Fic­tion

War­saw Stories

Hersh Dovid Nomberg, Daniel Kennedy (trans.)

  • Review
By – March 16, 2020

Dur­ing the nine­teenth and ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­turies, Yid­dish emerged as a pri­ma­ry lit­er­ary lan­guage for a ris­ing gen­er­a­tion of writ­ers and intel­lec­tu­als in small towns and cities in East­ern Europe, but more­so, in the vibrant Jew­ish cul­tur­al cen­ter of War­saw. Hersh Dovid Nomberg (18761927) was an impor­tant fig­ure dur­ing this phys­i­cal and spir­i­tu­al tran­si­tion. Raised in a Hasidic fam­i­ly in Mszc­zonow, Poland, Nomberg reject­ed his ultra­ortho­dox roots and moved to sec­u­lar War­saw at the age of twen­ty-one. He was a younger mem­ber of the coterie of writ­ers around the charis­mat­ic Y. L. Peretz (which includ­ed Sholem Asch). Nomberg also played an impor­tant role in the famous Czer­nowitz Con­fer­ence in 1908, where a host of major writ­ers gath­ered, declar­ing Yid­dish a nation­al lan­guage” of Jews in the dias­po­ra, a procla­ma­tion Nomberg him­self authored.

Very lit­tle of Nomberg’s lit­er­ary work, which includes poet­ry, plays, nov­els, and jour­nal­ism, is avail­able in Eng­lish. But thanks to the Yid­dish Book Center’s new pub­lish­ing imprint, White Goat Press, and Daniel Kennedy’s superb trans­la­tion, we can now redis­cov­er Nomberg’s poignant, unset­tling, and deeply mov­ing sto­ries about uproot­ed Jews. War­saw Sto­ries invents a land­scape inhab­it­ed by young Jews in flight from tra­di­tion, betwixt and between worlds, at home nowhere, dream­ing, swin­dling, gos­sip­ing, mas­querad­ing, rebelling, yearn­ing, over­come with rage and shame, and above all, feel­ing lost in a dis­ori­ent­ing urban landscape.

Nomberg’s most famous char­ac­ter is Fliglman, or wing man,” a young man in flight” who appears to be the author’s alter-ego. He receives both Nomberg’s empa­thy, but is also the object of sub­stan­tial (self) satire: His eyes looked like they were fogged up with steam, as if all one need­ed to do was wipe them with a hand­ker­chief for them to shine bright­ly.” Fliglman is a roman­tic with high expec­ta­tions and pre­cise require­ments for his roman­tic life. No shal­low soul would ever be capa­ble of lov­ing him,” Fliglman deter­mines, but he remains clue­less about the shal­low dimen­sion of his dreamy phi­los­o­phiz­ing, or his avoid­ance of female rela­tion­ships. In the end, Fliglman looms as one of Nomberg’s unmoored com­ic souls, an apos­tate” in the eyes of his fam­i­ly, per­ceived as pathet­ic” by a would-be lover. He lives with an ele­vat­ed view of him­self, obliv­i­ous to his lone­ly life,” a lost soul who spi­raled in an emp­ty void.”

Per­haps an even thick­er por­trait of a new Jew­ish gen­er­a­tion is on dis­play in High­er Edu­ca­tion.” In this fas­ci­nat­ing sto­ry, we meet Lyu­ba Fidler, a young woman of sad, clear eyes,” deep pow­ers of obser­va­tion, and fiery polit­i­cal com­mit­ments. Fidler moves between a world of weary bour­geois com­pla­cen­cy and unearned com­fort — rep­re­sent­ed by a poten­tial love inter­est in the polit­i­cal­ly apa­thet­ic Dr. Vayn­shteyn — and her own com­mit­ted rev­o­lu­tion­ary iden­ti­ty, which becomes tem­porar­i­ly soft­ened when Fidler becomes a tutor for the doctor’s young nephew. Fidler’s com­plex reac­tions to this unsa­vory bour­geois world enables Nomberg to explore a range of extreme behav­iors, above all, rage and shame. Fidler feels rage at the prospect of being part of Vayn­shteyn and his par­venu sister-in-law’s world, but the shame she felt in front of her friends and her own con­science, that was the most ter­ri­ble thing of all.” High­er Edu­ca­tion” ends with a shock­ing epi­logue; Fidler, we learn, keeps faith with her stern polit­i­cal reli­gion, which har­bors a latent mur­der­ous vio­lence. In response to hear­ing of Fidler’s fate, Dr. Vayn­shteyn becomes numb” — he will for­ev­er be haunt­ed by dreams of bombs and car­nage, of gal­lows and stiff human bod­ies shak­ing in the wind.” Such is Nomberg’s bleak vision, shorn of any human illusion.

Vir­tu­al­ly all the char­ac­ters in War­saw Sto­ries live mud­dled” lives, for they remain tan­gled up in the webs of mod­ern Jew­ish his­to­ry. Nomberg’s genius comes from his abil­i­ty to reg­is­ter the psy­chic and emo­tion­al valences of this bewil­der­ing lim­i­nal moment at the turn of the cen­tu­ry: to imag­ine char­ac­ters strug­gling in moder­ni­ty. A num­ber of sto­ries, nar­rat­ed in the first per­son, con­vey the dilem­mas and ironies of a Jew­ish self in mas­quer­ade, per­form­ing an iden­ti­ty. In In a Hasidic House,” for exam­ple, the Lit­vak” nar­ra­tor (some­one of a more ratio­nal, less reli­gious­ly demon­stra­tive bent) becomes obsessed with a young woman imag­ined as pious, the so-called mod­est daugh­ter of a wealthy Hasidic fam­i­ly. In the end, the nar­ra­tor has a soul-trans­form­ing epiphany. Con­front­ed by a shock­ing rev­e­la­tion (many of Nomberg’s sto­ries end with mind-bend­ing rev­e­la­tions), the nar­ra­tor con­fess­es: I felt, then and there, that I had lost some­thing very dear and impor­tant, some­thing I might nev­er get back.”

In this respect, Nomberg’s char­ac­ters remain emo­tion­al­ly afflict­ed. Some nos­tal­gi­cal­ly weep in mem­o­ry of the loss of reli­gious rit­u­al and tra­di­tion (“Neigh­bors”), oth­ers have a chron­ic, obses­sive need to dwell on the state of one’s soul (“Let­ters”); some are immo­bi­lized by an orbit­ing melan­cho­lia (“Room­mates”), oth­ers are made insane by fan­tasies of quick and easy wealth (“The Gold­en Fantasy”).

Nomberg’s fas­ci­nat­ing por­trait of Jew­ish life in the ear­ly twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry may be dark, but his imag­i­na­tion of shad­ow and despair, of anger and bewil­der­ment, of mad­ness and rev­o­lu­tion­ary fer­vor, flows from the land­scape of par­tial assim­i­la­tion that his char­ac­ters uneasi­ly inhab­it. The new­ly-arrived Jews of War­saw Sto­ries, fresh from the shtetls of East­ern Europe, are a rich­ly-drawn, rec­og­niz­able peo­ple in motion, caught in the web of moder­ni­ty. Hope­ful­ly, we will soon have more Nomberg avail­able in trans­la­tion, so we can learn more about the career and vision of this neglect­ed, but impor­tant Jew­ish writer, who emerged on the glob­al lit­er­ary scene a cen­tu­ry ago.

Don­ald Weber writes about Jew­ish Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture and pop­u­lar cul­ture. He lives in Amherst, MA.

Discussion Questions