable. But what is the lesson?

Since its classical period, Yiddish literature has had a strong satirical tradition. Mendele’s critique of Jewish society was so sharp that some writers suspected him of being a self-hating Jew. But Mendele felt that he spoke to his own world and could say what he wanted. In contrast, when a Jewish author writes in a foreign language he is naturally more careful, keeping in mind what others will think.

In Yiddish, however, one can speak freely about one’s own troubles and defects, and this is exactly what is interesting about Sandler’s work. Keynemsdorf and its residents, like Glupsk or Chelm, serves as a metaphor for Jewish self-government. At the end of the novella, Eddie Hoffman declares the advantages of living in Keynemsdorf: “Everybody here lives as if nobody can see or hear them, but also as if nobody could do without them. Consequently, they conduct themselves freely and honestly; they don’t need to hide their feelings and thoughts, they don’t need to smile when they don’t want to — what one carries in one’s heart and in one’s brain is automatically understood by others.”

Keynemsdorf is a town where everyone feels comfortable and homey, even the “immigrants” like Eddie, who came from the “great” America. But this doesn’t mean that the residents of Keynemsdorf feel secure. Rather, they are afraid of terrible creatures from the outside world, though nobody has ever actually seen them. Nonetheless, in order to defend the settlement, they decide to build a wall.

In “Keynemsdorf,” Boris Sander upholds the Maskilic tradition of allegorical satire, melding it with elements of postmodernism. Not only is the story profoundly rooted in Yiddish literature, it is, for that reason, also entirely contemporary. After all, perhaps we are all living in a kind of Keynemsdorf, which we inherited from our forebears, and have since surrounded with a wall.

Translated by Ezra Glinter

Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Yiddish, Yisroel Aksenfeld, Wise Men of Chelm, The Headband, Sholom Aleichem, Mikhail Krutikov, Mendele Moykher-Sforim, Loyhoyopolie, Keynemsdorf, Kasrilevke, Glupsk, Forverts, Eddie Hoffman, Dos Sherntikhl, Daytshmerish, Boris Sandler, Chelm

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • "Jewish Israelis and West Bank Palestinians are witnessing — and living — two very different wars." Naomi Zeveloff's first on-the-ground dispatch from Israel:
  • This deserves a whistle: Lauren Bacall's stylish wardrobe is getting its own museum exhibit at Fashion Institute of Technology.
  • How do you make people laugh when they're fighting on the front lines or ducking bombs?
  • "Hamas and others have dredged up passages form the Quran that demonize Jews horribly. Some imams rail about international Jewish conspiracies. But they’d have a much smaller audience for their ravings if Israel could find a way to lower the flames in the conflict." Do you agree with J.J. Goldberg?
  • How did Tariq Abu Khdeir go from fun-loving Palestinian-American teen to international icon in just a few short weeks?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

You may also be interested in our English-language newsletters:

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.