In the Land of Hap­py Tears: Yid­dish Tales for Mod­ern Times

David Stromberg, ed.
  • Review
By – November 12, 2018

David Stromberg, togeth­er with five schol­ar­ly trans­la­tors, presents the first Eng­lish ren­di­tions of eigh­teen Yid­dish children’s sto­ries writ­ten in the first third of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry. The tales draw from the pub­lished works of six East­ern Euro­pean-born authors, many who made their way to New York: Leon Elbe (pen name of Leyb Bas­sein), Sonia Kan­tor, Jacob Kre­plak, Moyshe Nadir, Jacob Reis­fed­er, and Rachel Shabad (bet­ter known as Regi­na Weinreich).

The book’s intro­duc­tion presents Yid­dish as a cul­ture of resilience” and morals, which leads Stromberg to divide the book into four chap­ters: Brav­ery, Rebel­lion, Jus­tice, and Won­der. Many of the sto­ries use anthro­po­mor­phism to com­mu­ni­cate a les­son. A boy who has been unkind to ani­mals dreams that he has been trans­formed into a bird and is hor­ri­fied to find his friend caught in the bird trap he built ear­li­er that day. Two col­or­ful leaves brave­ly try to swim to Green Land, rather than wait to be blown away by the autumn winds and aban­doned on the ground. An ancient mush­room king sad­ly watch­es as the for­est keeper’s heed­less chil­dren leave a promis­ing new son of his to die.

Some­times it is elu­sive as to why sto­ries belong to cer­tain chap­ters. Where is the Brav­ery in the title sto­ry, set in a land with­out salt, where par­ents smack their chil­dren so their tears can fla­vor the soup? Is it Jus­tice when two boys who have been push­ing each oth­er run away after the sexton’s wife appears and threat­ens to tell their fathers?

It’s a tricky task to reach chil­dren with tales from the past — tone, lan­guage, imagery, and humor don’t always make the leap. Many sto­ries in the col­lec­tion also pass along stereo­types com­mon eighty or nine­ty years ago, but now sore­ly out of date. A boy who con­vinces a king to change his ways has his heart in the right place, but he is attrac­tive and blond, which is why the king first takes him up on his lap. One nar­ra­tor con­de­scend­ing­ly address­es the read­er, Sit your­selves down on this bench, like good chil­dren, and I’ll tell you a sto­ry.” Some tales are overt­ly didac­tic. Some are lack­ing in plot.

The sto­ries that best trans­late to today are those in which empa­thy and good­ness reign. The Dia­mond Prince, ashamed of the spark­ly hard­ness of his face, insists to the king that he will not soft­en his skin by bathing in the tears of needy chil­dren, as the red gnome has said he must. Gur Aryeh, a poor rab­bi in Prague who is favored by the king, is goad­ed by jeal­ous advis­ers into promis­ing that he will host a din­ner. No one knows how he will be able to accom­plish this, but the din­ner turns out to be a mag­i­cal event, with gold­en tables and a come­up­pance for the courtier who tries to pock­et a gold­en saltshaker.

In the Land of Hap­py Tears offers a mixed bag of fan­ta­sy and real­ism, humor and sad­ness. Many of these unusu­al sto­ries may not appeal to today’s young read­ers, but they will sure­ly be a rich source of analy­sis and dis­cus­sion for schol­ars and historians.

Sharon Elswit, author of The Jew­ish Sto­ry Find­er, now resides in San Fran­cis­co, where she shares tales aloud in a local JCC preschool and vol­un­teers with 826 Valen­cia to help stu­dents write their own sto­ries and poems.

Discussion Questions