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IN THE FORWARD to this monumental book, first published in Germany in 1927, the Austrian writer Joseph Roth remarks, "The author has the fond hope that there may still be readers from whom the Eastern Jews do not require protection....Readers with respect for pain, for human greatness and for the squalor that everywhere accompanies misery."
Roth wrote these words at a time when the Eastern Jews were largely perceived as a threat and nuisance, as aimless wanderers without a proper home. A prolific writer with more than a dozen novels to his credit, among them his magisterial Radetzky March (1932), Roth spent much of the 1920s working as a journalist. During this time, he traveled around various parts of Europe, from France to the Soviet Union, taking note of the different cultural milieus he temporarily inhabited and jotting down his observations, some of which found their way into his reportage, others into his fiction.
Among the fruits of his labors is this collection of anecdotal vignettes, by turns sympathetic and critical, on the different communities of Eastern Jews dispersed across interwar Europe. The first nonfiction work of Roth's to appear in English, it has been translated by Michael Hofmann (whose rendering of Roth's Tale of the 1002nd Night was awarded the Pen Translation Prize) and gives a passionate account of the world of Eastern Jewry on the brink of destruction.
Roth himself was born in 1894 in the Galician town of Brody, in today's Ukraine, a major Eastern Jewish enclave that he eventually left behind for Vienna and later Berlin. Owing perhaps to his extensive first-hand experiences, Roth describes the Jews of the East aspeople who know their world well, yet who also wish to mount an urgent corrective to the widespread prejudices of the 1920s. Along the way, he addresses—in addition to his more personal musings—such paramount concerns as Zionism, anti-Semitism and the possibilities for Jewish life in post-Revolution Russia.
Roth divides his book into a series of discrete, though not unrelated, chapters. He discusses the predicament of Eastern Jews in the West, the "authentic" and "uncontaminated" Jews—surely terms chosen to offset those used by racial ideologues—who are made to feel unwelcome by their assimilated Western brethren (Jews who, according to Roth, "gave themselves up" and who "became ordinary middle-class people"). He continues his sharp critique of Western Jews, and of the bourgeoisie in general, with individual accounts of the Eastern Jewish districts in Vienna, Berlin and Paris, the "Ghettoes in the West." There he describes the travails of everyday life, the struggles to secure proper papers and make a living in a "host" country, or what Roth summarily calls "the occupational hazards of being a Jew."
In one chapter, Roth provides a vivid depiction of a Jewish village (the "shtetl"), a world that Roth's biographer David Bronsen has likened to Roth's own birthplace. Standing alongside one another are Jewish klezmer musicians and singers, storytellers and rabbis. It is the familiar landscape of Yiddish novelist Sholem Aleichem. And it is the stories and the act of storytelling—"A narrative gift is something frequently found in the East"—that capture Roth's attention.
Roth incorporates the tales, some of them more like parables, that he gleans from his encounters. In "A Jew Goes to America," he tells the sobering story of one of many Eastern Jews who follows his transatlantic quest for freedom. After finally making it to the shores of the United States, the Jew finds himself locked up in a quarantine station. "Through the bars of his prison," writes Roth in a moment of deep skepticism vis-à-vis the American dream, "he sees the Statue of Liberty, and he doesn't know whether it's himself or Liberty that has been incarcerated."
Admittedly, The Wandering Jews doesn't have the same historical sweep, nor the sustained lyricism, of Radetzky March. Its merit lies in Roth's loving portrayal of a certain microcosm: Colorful images resonate, whether in his observations of Hasidic dancers in the shtetl ("There was fervor and ardor together, dancing as a form of worship, an orgy of prayer") or in his reflections on the Yiddish Theater in Paris ("The relationship between the stage and audience was close, almost intimate").
Roth combines acute personal insight, an inevitable touch of nostalgia and sentiment and a certain prescient awareness that the world he is observing has almost run its course. (Roth would drink himself to death in Parisian exile in 1939, before Hitler's Final Solution had been formally implemented.) It is these qualities that make the English publication of Roth's book, nearly three quarters of a century after its original release, such an important occassion.
|List of Illustrations||ix|
|1||Eastern European Jews in the West||5|
|2||The Jewish Shtetl||25|
|3||Ghettoes in the West||55|
|4||A Jew Emigrates to America||93|
|5||The Condition of the Jews in Soviet Russia||105|
|Preface to the New Edition (1937)||121|
|About the Author||141|
|About the Translator||145|