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

December 18, 2019 | Rokhl Kafrissen
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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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