New York City’s greatest Yiddish writer was born Yitzchak Rayz in 1885 in the village of Narayev, in eastern Galicia, then Austro-Hungary. When he arrived in America in 1898, he became Isaac Reiss, and published poetry, prose, and drama under the pseudonyms Yud-ka Reyzh-zet, De Lancey, Dilensee Mirkarosh, Mir Karosh, J. Strier, Pilatus, Anna Donna, Dr. Hotzikl, R. Naldo, Der Rosenkavalier, Rinnalde Rinaldine, S. Firebird, M. DeNardi, and, finally, Moishe Nadir—the name by which he remains unknown.
Nadir’s Narayev—today a Ukrainian town—is a Russian compound of two constituents: na, meaning “to,” and ray meaning “paradise”—“To Paradise!” The name Nadir is also a compound, possessed of two meanings that seem to oppose: The Yiddish phrase na dir can mean either a polite, bourgeois “To you!” or else a gutter-sniping “Take this and choke on it!” In his writing, Nadir resides at the Lower East Side intersection of these translations—at the corner, say, of Grand Street and Grandiloquence.
I’ve plagiarized the above paragraphs from an essay I wrote in praise of Nadir’s previous book to have been translated into English—From Man to Man, which was published, as was the essay, in 2007. Mine was the only review of that book to appear. I take the obnoxious liberty of quoting myself because that is what Nadir would have done: An original in unoriginal circumstances, Nadir, too, had to write for money, and so borrowed generously from others and from himself. When it was time to emote, he emoted; he praised Stalin when it was appropriate to praise Stalin, and then condemned him, too, when it became convenient after Molotov and von Ribbentrop agreed to nonaggression in Moscow; he would sit down at his desk to write about sitting down at his desk to write; he fabricated excruciating love poetry to any woman who incited his lust: “How fine and how beautiful are all these things when put into a seven-dollar poem.”
Now the translator of From Man to Man, Harvey Fink, has given us a volume of Nadir’s selected stories. That Is How It Is offers more than fifty examples of the short fragments that Nadir wrote throughout his short life (he died of a heart attack, in 1943, in Woodstock, New York). These are stories concerned, almost entirely, with America—“a land where people do not go for strolls, where no one drinks wine.” All of these stories were written for deadline, for publication in the New York Yiddish press, in daily newspapers such as the Teglikhn Herold (The Daily Herald), Tog (Day), and Frayhayt (Freedom, the official communist newspaper), and in popular humor magazines like the biweekly Der Yiddisher Gazlen (The Jewish Bandit, which Nadir edited), Der Groyser Kundes (The Big Prankster), and Der Kibitzer (The Joker).
Nadir’s New York was the madcap capital of an unintelligible Amerike: “the land of prairies, watermelon,Yaka Hula dances, Theodore Roosevelt, the Singer building, habeas corpus, Coney Island, infantile paralysis, and breach of promise.” This new country came to represent a nadir for Nadir—a Fall not into gehenna, but into the mundane—and the darkest of his humor tells us that though life was better and easier here, it was somehow not as real, not as authentic, as it had been under the kaiser, or the tsar. Nadir’s best stories acknowledge that a freer life might be practically preferable, but theologically barren; that there can be no ecstasy in a nation where ecstasies can be mass-produced; and that only kitsch can comfort when the communal is usurped by capitalism, and by democratic enfranchisement:
Lost. Man here is lost. He has no value—like a wisp of smoke, like a piece of straw.
Yesterday a car ran someone over. I was in it. A crunch and a scream. No, not a scream, but a croak, like that of a frog. A tall man, crushed on the ground, his blood oozing out. One can’t touch him till the ambulance comes: the law doesn’t permit it. It’s important to know precisely in which position he was lying when the mishap occurred—necessary in order to be able to translate the tragedy into money. Money.
Then a woman bawling, shrieking, screaming, “Where’s his hand!” She is given the severed hand, pulls the diamond off, and then calms down a bit.
Elsewhere in this tale, “Meanwhile, I’m in the Land of America,” Nadir romances the Pale of Settlement:
Far from Broadway and Art will I kiss the earth—perhaps … (or not?) There I will sit upon the luminous mountain of the years of my youth and listen to the robin sing and to the sheep — praying to God …
And the shtetl, my home, will lay there before me: my luminous, small, still, rested world, which Time has only slightly erased and shrouded in mist and distanced, and yet—made closer and dearer.
Nadir made it seem as if the true work of writing Yiddish in America had been the living of Yiddish in Europe, and that the writing itself was mere transcription of the legacy of that past life—an offhand sort of paperwork. Fittingly, perhaps, many of his stories are no more than jokes or flitting character sketches; and many of his sketches are only catalogues of impractical advice: “Should a man live sitting down? Or should he live standing up?” (from “How Should A Man Live?”); “Give your children a good uneducation. Give your children an unschooling.” (“Uneducation”); “Live slowly, my friends!” (“Stop”). Concerned with the minor, with the corners of gardens and women’s mouths, with memories of Narayev’s lowly synagogue yards, Nadir felt no need to polish his folkways into what we call “fiction”; while the poetry that succeeded the sense of his sentences gives us, as if in explanation, the impetuous dashes and exclamatories of a heart that beat too intensely to bother with form. Here is Nadir’s own summation of his work, which embodies the practice it describes—beginning with a casual anecdote about an acquaintance, then turning to a fictionalization of the author, and ending, finally, with an encounter with the essence of writing:
B. Borchov was the first to pin me with the label: “a refined man.”
From then on I have been “a refined wordsmith!”
Although I no longer recall the year in which I used the word “fine” in my wordsmithing. Just as a hounded animal does not leap over a fence for the sake of leaping but in order to be on the other side, so too I employ words only in order to get over them all the quicker, in order to be on the other side of words.
Joshua Cohen, a contributing editor to Tablet, writes a monthly column devoted to literature in translation. He is the author of five books with a sixth, Graven Imaginings, a novel about the last Jew, to be published in spring 2010.