Der Nister

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DER NISTER

DER NISTER (Yid. "the concealed one"; pseudonym of Pinkhes Kahanovitsch ; 1884–1950), Yiddish writer. Born in Berdichev, Ukraine, he received a traditional Jewish education but also read secular works in Russian from an early age. His spiritual and literary growth was significantly influenced by his older brother, Aaron, a Bratzlaver Hasid whose personality and mysticism are echoed in the character of Luzi in Der Nister's realistic narrative, Di Mishpokhe Mashber ("The Family Mashber," vol. 1, Moscow, 1939; vol. 2, New York, 1948). In his youth Der Nister associated with Zionist socialist circles, some evidence of which, including his possible attendance at the Po'alei Zion conference (1905), as well as of his impression of Ber *Borochov at the conference, can be found in the novel Fun Finften Yor ("About the Fifth Year"), which remained in manuscript form in his literary legacy and was published in Sovetish Heymland (January 1964). Around 1905 he left Berdichev to avoid serving in the czarist army. Until World War i he led a fugitive existence, chiefly in Zhitomir, supporting himself by giving private Hebrew lessons. At 23, he published his first book, Gedanken un Motivn – Lider in Proze ("Thoughts and Motifs – Poems in Prose," 1907), which reveals what was to be a life-long preoccupation with such universal themes as the divine-satanic duality of humans, the eternal opposition between aspiration and reality, and the pendulum swings of human emotion. After having met Der Nister in 1910, I.L. *Peretz encouraged him to publish his short novel, A Togbikhl fun a Farfirer ("Diary of a Seducer"), which resembled a crime story, in his magazine, Yudish. Peretz was also instrumental in the publication of his next book of prose narratives, Hekher xfun der Erd ("Higher Than the Earth," Warsaw, 1910), and his Kiev admirers David *Bergelson and Nachman *Mayzel assisted in publishing his first book of poetry, Gezang un Gebet ("Song and Prayer," Kiev, probably in 1910 or 1912). In 1917 he published a small collection of stories for children, Mayselekh in Ferzn ("Little Tales in Verse"; expanded and republished in 1917 and 1921 (with illustrations by Marc Chagall) and 1923). Living in Kiev, Der Nister contributed to Eygns (1918, 1920) and Oyfgang (1919), which belletristic collections served as the foundation of Soviet-Yiddish literature. In addition, he was a skilled translator of world literature; his rich fantasy and linguistic virtuosity displayed in his children's verse and stories have rarely been equaled.

In 1921 he left the Soviet Union, first for Kaunas (Kovno),then Berlin, a gathering point for literary emigrants. After some three years in Berlin, where he published Gedakht ("Imagined," 2 vols., 1922–3), the first collection of his visionary and fantastic tales, he moved to Hamburg where he worked for the Soviet trade mission in 1924–5. In 1926, while the Soviet Union was promoting Yiddish culture and attempting to lure émigré writers back, Der Nister returned to the Soviet Union, settling in Kharkov. Until 1929 Der Nister contributed to those periodicals still open to "fellow-traveling" writers. With the ascendancy of the "proletarian" critics in that year, his work came under sharp attack for its symbolism. For some time he published nothing, attempting in the years 1931–3 to find a place for himself on the hostile literary scene through writing ocherki, a form of reportage then regarded as progressive. Editing and translating continued to be the mainstays of his precarious livelihood. These were years of great anguish for Der Nister, who realized he could not adapt to the demands of realistic reportage nor abandon a style he had spent his life developing. Around the year 1935 he resolved to write his family saga, a resolve of desperation as well as a cunning stratagem on the part of a writer whose creative life wasin danger. In a letter written around 1934 to his brother Motl, in Paris, Der Nister made his desperate position absolutely clear: "… the writing of my book is a necessity; otherwise I am nothing [oys mentsh]; otherwise I am erased from literature and from life…." The death sentence for Soviet-Yiddish literature may have been prepared as early as 1939, the year in which Der Nister won critical acclaim for the first volume of Di Mishpokhe Mashber, and the Soviet authorities suggested that Yiddish works appear only in translation, a danger sidetracked by the war, and one which Der Nister outspokenly opposed. The war years 1941–3 found Der Nister in Tashkent and Moscow, where he lived in great penury. During and immediately after the war he was close to the Jewish *Anti-Fascist Committee in whose service he had accompanied Ukrainian Jewish immigrants to *Birobidzhan. There he had pressed parents to petition for Yiddish-language schools, which became one of the charges of anti-Soviet "nationalism" brought against him following the suppression of Jewish cultural life in the Soviet Union in November 1948. Not long thereafter Der Nister was arrested and died in a prison hospital.

Prior to 1929 Der Nister wrote as he wished; thereafter he worked under the shadow of repression. In the former period he wrote his highly original mystical visions and fantastic tales, developing a style unique in Yiddish literature. From the outset he had sought a universalist synthesis of the Jewish mystical tradition and world mythology, introducing into his earliest stories figures such as Buddha and the Virgin Mary, hitherto regarded as alien to Yiddish literature. His first volume, Gedanken un Motivn, reveals a tragic view of life wherein suffering is ultimately redeemed through love. Formally his "poetry in prose" is an attempt to combine rhymed and unrhymed passages. He employed this very peculiar compositional mixture until 1910, when many of his early works were published. His sense of the dual nature of humans finds expression in the antithetical pair of stories "Poylish" ("Polish") and "Kleopatra" (Literarishe Monatsshriftn, nos. 1 and 4, Vilna, 1908), where sanctified love and demonic lust are vividly contrasted through imagery derived from Jewish tradition on the one hand and classical tradition on the other. Hekher fun der Erd is filled with kabbalistic references and reveals Der Nister's mature literary language and reflections on the concept of creativity and its textual realization. The most intriguing composition of this volume, "Der Kadmen" ("The Original"), is a revision of the myth of creation, ending on a secularized cosmic evolutionary note. His tendency to express himself in mystical language is manifest in Gezang un Gebet, a volume of verse whose first poem, "Mir" ("We"), is a deeply felt meditation on the mystery of Jewishness and its destiny in the absence of spiritual guides. In these poems despair is countered by a vision of youth who rediscover the ancestral path.

Critics ignored Der Nister's first books, which they were unable to grasp; no reviews of his works were published until 1913, when the first two reviewers, Sh. *Niger and S. Rozenfeld, were essentially negative. David *Bergelson, a refined master of literary Yiddish himself, in a letter to Sh. Niger dated 1912, first recognized Der Nister's skill in shaping Yiddish language into original and innovative forms. Doubtless influenced by the criticism of Peretz, Der Nister, after 1912, de-emphasized description and introduced firm narrative structure into his visionary and fantastic tales, preserving their symbolic and ambiguous qualities while making them interesting as stories. Just as Peretz for his purposes renewed the ḥasidic hagiographic tale, so Der Nister revived the ḥasidic symbolic tale created by R. *Naḥman of Bratzlav, discovering, as had R. Naḥman before him, a popular and flexible medium for ideas which could not be broached directly. The years 1913–29, from the appearance of "A Mayse" ("A Story," in Di Yidishe Velt, no. 10, Vilna, 1913; later republished in Gedakht, vol. 1) to the sharply criticized "Unter a Ployt" ("Under a Fence," in Di Royte Velt, 5 no. 7, Kharkov, 1929) witnessed Der Nister's cultivation of a mode altogether congenial to him. This period marks the peak of his symbolist narrative achievement. Just as the characteristic symbols – e.g., the Well of Tradition and the Lonely Tower – and the mystic dualism of the Russian symbolists are reflected in his tales of this period, so too are the verb inversions and lyrical effects practiced by the Russian symbolists absorbed in Der Nister's Yiddish style. Set in space, in deep forests, at the margin of civilization, his stories are spun by characters without proper names, devils, wanderers, giants, drunkards, fools displaying a variety of archetypal relational patterns. Like those of his contemporary Franz *Kafka, they are paradigmatic representations of an alienated human condition. The hypnotic rhythms of his long sentences, their deliberate sound structure, the repeated use of "and" (possibly derived from the biblical conversive vav), and the archaic diction (derived from the taytsh tradition, i.e., from early Yiddish Bible translations) result in a dream-like, strangely compelling, at times surrealist atmosphere. The texture of his stories, interwoven with elements taken from the wondrous world of folk tales and, at times, of gothic fantasy, further heightens their enigmatic, unresolvable complexity. Most of the stories collected in the two volumes of Gedakht were reprinted in a revised one-volume edition (1929), when his last volume of symbolist stories, Fun Mayne Giter ("Of My Estates"), also appeared.

The extraordinarily complex "Unter a Ployt" represents Der Nister's covert protest against Soviet cultural regimentation as well as anguished self-accusation for abandoning his symbolic art. However, his subsequent efforts to write realistic reportage could not quell his characteristic impulse, and Dray Hoyptshtet ("Three Capitals," Kharkov, 1934) subtly resists the required orthodoxy. Aided by shifts in Party policy in the 1930s, Der Nister saved his artistic conscience by writing Di Mishpokhe Mashber, a family saga which appears to heed the requirements of realism while serving the author's own far from orthodox literary purposes. This novel, only two of whose three or more projected volumes have been published (a third volume may exist in manuscript somewhere in the Soviet Union), is perhaps the single greatest achievement of Soviet Yiddish prose. As suggested in its title, Di Mishpokhe Mashber (mashber, Hebrew "crisis") was conceived as the portrait of a traditional and rooted society in dissolution. Der Nister intended to portray East European Jewry from the 1870s to the revolutionary period. The two volumes published, which constitute Part One of the projected whole, cover less than a year during the 1870s in *Berdichev, the most Jewish of all Ukrainian towns. The view taken of Jewish life, and particularly the magnificent picture of Bratzlaver Ḥasidism, indicate deep sympathy rather than the prescribed anti-religious bias. What Der Nister has done in this supposedly "realistic" novel is to transform the nameless characters of his mystic tales into name-bearing particular persons. The central characters of the novel are precisely the same agonized seekers one finds in his tales and their concerns are the same. There is a remarkable continuity in Der Nister's creative career.

His war and postwar writings are impressive for the candor and courage with which strong national feeling is expressed, but undistinguished as literature. The informer of "Flora" (in Dertseylungen un Eseyen ("Stories and Essays") ed. N. Mayzel, New York, 1957) is a stereotyped villain, yet the story is of immense interest in its historical context. Nowhere else in Soviet Yiddish literature is a rabbi presented in so positive a light. Der Nister dared to envisage a Jewish future linked to the Jewish past. Unpublished manuscript material of Der Nister's from various periods appeared in Sovetish Heymland (no. 2, 1967), including a chapter from volume three of Di Mishpokhe Mashber, and in the collection Vidervuks ("New Growth," Moscow, 1969).

bibliography:

Rejzen, Leksikon, 2 (19304), 580–4; lnyl, 5 (1965), 256–62; Y.Y. Kohn, Pirsumim Yehudiyyim bi-Verit ha-Mo'azot 1917–1960 (1961), index; Ch. Shmeruk, in: Der Nister, Ha-Nazir veha-Gediyyah; Sippurim, Shirim, Ma'amarim (transl. D. Sadan, 1963), 9–52; M. Piekarz, in: Ch. Shmeruk, (ed.), A Shpigl oyf a Shteyn (1964), 737–41; Ch. Shmeruk, in: The Field of Yiddish, 2 (1965), 263–87. add. bibliography: D. Bechtel, Der Nister's Work 1907–1929: A Study of a Yiddish Symbolist (1990); D. Mantovan, "Der Nister and His Symbolist Stories 1913–1929: Patterns of Imagination" (diss. 1993); D.G. Roskies, in: A Bridge of Longing: The Lost Art of Yiddish Storytelling (1995), 191–229.

[Leonard Prager and

Chone Shmeruk /

Daniela Mantovan (2nd ed.)]