Your London appears very familiar to me, for your streets and the people recall to me scenes and characters out of your great literature, Mr. Shalom Ash, the famous Yiddish author, who is the representative of Yiddish literature among the honorary members of the International Pen Club, said, speacing last night at a dinner given by the Pen Club, at which he and Madame Sokolnikoff, the wife of the Soviet Ambassador in London, who is a well-known Russian authoress, and is also Jewish, were the guests of honour.
Mr. Louis Golding, the author of “Magnolia Street”, was in the chair.
That is the magic of literature, Mr. As# went on. It comes to a boy in a strange, foreign land, and brings to him London and all Britain into his own home. One people learns to understand the other, across the barriers of race and nationality, through the medium of the international language of character and fate, which is common to all on this earth. The impression of a people which we obtain through its literature is unforgettable. Literature makes the moral and ethical possessions of a people the possession of all humanity. What a responsibility, therefore, rests upon us writers!
Shakespeare is the expression of the English genius, he continued, but, of course, you know that Shakespeare has long since been taken from you, not only by the powerful nations, but even by so weak a people as we Jews are. We have a Jewish Shakespeare of our own, adapted to the Jewish folk spirit and to Jewish tastes, and all the king’s horses, and all the king’s men will never take him away from us again, because he has become part of our spiritual values.
It seems a pity to me, he pursued, that you keep such a tight hold of the few specimens of Shakespeare’s handwriting that you have in your Museums, thus preventing him from be coming completely what he is in fact, no longer a man, but a legend. The Bible relates of Moses that no man knows where his grave is. And history has seen to it that nothing should remain of Shakespeare’s life, so that we should not know that he has died.
We know you through your literature, Mr. Ash said. You do not know us. In paying me this honour, I believe you take me on credit, rather than on my deserts, since you do not know my work. The knowledge of Jewish life derived from Jewish jokes in comic papers or in music halls, or from tendentious literature, aggressive or apologetic, is, unfortunately, all you seem to get. In America, in Poland, in Palestine, and in other countries, there are compact Jewish masses, living a distinctive Jewish life, built on Jewish tradition, and sanctified by Jewish ethics and morals going back for hundreds of generations, and this distinctive Jewish life has produced creative men like Peretz, Shalom Aleichem, Bialik, who expressed this life, with its sorrows and its joys, unfortunately, more sorrows than joys. And we have a right to hope that like those of every other people, these moral values of the poor Jewish masses will through these inspired masters of the Jewish spirit, become linked up with the whole of world literature and civilisation.
The Pen Club, like all good things, was “made in England”, Mr. Ash concluded, and one of its main objects is the brotherhood of the peoples through literature; it has achieved a great deal in this respect in discovering the smaller peoples and bringing them through their literature into the great world of civilisation. We are happy to think that this is happening also with our Jewish literature.
MR. GOLDING’S SPEECH
I cannot at this distance of time decide whether it was a caprice or whether it was a pogrom that induced my father-peace be upon him!-to leave his small town on the banks of the Dnieper a couple of years before I was born, so that I might a year or two later be born in Doomington, Mr. Louis Golding said. I might have been presiding for Madame Sokolnikoff at a meeting of the Kieff Pen Club and welcoming her in Russian. And if not for that caprice or pogrom, I might this very same evening have addressed you, Reb. Shalom Ash, in Yiddish. But the trouble about my Yiddish is that it sounds so exceedingly German nowadays, after spending a couple of years in Germany writing “Magnolia Street”, and the trouble about my German is that the Nazis think I am talking Yiddish, and hit me over the head with pewter beer tankards. So that, Madame Sokolnikoff and Reb Shalom Ash, I am afraid I shall have to be content with welcoming you in Oxford English, with a dash of Lancashire.
Turning to Madame Sokolnikoff, Mr. Golding said: You, Madame, are not only a distinguished woman of letters, you are the wife of the Soviet Ambassador at St. James’s, and a most talented politician in your own right, but it is as a woman of letters we greet you here to-night, we wielders of the pen, because at these meetings it is our pride and our privilege to forget the glorious differences which make of us, Gentiles and Jews, men of Lancashire and women of Surrey, die-in-the-ditch-Tories, or Red-as-blood-Sovietists.
As for you, Reb Shalom, he said, turning to Mr. Ash, you are in point of fact, I think, only 15 years my senior, yet I remember the long Friday evenings in Doomington with my father-peace be upon him!-with his silver voice, reading out your works, with the Friday evening candles flickering in their sockets, and the flames rising and falling upon the Samovar, which my mother had brought over with her from Russia. And a few years later, when a sort of civil war arose between my father and me, because I would spend all my days and nights reading Shelley and he would have me spend them reading Isaiah, I remember what a joyful compromise it was when we read your early masterpiece, “Dos Stedtel”, and realised that a voice had spoken in Jewry which had much of the old dignity and the old poetry.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.