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Vilna My Vilna - Stories by Abraham Karpinowitz

Updated: Nov 15, 2021

Saturday, September 25, 2021--5:30-7:30 pm Pacific

We should read Abraham Karpinowitz's stories of Vilna for a much-needed complement--if not antidote-- to our most recent book, Chaim Grade'sThe Yeshiva. While Grade submerges us in the dour, ethically demanding culture of Musar, Karpinowitz's stories in Vilna My Vilna take us out into the Jewish streets of the city.


The collection introduces us to working class men and women, and their aspirations and schemes for a better world, schemes shaped both by poverty and the rich community life of Jews in the interwar period in Polish-occupied Vilna. Proletarian idealists appear and reappear in these pages--among them, a

youthful communist in the underground party willing to risk a jail sentence for stealing into a public square at night to hang a red flag, a Zionist dreamer who starts his own bank to issue 'Jewish money' in order to get people used to having their own state and their own currency, and a reporter for a Yiddish newspaper who writes prudish theatre reviews of bawdy acts while trying to organize a union for Jewish prostitutes.


Jewish porters waiting for work outside Vilna's central theatre. Source: eilatgordinlevitan.com

Writing respectively from Canada and the United States in the postwar period, Abraham Karpinowitz and Chaim Grade each carries the double burden of the post-Holocaust Yiddish writer--to reconstruct his memory of a Jewish world that was destroyed and also to continue writing in a language that few remaining people in their time, and in the likely future, would read. In these tasks, Grade is unable--perhaps unwilling--to free his conscience from the heavy weight of his Musar training. Karpinowitz writes with an easier consciences and a lighter touch.


Reviewing Sandra Studer's recent book in German comparing the two authors' portrayal of Vilna's cultural geography, the critic Mikhail Krutikov writes: "Grade created a series of deeply empathic portraits of poor and pious inhabitants of the Jewish old town, whereas Karpinovitsh examined the impact of modernity on everyday Jewish life." But there is more.


Vilna's Jewish co-ed rowers, members of the Maccabee sports team. Source: eilatgordonlevitan.com

Perhaps the most striking difference lies in the emotional tone of the authors' works. Karpinowitz bathes his stories with love for his city, its streets filled with shops and vendors, its lilac-covered hills in spring, the flowing Viliye River with its barges and bridges connecting the Old City with the working-class Jewish neighborhood of Shnipishok, picnics on the banks and in nearby forests, the loud voices of women selling fish in the market, and the denizens of the Shulhoyf, the center of Vilna's Jewish world, located between Yiddish Street and Daytsch Street.


Velfke Usian's tavern and restaurant, the well-known hangout of Jewish artists, actors, writers and intellectuals. The spot was located across from the Shulhoyf in the center of the Jewish Old City. Source: eilatgordinlevitan.com


Through Karpinowitz, we rub elbows with ordinary people in the more significant moments and situations of their ordinary lives--an aspiring barbershop owner whose equipment is stolen, a Yiddish folklore collector who courts a widow selling fish in her market stall, a kingpin criminal who saves the life of the Polish president Josef Pilsudski, a revered educator who falls in love with a famous actress, a prostitute who goes defiantly to her death with untold dignity--facing Nazis with machine guns in the Ponary forest during the three-year extermination of 70,000 Jews beginning in July 1941.


We believe in the reality of these characters, convinced that they are more than a writer's conceits disguised as real people. They are as real as the city's streets through which Karpinowitz traces their comings and goings. In part, they appear to be real because so many of Vilna's celebrated figures exist side by side and in conversation with them in these stories. Among the famous individuals are Avrom Morevski, the actor; Max Weinreich, the director of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research (Yidisher visnshaftlekher institut); Velfke Usian, tavern owner; Dina Halperin, the actress; Avrom Sutzkever, the poet; Yankev Gershteyn, the beloved music teacher and composer, and many others. Translator Helen Mintz helpfully provides an extensive glossary of "people, places, terms and events' that Karpinowitz mentions. I counted 151 entries.


Composer and educator Yankev Gershteyn and Polish-born actress Dina Halperin, whose brief romance causes her jealous acting partner to thwart the relationship . Sources: yleksikon.blogspot.com (Gershteyn) and flikr.com (Halperin).

You won't find the author Abraham Karpinowitz listed in the Dictionary of Literary Biography, Volume 333, Writers in Yiddish, however, where you might expect his name to belong. But Karpinowitz's considerable works include, translator Helen Mintz tells us in the Introduction, seven works of fiction, a biography and a play, including the stories in this book. This fact alone reminds us to put in check the initial temptation to read Vilna, My Vilna as memoir (just as we had to do when reading Esther Singer Kreitman's novel Dance of the Demons). Scholar Justin Cammy, in the book's Foreword, tips the cards in this direction: "His stories often relied on private memories or collective folklore of a specific prostitute, underworld figure, wagon driver, street activist or lunatic." In the Introduction, Helen Mintz also writes:


In his imaginative recreation of the vanished city of Vilna, Karpinowitz often blurs the line between fact and fiction. He intertwines the lived with the imagined and the realistic with the whimsical to create "literary authenticity, a storyteller's truth, which he maintains even in the sometimes implausible and fanciful situations he creates."

When Karpinowitz ends the story of Tall Tamara by citing an unnamed witness who managed to crawl by night from the death pit at Ponary and recount the prostitute's courageous last act, this note of corroboration is masterstroke--whether or not the incident was literally true. In The Lin­eage of the Vil­na Under­world, the author's imagination runs so freely and generously toward the absurd--as Karpinowitz traces the ancestry of the well-known gangster Mishka Napoleon back to the gangster's great-great-grandfather Leyba the Fence--that is is impossible to believe in even the one supposed grain of truth. The story hinges on Leybe's wife whose home remedies saved the Napoleon's life upon the supposedly philosemitic emperor's retreat from Moscow. (Napoleon is commonly credited with bestowing on Vilna the honorific title of "The Jerusalem of Lithuania.") Such playfulness and irony thread through the stories, notwithstanding the fact that Karpinowitz often ends by noting that this or the other ever-hopeful and aspiring character's life--including the theatre owner and impressario Moshe Karpinowitz, the author's own father--was to be soon cut off at Ponary.


Returning to visit the ruined city of Vilna and the decision to continue writing about it in Yiddish was its own special form of cultural resistance for both Chaim Grade and Abraham Karpinowitz. But for Karpinowitz this impulse was called into question by his emigration to the new state of Israel, where the official government policy devalued Yiddish and even put licensing out of reach for the daily Yiddish press. Karpinowitz found support, along with other young Yiddish writers, from Vilna's renowned poet and ghetto fighter, Avrom Sutzkever. In 1949, Sutzkever, who had also survived the war and emigrated to Israel, founded a Yiddish literary journal Di goldene keyt (“The Golden Chain”). He remained editor until 1995. Karpinowitz was a member of a small group of writers calling themselves Yung-Yisroyel (Young Israel) whose work Sutzkever published in Di goldene keyt, along with acknowledged masters including, not least, the poet Kadya Molodowsky,


The fate of Yiddish as a language of literary expression has become a leading topic of contemporary scholarship. Gennady Estraikh's book, Yiddish in the Cold War, published in 2008, for example, looks closely at Soviet Jewish life and scholarship in the 1950s. The book examines Soviet attitudes of disrespect and devaluation of the shtetl (Jewish small town) as a repository of Yiddish language and culture, although clearly for different ideological reasons than the suppression of Yiddish in Israel. Meanwhile, in the United States, we had the sentimentalization of the shtetl, beginning with the publication in 1952 of the ethnography-at-distance Life is With People: The Culture of the Shtetl by Mark Zborowski, Elizabeth Herzog, a project sponsored by anthropologists Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead. The musical Fiddler on the Roof, based on stories of Sholem Aleichem, continued this American trend valorizing traditional shtetl life and, in a way, taming distant historical traumas by coating them with affectionate regard. To trace that mid-20th century phenomenon, there is no better guide than Alisa Solomon's book, Wonder of Wonders: A Cultural History of Fiddler on the Roof.


Coming back to Karpinowitz's stories in Vilna, My Vilna, we are dealing decisively with an urban rather than shtetl environment. As anthropologist Barbara Kirschenblatt-Gimblett has argued, the identification of Jews with the shtetl in works such as Life is With People and Fiddler on the Roof skewed the picture held by American Jews of life in Europe. While traditional 'Orthodox' Jewish learning and worship persisted, increasing numbers of Jews were turning to secular learning, Reform worship, popular culture and hybrid cultural identities mixing Jewish customs with non-observant lifestyles. This modernizing urban proletarian world is the special domain of Abraham Karpinsky.


Locating Karpinowitz in relation to his 'classic' Yiddish literary forebears, his stories exist in conversation more with I. L. Peretz's stories set in the cosmopolitan Polish capital Warsaw, than with Sholem Aleichem's stories in the fictional but archetypical shtetl Kasrilevke in Ukraine. Karpinowitz's stories represent a kind of urban folktale genre. His use of the story form renders a far more complete and ethnographically contextualized portrait of Vilna's changing Jewish world than the isolated phrases collected for YIVO's archive by Rubinshteyn the Folklorist from Chana-Merke the Fishwife in the story The Folklorist. Yet these phrases are part of the living urban folklife of the interwar period that contemporary Yiddish scholars appreciate in Karpinsky's work. It is fitting, then, to conclude this essay with a few of Chana-Merke's salty curses:


"May you get a piece of straw in your eye and a splinter in your ear and not know which one to pull out first."


"How long do you think she’ll be sick? If she’s going to lie in bed with a fever for another month, let the month last five weeks."


"They should call a doctor for you in an emergency and when he arrives, they should tell him he’s no longer needed.“


Not that anything like this should happen to you, dear Yiddish Schmoozers in Translation reader.

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