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The Jewish Critic and the Devil's Point of View


No Jew objects to invasive curiosity, the author tells us, because enforced intimacy is such a natural part of Jewish life that he assumes you have the right to know everything about a fellow Jew, mooch tobacco from him, eavesdrop on his private conversation and if the subject is business throw in an unsolicited word of advice. And this Jewish custom is by no means restricted to our life on earth: “What’s your name?” is the first question you’ll be asked at the gates of heaven and it was what the Angel asked Jacob before they started to wrestle. If that’s the first question posed in the beyond, it would have to apply as well to mortals, so I know that since this is my first foray into Yiddish literature I will be asked, “What’s your name, Uncle?” 

“My name is Mendele!” 

What I’ve quoted above is the opening of The Little Man (all translations are my own), a novel published in 1864 that marked the literary debut of its author and what many scholars, including my teacher the late Max Weinreich, designate as the beginning of modern Yiddish literature. To be more precise, I have quoted and then paraphrased from the revised version of the novel the author issued a few years later. But the gist of it remained the same: Mendele Mokher Seforim (Mendele the Book Peddler) introduces himself as a member of the tribe and assumes on that basis that he can carry on about his fellow members. We have never met this Mendele before, but as we are intimately familiar with the culture, he expects us to trust him, appreciate his wit, catch his references, and share his attitudes. In a few deft lines, the author sets up a figure so democratic you don’t have to look up to him, so familiar you don’t have to fear him, and so appealing you won’t realize you’re being flogged.  

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About the Author

Ruth R. Wisse recently retired from the Martin Peretz Professorship of Yiddish Literature at Harvard University. She is currently a distinguished senior fellow at the Tikvah Fund. This essay is an adaptation of a talk at the Jewish Review of Books 3rd Annual Conference and grew out of the Daniel E. Koshland Memorial Lecture at Congregation Emanu-El of San Francisco in 1992.

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