Diario Judío México - Der Nister (“The Recluse,” the literary pseudonym adopted by Pinkhes Kahanovich, 1884-1950) was the most enigmatic figure in modern Yiddish literature. Over the course of a dynamic career, full of unexpected twists and turns, he went from writing mystical, Symbolist stories to historical realism, and transformed himself from an obscure, mysterious artist into a communal activist. Living under the pressure of Stalin’s regime, he came to believe that the writer’s mission was to become witness to the people. Der Nister’s Symbolist legacy has long been valued by scholars of Yiddish literature, but it is only recently that the richness and complexity of his Soviet writings have become more widely discovered and appreciated.
Join Professor Mikhail Krutikov of the University of Michigan for an in-depth look at this mysterious Yiddish author’s work and his turbulent career in the Soviet Union.
This program includes:
- Four lectures by Professor Krutikov
- A film screening
- A tour of the Yiddish Book Center or optional talk by the Center’s bibliographer David Mazower
- Recommended readings
- Kosher, catered meals
- Plenty of lively discussion
1. Symbolist Tales: A Wanderer Lost in His Ways
During the 1920s, Der Nister lived in Russia, Germany, and Ukraine. It was in these different environments that he created a particular style of Symbolist tales which fused elements of Jewish folklore, Kabbalah, and European mystery fiction. His writings were celebrated for their exquisite style and allegorical richness. In this lecture, we will try to unravel the complex symbolic fabric of three of his tales, “The Fool and the Forest Demon,” “At the Border,” and “In the Wine Cellar.”
2. Surviving Stalin’s Purges: Flying Buildings, Specters from the Past, and Cruelty to Animals
In 1929, the Symbolist period came to an abrupt end. Der Nister’s style was deemed unfit for the rigorous ideological requirements of socialist realism, and he was forced to reinvent himself as a Soviet writer. In his last and most uncanny Symbolist tale, “Under a Fence: A Revue,” Der Nister depicts the tragedy of a scholar forced to become a circus acrobat, reflecting on his own situation in the Soviet era. We will examine this story, and discuss Der Nister’s strategies for creative survival as the author of travelogues and poetry for children.
3. The Family Mashber: Historical Epic or Contemporary Novel?
In 1939, Der Nister made a remarkable comeback as the author of The Family Mashber, the monumental novel depicting the life of a traditional merchant family in the town of Berdichev, Ukraine, in the 1860s. The novel combined detailed depictions of everyday Jewish life with Hasidic meditations on the human condition, and was praised by Yiddish critics on both sides of the ideological divide. Der Nister continued working on it during the war years, which he spent in Central Asia.
4. The Holocaust and After: The Dream of Birobidzhan
Der Nister first learned about the Holocaust from refugees from Poland whom he met in Central Asia. He began writing his “Stories from Occupied Poland” in 1942, using his imagination to compensate for what he didn’t know. Three of these stories were published as a book in Moscow in 1943, which makes them one of the earliest works of Holocaust literature. In 1947, Der Nister travelled to Birobidzhan in the Russian Far East, the territory that was designated as the Jewish Autonomous Region. He believed that Soviet Holocaust survivors would be able to rebuild their lives in that remote part of the country. But Stalin had different plans, and Der Nister was arrested, together with other members of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee and eventually died in a prison camp in 1950.
About the Speaker:
Mikhail Krutikov is Professor and Chair of the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures, and Preston R. Tisch Professor of Judaic Studies at the Frankel Center for Judaic Studies at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. He is the author of Yiddish Fiction and the Crisis of Modernity, 1905-1914 (Stanford University Press, 2001) and From Kabbalah to Class Struggle: Expressionism, Marxism and Yiddish Literature in the Life and Work of Meir Wiener (Stanford University Press, 2011). His new book, Der Nister’s Soviet Years: Yiddish Writer as Witness to the People, is forthcoming in 2019 at Indiana University Press.
He also co-edited nine collections on Yiddish literature and culture, most recently Three Cities of Yiddish: St. Petersburg, Warsaw and Moscow, co-edited with Gennady Estraikh. (Oxford: Legenda, 2016). He has been a cultural columnist for the Yiddish Forward since 1999; a collection of his Yiddish essays came out in Israel in 2018 under the title “Tsvishn shures: notitsn vegn yidisher kultur (Between Lines: Notes on Jewish Culture)” as part of the Contemporary Yiddish Literature series.