How Yiddish Children’s Literature Flourished in the Early Days of the Soviet Union—Only to Have Its Creative Spirit Crushed

After the overthrow of the tsars in 1917, Eastern Europe witnessed a brief efflorescence of children’s literature in Yiddish, some of it composed by first-rate poets and illustrated by first-rate artists. Even after the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia, they didn’t interfere with and sometimes even encouraged this new genre. But, by the 1930s, all that changed. Rokhl Kafrissen writes:

The high point of this revolution within a revolution was the appearance of a Yiddish-Aramaic setting of the Passover song Ḥad Gadya (“Only a Kid”) with illustrations by the great [artist] El Lissitzky. In this [version], Lissitzky marries cubo-futuristic graphics with traditional Jewish imagery, creating an “artist’s revolutionary manifesto that epitomized his vision of how the Jewish past and future could be linked,” as [the scholar and bibliographer] Lyudmila Sholokhova said. . . . The final image of God slaying the Angel of Death leaves nothing to the imagination: out of the eye of God emerges a hand wielding a sword; the eye is outlined in red, while the angel wears an imperial crown.

Lissitzky’s Ḥad Gadya was published in 1919 in Kiev. . . . As Sholokhova points out, children’s literature during this early period was not yet overdetermined by political dictates, as it would come to be in the 1930s. Traditional Jewish imagery was deployed in a positive light. Progress—scientific, technological, and political—was glorified, but not yet tied to the visual vocabulary of later Soviet propaganda (hammers and sickles, pioneers, Lenin, and so on).

Kafrissen contrasts this style to that in some of the work produced by Shloyme Davidman for American Yiddish Communist schools in the 1930s:

Davidman’s most popular book was a 1937 collection of stories . . . called Bongelo no. 25 (“Bungalow Number 25”). Young notes that—exemplifying the more didactic, ideological tone of Yiddish literature in the 1930s—one of the typical Bongelo stories is about a boy named Mori, who mocks his fellow students at the Talmud Torah he attends. Then the narrator of the story interjects, just in case we didn’t get the message: “There are Jews who believe that in the sky there sits a God who controls the world. But we already know there is no God in heaven. We must overthrow the bad people, the capitalists, who now rule us, as they did in the Soviet Union.” . . .

Davidman’s decades of [earlier] work as a pedagogue and cultural activist, [however, are], happily, far more interesting than the unbearable cringe of Bongelo no. 25.

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Read more at Tablet

More about: Children's books, Jewish art, Soviet Jewry, Soviet Union, Yiddish literature

The Arab Press Blames Iran Rather Than Israel for Gaza’s Woes

Following the fighting between Israel and Islamic Jihad over the weekend, many journalists and commentators in Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia didn’t rush to condemn the Jewish state. Instead, as the translators at the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) note, they criticized the terrorist group for “operating in service of Iranian interests and thus inflicting suffering on the Gaza Strip’s residents.” One Saudi intellectual, Turki al-Hamad, wrote the following on Twitter:

It is apparent that, if at one time any confrontation between Israel and the Palestinian organizations would attract world and Arab attention and provoke a wave of anger [against Israel], today it does not shock most Arabs and most of the world’s [countries]. Furthermore, even a sense of human solidarity [with the Palestinians] has become rare and embarrassing, raising the question, “Why [is this happening] and who is to blame?”

I believe that the main reason is the lack of confidence in all the Palestinian leaders. . . . From the Arabs’ and the world’s perspective, it is already clear that these leaders are manipulating the [Palestinian] cause out of self-interest and diplomatic, economic, or even personal motives, and that the Palestinian issue is completely unconnected to this. The Palestinian cause has become a bargaining chip in the hands of these and other organizations and states headed by the [Iranian] ayatollah regime.

A, article in a major Arabic-language newspaper took a similar approach:

In a lengthy front-page report on August 7, the London-based UAE daily Al-Arab criticized Islamic Jihad, writing that “Gaza again became an arena for the settling of accounts between Iran and Israel, while the Palestinian citizens are the ones paying the price.” It added that Iran does not want to confront Israel directly for its bombings in Syria and its attacks on Iranian scientists and nuclear facilities.

“The war in Gaza is not the first, nor will it be the last. But it proves . . . that Iran is exploiting Gaza as it exploits Lebanon, in order to strengthen its hand in negotiations with the West. We all know that Iran hasn’t fired a single bullet at Israel, and it also will not do this to defend Gaza or Lebanon.”

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Read more at MEMRI

More about: Gaza Strip, Iran, Islamic Jihad, Israel-Arab relations, Persian Gulf