Last year, Hersh David Nomberg’s collection Warsaw Stories and Zalman Shneur’s novella A Death: Notes of a Suicide were both published in English, translated from the Yiddish by David Kennedy. Nomberg and Shneur were renowned writers in Jewish literary circles in their own day; the latter was even awarded the Israel Prize.
Reviewing the two translations, Ri J. Turner notes that these works, both written in the first decade of the 20th century, have as their protagonists exemplars of the archetypal figure from Yiddish literature known as the talush (from the Hebrew, “plucked” or “disconnected”)—“the displaced, alienated, emasculated intellectual who has attained a certain modern urban ‘freedom’ at the expense of belonging, connection, meaning, and ultimately sanity.” One such character is Bender, the hero of two of Nomberg’s stories:
In each of the stories, Bender is so paralyzed by his own ideas about romantic love that the flesh-and-blood existence of his supposed beloved pales into unreality. Any sort of decisive action, not to mention interaction, becomes impossible thanks to the combination of impatient desire and crippling self-doubt that governs him. In a move characteristic of most of Nomberg’s heroes (or, better, anti-heroes), Bender hovers on the verge of mailing a letter to his beloved—or, more accurately, two contradictory versions of a letter, unable as he is to commit to one single approach—but ultimately “held himself back, . . . let go of the post-box flap, tore the letters to shreds, and let the wind blow the pieces in every direction. ‘I don’t need it. I don’t need anything. I don’t need anybody,’ he mumbled to himself.’”
[But] what hope [do] these two works of prewar Yiddish literature have of fitting into the world of contemporary English letters, with its overwhelmingly different narrative demands and conventions? One answer, I think, . . . is that despite our vast temporal and spatial distance from Nomberg’s and Shneur’s world, the central issue at the heart of both books is more current today than ever before: the mechanisms by which ascetic, self-destructive narratives of victimhood can quickly spiral out of control within individual and communal echo chambers.
This occurs especially in the absence of restraining and stabilizing influences, particularly social structures built of nuanced, intimate, long-term connections that can repeatedly and sustainably pull overthinkers back from the ledge.