How can a writer’s importance be measured? In literary studies answering this question often comes down to critical consensus, with critics, scholars, and translators shifting collective interest in one direction or another. Otherwise, we try to measure popularity—by number of books printed and sold and then by examining the discourse around a work or a writer.
But, how might importance be measured for writers for whom there is no critical consensus or almost no criticism at all, and no way of measuring book sales? In the case of Yiddish, one place to turn is the newspaper, arguably the center of Yiddish life in the early twentieth century. A newspaper like the Forverts, which had a circulation in the hundreds of thousands in the 1920s,was very much invested in establishing consensus, with editor Abe Cahan attempting to dictate popular taste and political identity, especially around literature. Cahan’s choice of whom to publish, especially in the newspaper’s more prestigious weekend editions, could determine which writers were to be considered the most consequential voices in Yiddish literature. The frequency with which a writer might appear in the Forverts, regardless of book sales or number of reviews, might indicate their growing prominence for Cahan and his readers.
Take, for instance, Sholem Asch, arguably the most famous Yiddish writer of the first half of the twentieth century, a writer translated the world over, a bestseller in English, and a one-time candidate for the Nobel Prize. A search in the Shund.org database tells us that as a young writer at the turn of the century still living in Eastern Europe, among the literati in Warsaw, Asch was able to place several short stories in the Forverts, though not with any regularity. When he began to gain fame as a playwright, many of his plays, especially one-acts, also found their way into the newspaper. In 1907, the entirety of his controversial play, Got fun nekome (God of Vengeance)—still performed today for its exploration of gender, sexuality, and tradition—was serialized over two weeks in the newspaper. Soon after, Asch was hired to publish more regularly in the Forverts, and subsequently all of his celebrated novels would appear in the newspaper first before coming out in book form. (For the controversy that led to Asch’s banishment from the Forverts see an exchange of articles in Sholem Asch Reconsidered.)
On the last day of the serialization of Got fun nekome in 1907, a story with the title “Di fidl” (The Fiddle) appeared on the opposite page by the young writer Yenta Serdatsky. She too had been among the young writers in Warsaw that drew inspiration from the great Y.L. Peretz and now she had made the journey to the United States and wanted to continue her writing career. And the Forverts was a prominent place to do just that. This first short story is very much indebted to her mentor Peretz—it is a bedtime story told by a mother to her child involving dramatic scenes in the heavenly spheres, emulating the mythic register of Peretz’s symbolist storytelling. Over the next few years, Serdatsky would place several more stories in the newspaper, slowly moving from symbolism into realism. Though she didn’t publish with much regularity, she eventually had enough material from the Forverts and other publications for a book that came out in 1913. In 1914 however, her work abruptly stopped appearing in the newspaper.
And then, just as suddenly, she came back. Beginning in 1918, Serdatsky became the central and most consistent literary voice of the newspaper. As Asch serialized his historical novels Oyf kidesh hashem (Martyrdom, about Eastern European Jewish life in the seventeenth century) and Di kishef-makhern fun kastilyen (The Witch of Castile,about Jewish life in Renaissance Rome), Serdatsky matched him week for week, and again on the opposite page, with stories of the New York present. From October 1918 until January 1922 when she suddenly stopped publishing in the Forverts—or anywhere else—Serdatsky published 127 short stories. 127!!!!
Not one of these new stories was ever reprinted in a book, while Asch’s serialized novels were of course not only reprinted but also soon after translated into other languages, where they occasionally became best sellers. Only a handful of Serdatsky’s stories written during this productive period are known at all, despite the recent resurgence of interest in her writing. Over the past decade or so, several translations of her work have appeared, the result of a concentrated effort by translators and scholars to recover writers, in particular women, whose work had been previously neglected or even actively suppressed. A chunk of the stories that have been translated come from the 1913 collection, which makes sense given that the volume has long been easily accessible as a digitized book through the Yiddish Book Center. (See this translation by Dalia Wolfson and another by Cady Vishniac.) The stories from 1918–1922, by contrast, have not been catalogued and had only been available by scrolling laboriously through the digitized microfilm of the Forverts at the Historical Jewish Press. Translations by Jessica Kirzane and others have made some of this later corpus more accessible, but it has not led to a broader and more complete consideration of Serdatsky, her work, and its popularity.
Not yet at least. The shund.org database makes this task much easier. Finding all of Serdatsky’s work from these productive four years is as easy as a simple search. In this way, we can recover not only work that had been previously unattended to by scholarship; it also helps to show how prominent a writer Serdatsky actually was, if only for a short period of time. A closer analysis of the stories themselves will reveal exactly what motivated that prominence, but in the meanwhile we can make this generalization: While Asch sought out the symbolic and historical, burying himself in historical analogy, Serdatsky wrote about the here and now, about the lives of her readers on New York streets and in the cauldron of US culture. The immediacy of Serdatsky’s writing is worth accounting for.
To be sure, Serdatsky’s high place in the Yiddish world was short-lived. At some point in January 1922 she quarreled with Abraham Cahan over her pay. The dictatorial editor cut her off, and Serdatsky didn’t publish again until 1949. The brevity of Serdatsky’s prominence in Yiddish literature however does not mean that we should continue to privilege writers like Asch over Serdatsky. Even if temporary, popularity and prominence have meaning and shape the literary field. And these 127 short stories are worth returning to in order to find out exactly how.