Early this week, Samuel Niger, well-known Yiddish critic, celebrated his fiftieth birthday, an occasion on which even men and women who are not well known take spiritual and physical stock of themselves and their surroundings. On that day, therefore, this interviewer approached Mr. Niger to discover to what opinions and conclusions he had arrived on the mid-day of his journey. Within that period he has achieved reputation as a writer in three languages, Hebrew and Russian, as well as Yiddish, as a newspaper editor and as a cultural worker. Only a small part of his work has been published in book form. He is now on the staff of The Day and has also edited the New York Kinder Journal since 1921.
The reporter found the critic, a reserved man with slightly graying temples, friendly and receptive to the interviewer’s questions.
At fifty, Mr. Niger said, the most interesting part of life begins. The time for contemplation and meditation arrives, a period which gives much greater satisfaction than do the years of youthful dashing about. One adopts a milder attitude towards life, for one has become richer in experiences and more skillful in evaluating them. On the other hand, one becomes more exacting of things outside oneself. Thus, Mr. Niger now demands more of literature, in particular of Yiddish literature.
MORE IS EXPECTED NOW
But it is not only the Yiddish critic, Mr. Niger continued, that has come to expect more of the Yiddish writer. The Jewish reader, too, has more extensive interests and is more realistic than the naive and primitive reader of bygone days.
The question of the Jewish reader led to the remark that an accepted writer who comes to America loses a certain inner tie with his readers. As he said this there seemed to be implied a tremor of longing for that which had been lost when this tie was broken for him. But he finds consolation in the fact that in no other country does the Yiddish newspaper writer find as great an audience as he does in the United States. To some extent this is due to the unusually great role which the American newspaper generally plays in American life. But it is particularly true of the Yiddish press, which to a great extent replaces the authorities and the leadership which Jews had in Europe.
To the list of Yiddish literary achievement in this country must be added, Mr. Niger continued, not only the development of Yiddish journalism, but also the growth of Yiddish drama and Yiddish poetryâ€”particularly of Yiddish poetry. For while Europe was the home of the classics of Yiddish prose, the classics of Yiddish poetry, which has risen to really great heights and has gone through various orders, were written in this country. Even the proletarian, the very latest literary phase, had its beginnings in America.
AMERICA AFFECTS THE YOUNGER
Asked whether American literature in English laid its imprint upon American Yiddish writers to the extent that the Russian and German literatures affected writers in Europe, Mr. Niger replied that beginnings in this direction were to be seen only in the work of the youngest literary generations, and particularly in the work of the poets. The older generation of writers, with the single exception of Yehoash, all produced works here that were still under the influence of their old homes.
“You speak of the high calibre of American Yiddish poetry. How is it that you have written so little about the youngest of the Yiddish poets in America?” the interviewer asked.
Mr. Niger’s answer was to the effect that his critical method does not consist of saying “yes” or “no” about a writer, but rather of characterizing him in his surroundings. The older Yiddish writers were rooted in their people, and were therefore better subjects for analysis than the younger generation of individuals who consciously or otherwise represent only themselves. Then too, the milieu of the older writers was probably more intelligible to him, since he grew up in it and understood and knew them better.
“What is the most striking characteristic of Yiddish literature?” the reporter asked.
PLANS LITERARY HISTORY
Yiddish literature, Mr. Niger replied, is a literature of imagination and perceptions. The aesthetic is its most important element, in contrast to the utilitarian, which was all-important in the older literature. In general, Yiddish literature grew up within the nation and was most nearly related to the old Hebrew literature. This relationship should be accented in the history of Yiddish literature, Mr. Niger emphasized. At the same time he remarked that he intended doing just that in a long history of Yiddish literature for which he is now collecting material.
“Is there at present any one literary center of Yiddish literature, as Warsaw and, later, New York, were?”
“No,” the distinguished critic answered. There is no leading center today. Yiddish literature has spread to four centersâ€”Soviet Russia, Eastern Europe, America and South America. Each is a distinct entity, yet each influences the other.
“With such progress of Yiddish literature, how is it that so many Jewish and non-Jewish goyim do not realize its significance and dignity?”
That is largely because they have no knowledge of the historic roots and the cultural tradition of Yiddish, Niger said. The inferiority complex of the people with respect to its own language, as is the case with other small nations, was probably also a contributing factor. This attitude must be combatted. A great help in the fight are the Yiddish schools for children, courses for adults, and the information which the Yiddish Scientific Institute is disseminating. The introduction of Yiddish into the public schools would also aid a great deal in arousing a better attitude. The very propaganda in this direction helps raise the importance of the tongue in the eyes of the uninformed.
ZIONIST ATTITUDE UNCHANGED
“From your journalistic work one gets the impression,” remarked the reporter, “that your attitude toward Zionism has changed. Is that so?”
“No,” the writer answered. “I have always been and am still for constructive work in Palestine so long as it does not purport to be a panacea for all Jewish problems. I am in favor of Zionism as part of the general program of Jewish life, but not as a program which precludes work among Jews in other countries.”
This brought us to a discussion of the status of the Jewish intellectual, his place in the work of society and his fate in general as compared with that of the Jewish intellectual of the days when Mr. Niger was engaged in revolutionary activities. The critic expressed the opinion that the fate of the Jewish intellectual today is worse than ever before, as is that of the intellectual generally.
When the various movements were just beginning, the intellectual was a governing and leading element. But today, when these movements are in process of realization, all Hamletism and meditation are superfluous, and the intellectual has been shunted to one side. The spiritual humor of the Jewish intellectual is not any worse, however, than formerly.
Thus the interview with the new arrival to the land of the fifties closed. We parted. On the way home the reporter realized that he had forgotten to ask perhaps the most important question of allâ€” “Why did you become a critic?”