POP 'EM IN YIDDISH
The subterranean world of Jewish pulp fiction
BY ALYSSA QUINT AND ERIC GOLDSTEIN
The first lines of the best-selling 1896 novel The Dead Guest pull its readers into the modest New York apartment of a middle-aged couple. Rain and darkness press against the windowpanes, but inside, tensions run higher: it is nine o’clock and their daughter has still not reached home. No doubt, in David Bell’s mind, Ida has finally given in to the allure of their womanizing landlord, Harry Viton, who is as ruthless as he is rich. Damn the rain and his wife Rachel’s desperate pleas for him not to act rashly. And damn the electric chair. David will do whatever it takes to stop Viton before he gets fresh with his daughter. He ducks into the night in search of young, innocent Ida, but not without his revolver — and not without his umbrella. (What, he should get a cold?)
The plot could be taken from any one of hundreds of dime novels from the turn of the last century, except that David and Rachel are Jewish, as is the man who created them, the best-selling author Nahum-Mayer Shaykevitsh, who naturally wrote in the lingua franca of his readers: Yiddish. His opening scene sets off an almost inexhaustible plotline that peaks and dips through one of the most popular examples of the American-grown Yiddish pulp fiction industry, which flourished from around 1890 until its native readership began to decline in the late 1920s. Potboilers like The Dead Guest constituted just one strand of the market-driven print culture of Yiddish-speaking immigrants in America, a culture that also included works of popular science, translations from world literature, dictionaries, how-to books to help immigrants adjust to their new surroundings, and, of course, newspapers: by 1900 there were six Yiddish dailies in the United States. Scholars of Yiddish literature usually study classic European writers like S.Y. Abramovitsh or Sholem Aleichem, or “highbrow” American Yiddish authors like Jacob Glatshteyn, Mani Leib, and I.J. Singer. All but forgotten are the Yiddish-only graphomaniacs who generated pulpy novels, as well as popular dramas and reams of newspaper content. Yet they were pioneers, responsible for figuring out how to make modern Yiddish culture financially viable.
The explosion of Yiddish mass culture on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and a few other immigrant enclaves around the country happened against some odds. Its spearheads were mostly natives of Russia, where the printed word in Yiddish strained against tight government control in the form of slow-moving censorship offices, as well as a Jewish intellectual elite that retained a sense of distance from and superiority to the “masses.” One exception to the rule of the struggling Yiddish writer in Russia was The Dead Guest’s author, Shaykevitsh, who, writing under his pen name “Shomer,” had managed to accrue great fame and a mass audience. But predictably, the conditions in Russia led Shomer to opt for America in 1889, where he set up shop as a printer and self-publishing writer in an atelier on Ludlow Street, inviting readers to knock on his door to purchase his works.
Within a few years, growing immigrant Jewish communities supported more efficient distribution lines than the author peddling his own wares. If a reader couldn’t wait to borrow the next installment of The Dead Guest from his cousin Miriam, he might run down to J. Katzenelenbogen, Rosenbaum and Werbelowsky, or one of the many other bookshops along Canal Street that were beginning to specialize in popular Yiddish works. Novels published in installments were ultimately published as bound books, some of which went on for more than 1,200 pages and were sold in bookshops for the princely sum of $1 or more. Those who could not afford the purchase price of one of these tomes could borrow their favorite title for a smaller sum from the local soda-water stand, although borrowing privileges required a fifteen-cent security deposit. Today, there isn’t much left of these books. To handle their crumbling russet-hued pages is to understand why most haven’t survived over a century: they were simply read to death.
These popular dime novels were rarely carbon copies of the popular literature of any other language. No doubt, Yiddish pulp fiction — like most pulp fiction of the era and other genres popular with Yiddish readers, such as the historical novel — indulged in all the elements of a melodramatic style, with moments of the lurid and the sensational, and over-the-top noir-ish characters: determined good guys, dark villains, and plenty of damsels in distress. The detective story figured prominently.
But what distinguished the form was that authors gave their stories Jewish cultural flourishes that resonated with the lives of their readers. Even purported translations, like Abner Tanenbaum’s version of Jules Verne’s oeuvre — those proto–science fiction novels about air and underwater travel — are really popularizations, in which much of the text is reworked to speak to Jewish immigrant readers and the prose rendered more readable, less literary or challenging. How loose did they get? That remains to be established as scholars begin systematically plowing through those pages, tracking cultural subtleties. In the Yiddishizing hands of popularizer David Moses Hermalin, for instance, did Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective Sherlock Holmes simply mutter “Oy vey” under his breath when he surveyed a corpse, or did he kiss the mezuzah as he entered a victim’s home? Did he only sound Jewish because he was being channeled in Yiddish, or did he become Jewish under Hermalin’s pen? In some cases, such as The Dead Guest, familiar generic melodrama fuses with characters of Jewish background: the protagonist David Bell, we learn, grew up as a forced convert to Christianity in Russia and enjoyed raising his family as Jewish in the open air of America’s religious freedom.
Another original Yiddish novella that strayed imaginatively from the formulaic was The Ransacked Tomb or I Don’t Know if I Am Who I Am: A True Story about Jewish Life in America, by George (né Getsl) Selikovitch. The soft-cover edition sold for ten cents and was published by the Hebrew Publishing Company, the largest purveyor of commercial Yiddish fiction during the first quarter of the twentieth century. The first-person narrative is recounted by Philip Kroyzkop, a young immigrant to New York whose cultural integration into his surroundings is fleet: he studies politics at Columbia College and, to the shock of some of his Jewish friends, marries a gentile girl named Emma Smithson. Kroyzkop cannot feel more confident about his choices until he wakes up disheveled and without any identification or money on a bench in Battery Park. A loose newspaper picked up by the wind reports that it is five months later than he thought it was — five months from when he innocently boarded a ferry to New Jersey, the scene of his last memory.
Kroyzkop returns to his home (on foot) to discover that his wife has moved out with no forwarding address. More vexing is the report he extracts from the next-door neighbor’s maid: he died five months ago after a freak accident at home and was buried — she remembers seeing him in his casket! Kroyzkop’s quest to retrieve his identity takes him to the home of a loyal friend, the police station, the coroner, and the cemetery (with shovels), and crescendos with a trial in which his wife and doctor face the death penalty. In the end, justice is not served; his wife convinces the jury that he is not who he claims to be, and Kroyzkop himself is left with doubts as to who he really is. The upshot? Don’t marry a shiksa? More subtly, as “a true story about Jewish life in America,” the tale of Kroyzkop’s lost selfhood is an accelerated version of Jewish assimilation already under way by this time if, arguably, also an exaggeration of its perils.
Each juicy example of this literature showcases another way various and contradictory ideological elements were made to coexist by writers whose life trajectories featured moments of ideological purity but whose printed record defied rigid categorization. Alexander Harkavy, for example, came to the United States in 1882 at the age of nineteen in order to join a communist colony. The colony failed soon after he arrived, and circumstance led him to join the ranks of adaptors and translators. Besides making his mark as one of the most important Yiddish philologists — he wrote the Yiddish-English dictionary — he published books about Washington, Columbus, and the American Constitution. In 1887, Abner Tanenbaum began his career as a journalist for a Yiddish anarchist newspaper after suffering the penury of immigrant life New York City. He and one of the paper’s editors, Joseph Jaffa, would soon shift from writing for an organ that offered compensation in the form of ideological gratification to writing to make a livelihood publishing best-selling pulp novels. Alas, anarchy didn’t pay the bills.
As they became purveyors of literature to the masses, radical intellectuals such as Harkavy and Jaffa often had to engage with the more traditional world view of their immigrant readers. As a result, conservative elements often found their way into the works. Consider one motif common to The Dead Guest and The Ransacked Tomb: America’s death penalty and, more specifically, the electric chair. One would expect that the death penalty would be repugnant to these left-leaning Yiddish writers, but reference to the electric chair might also have been their subtle way of keeping their readers — immigrants exposed to the temptations of criminal activity — on the straight and narrow. Atheism and suspicion of the establishment bumped up against respect for Jewish tradition and a belief in educating the masses as the masses themselves desired to be educated.
The quirky habits of immigrant consumers of this literature, too, embodied all sorts of contradictions. Why, for instance, did the Yiddish market for translations overwhelmingly favor titles by the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy and the French novelist Émile Zola? Certainly part of it had to do with the substance of their works — Zola’s treatments of the violence, alcohol, and prostitution that accompanied the industrial revolution and Tolstoy’s explicit discussions of sexuality made for titillating accounts that both thrilled and scandalized immigrant readers. Yet extra-literary concerns and allegiances played into their popularity as well. Tolstoy appealed to the translators, who, as children of the Eastern European Enlightenment, passionately identified with his sense of social justice. The concession they made to their popular audience was to repackage Tolstoy to reflect their readers’ inclination for the sensational. This cultural negotiation had one high-minded Yiddish critic waving his finger disapprovingly at the translator David Moses Hermalin for promoting Tolstoy’s The Kreutzer Sonata as a piece of lurid fiction rather than as the esteemed literature it was in the eyes of sophisticated readers. Yet another factor must be appreciated in the case of Zola’s Yiddish popularity. The golden age of the popular Yiddish novel coincided with the events of the Dreyfus Affair, in which Zola came to the defense of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a young Jewish officer in France wrongfully convicted of treason, with his searing pamphlet “J’accuse.” Yiddish readers read Zola’s novels, in part, as a gesture of gratitude and solidarity for his championing of the most important Jewish cause of the day.
Literary treatments of death, that staple of the pulp novel, are copious in — dare we say it? — Yiddish literature’s “highbrow” offerings, too, though they call more richly on the language’s resources. There is even the odd reference to the electric chair, more grimly referred to as the death-chair, in, for instance, Moyshe Leyb Halpern’s “Sacco-Vanzetti,” which sizzles with his signature restrained fury: “And when the deadly copper gleams on your head/What can be heavy then? ... And if the crown on the chosen one is made of fire/It is a wonder-crown in this damn world.” But Yiddish popular literature gave in to its own share of grave reflections on mortality. At one point in The Dead Guest — not long before the chapter entitled “The Long Nose” and not long after “The Poisoned Kugel” — David Bell finds himself in jail enduring what he believes to be the last night of his life. Author Shaykevitsh writes: