A renowned scholar looks back on his life and the life of his mother, tracing the Yiddish experience through major historical events of the last century.
- Wayne State University Press
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An entertaining and immensely readable presentation of the stories David Roskies heard as he grew up in a home devoted to honoring the treasures of Yiddish language and literature. You feel as if you're right at the dinner table, listening in on the indignant, funny, scandalous, lyrical stories he grew up on. Along the way, you find you're learning a great deal about the Jewish Old World and the cataclysms and displacements of the 20th century. Highly recommended. -- Ellen Cassedy
David Roskies guides us on an astounding journey beginning in 1906, the year of his mother's birth, and ending in the 1980s. We begin and end with his mother singing songs, but in between we visit Vilna and Czernowitz before the war, move onward to Montreal, New York, Jerusalem, and Sommerville, MA, after the war, and finally return to eastern Europe and visit Auschwitz in the wake of the fall of Communism. We confront the panoply of ideologies that Jews embraced, rejected, and hotly debated -- from Zionism to Bundism to Yiddishism to neo-Hasidism -- through vivid portraits of individuals who actually lived and died by them. And we hear stories that hint at the real lives of innumerable Jews caught in the crossfire of history, impelled by eros as much as by politics, neurosis as much as ideology, fantasy as much as piety.
Through the lens of his own family history, then, Roskies takes us through nothing less than an entire century of Jewish life. As this complicated itinerary suggests, the narrative evokes the departure and return narrative that Roskies has written about so convincingly in his scholarly work. And yet what makes this work so compelling is the way it challenges any familiar narrative of Jewish life. Thus the "old world" is hardly a place of blurry nostalgia; the older generations are hardly a pious bunch, at least not in any simple way; and the very notion of what it might mean to be a true or authentic Jew or where or when or how such a person might live is genuinely thrown into question. Early in the book, we hear the lesson learned by the young Roskies that all time was "riven in two: Time Before / Time After." And yet as we move so fluidly across so many borders, both geographical and temporal, it becomes clear that no binary structure can be applied to a history as complex as this. These lessons are important and illuminating from the standpoint of historiography, but what is most important is that we come to understand Jewish history by encountering a rich gallery of characters and by hearing innumerable stories and anecdotes that are tremendously engaging in their own right.
Some of the particular highlights include the portrait of Avraham Sutzkever in
Israel, the scene with the lively debate between the Zionist Leybl Rochman and the
neo-Hasidic guru Art Green, the scenes in the Sommerville Havurah (cum ashram), and the invented and fanciful scenes, such as the discussion of Roskies's book itself by a coterie of distinguished Yiddish writers and the dramatic exchange between Roskies and his mother, cast as a dialogue between the biblical Rachel and Joseph. These fanciful moments in the text show that Roskies is pushing up against the conventions of the memoir itself, reminding us on the one hand that all stories are to some extent made up and demonstrating on the other how the frame of fiction can heighten our perspective on the real. All in all, this is an outstanding work that opens new horizons for the tradition of Jewish autobiography.