Have I Got a Story for You

W. W. Norton & Company   2016

 

Have I Got a Story for You: More than a Century of Fiction from the Forward is what you would call in Yiddish a real mechayeh. Teeming with life, both funny and bittersweet, this collection honors not only a language that is used by fewer and fewer people, but a world itself. From lonely boarders to lovelorn seamstresses, and from shrieking harridans to wistful elders, the book contains multitudes. Most of the stories have never before been translated. Edited by Ezra Glinter, Have I Got A Story for You provides a panoramic view into a vanishing, and irreplaceable, Jewish cosmos. As novelist Dara Horn’s eloquent introduction explains, this book is not a collection of news stories, full of historic moment, but of individual lives, opening to us, and “this is what made the Forward the newspaper of record for Ashkenazi Jews the world over: its record of private emotional experiences that would never make headlines.”

While The Forward was not the only newspaper to carry Jewish fiction in its native Yiddish, it did so for the longest stretch of time, and to an international readership that at one point approached a quarter of a million souls. Over the years, it published not only the Nobel Prize-winning Isaac Bashevis Singer (and his brother, Israel Joshua Singer), but also the works of prominent writers like Chaim Grade, B. Kovner (who created the original, hilarious “Yente Telebende”), Sholem Asch, Lyala Kaufman (Sholom Aleichem’s daughter and Bel Kaufman’s mother), David Bergelson, and legendary Forward editor Abraham Cahan himself.

Many of the works contained in this volume would have been lost to history – and indeed were -- until they were painstakingly found, collated, and translated into this magnificent book. They span eras, from before the First World War to modern times, and from Eastern Europe (chiefly the Ukraine, Poland, and Lithuania) to Israel and to Brooklyn and beyond.

One of the standouts is Roshelle Weprinsky’s story “By a Far Shore,” which takes place in Miami, the final refuge of many Jewish immigrants. On that shore, two aging women bask in the tropical sun, feeling both exiled from their American families and from the lives they themselves once lived. That same feeling, of something lost, is even more poignantly present in Chaim Grade’s “Grandfathers and Grandchildren.” In this tale, a small community of elders in Vilna, neglected by their own children and grandchildren, are ecstatic when their Old Shul is visited, temporarily, by a group of young scholars, and disheartened when they are left, again, to their vigil of maintaining the past.

Some of the stories are prosaically, touchingly romantic, such as Avrom Reyzen’s “Who Will Prevail?” There, a room-renting teacher of marriageable age falls in love with the daughter of his landlady, only to see his chances diminished by a more aggressive tailor who also lives in the house. Some are mystical, as in I.B. Singer’s “The Hotel,” in which the fate of an innkeeper depends on how he treats his shabbier guests. What holds these tales together is a delicate golden ribbon – but how strong it is, and how lucky we are to have them gathered for us, like an ever-fragrant bouquet.

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