Realism, Caricature, and Bias

BookRealism, Caricature, and Bias

Realism, Caricature, and Bias

The Fiction of Mendele Mocher Sefarim

The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization


March 1st, 1993

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Mendele Mocher Sefarim's seven novels constitute the most important and influential body of work in modern Jewish prose fiction written prior to the First World War. These novels-five of which he wrote twice, once in Yiddish and once in Hebrew-are devastating satiric portraits of Jewish life in nineteenth-century Russia. They are permeated by Mendele's passion for social change, and an often equally passionate contempt for his own people for failing to achieve it. David Aberbach, exploring these passions in terms of the psychology of prejudice and self-hate, provides the first full-length analysis of the tension between realism and caricature in Mendele's descriptions of his fellow-Jew. At the same time, his analysis conveys Mendele's fascinating social and psychological insights into the forces which led to the mass emigration of Jews from Russia before the First World War, to the rise of Zionism, and to Jewish involvement in the socialist and revolutionary movements in Russia at the turn of the century. The picture is broadened through references to contemporary Russian literature so as to portray these forces in the context of Russian society at the time. Aberbach's skilful presentation allows the reader to gain access to Mendele's works through many tantalizing excerpts, with some of the key passages provided in Hebrew and Yiddish as well as in Aberbach's lively translation. He also makes available the considerable body of Mendele scholarship that has been published in Hebrew in recent years. From this fascinating and lucid work, scholars and general readers alike will gain a new understanding not only of the social realities of Jewish life in tsarist Russia but also of how the self-image of an ethnic minority may be affected and even determined by the character and social problems of the majority culture.

'A useful introduction ... Aberbach is rightly critical of, as well as enthusiastic about, his author. Transliterations of Hebrew and translations of Yiddish help the non-specialist.' Forum for Modern Language Studies 'There is much in this book on Mendele's confused psychological state of mind, even seeking to interpret the dreams described in his stories as indicative of that state ... This book will do much to take readers beyond the stereotypical image of Mendele as the amusing satirist of shtetl mores and provoke interest in him as a key figure in modern Jewish literature.' Barry Davis, Jewish Book News & Reviews 'Considerable achievement in making Mendele's writing more accessible to English readers.' Risa Domb, Jewish Chronicle 'Aberbach has now performed the difficult and vastly important feat of rendering a mass of remote material accessible to the general public, offering an account of the sources and their versions, summarizing their contents, and also making it available to the English-speaking reader. There are also very valuable extracts presented in the original languages, together with an account of the editions.' Leon I. Yudkin, Journal of Semitic Studies

Author Information

David Aberbach is Associate Professor of Hebrew and Comparative Literature, McGill University, Montreal, and is the author of At the Handles of the Lock: Themes in the Fiction of S. J. Agnon (1984, now out of print), also published by the Littman Library.

Table of Contents

Table of Contents
Section TitlePagePrice
Half Title2
Title Page4
Note on Transliteration9
Map: The World of Mendele Mocher Sefarim11
1: The Five Twice-Told Novels 21
2: Mendele and Abramowitz: Anatomy of Self-Caricature 39
3: Antisemitism and Jewish Self-Hate in Mendele 59
4: Mendele's Realism and the Struggle for Change 76
5: Loss and Wandering in Mendele 98
Conclusion: An Interpretation of the Origins of Bias113