My Lexicon - Author's Note
My father used to say that he had, by inheritance from my grandfather, and that I have, by inheritance from my father: piety for those mentally and spiritually active people. And just like my father’s, my piety is mixed with a measure of gall. But piety is the foundational sentiment, gall the contaminant, the salt. Piety must be mixed with some measure of gall, just as potatoes need salt. That piety is the mother of this work--in three or four volumes--that goes by the name My Lexicon. My Lexicon--a private lexicon of the global Yiddish cultural movement over a quarter century, the quarter century between the two World Wars, the most active years of my life. It is a portrait in mosaic a generation of Yiddish culture. A mosaic--each stone exactly the same size (in my lexicon and not reality), each stone a different color--and when all the stones come together, an image. (At least, it is the author’s ardent desire that a whole image will be formed.)
One evening, during a long pause in the course my world travels, in 1936, in Australia, I stood on the balcony of my Melbourne apartment, it was on Royal Parade, and looking out at the withered trees lining the rather morose boulevard, I thought that I would have to give up my journalistic work because I had ran out entirely of travel stories to write, and then suddenly an inexhaustible subject came to me...writing short portraits of the Yiddish cultural world. I went back into my apartment and began making a list of people I knew. When the light in the window began to gray, I counted. There were 400 names. An army. And at that moment I resolved to give every person on the list the same number of lines. Roughly three book pages. Roughly 1000 words. (Some exceptions only prove the rule). These are portraits--I reasoned--and I am the verbal photographer. And all people are equal, and all human faces--equal in size and interest, so long as you bother to find what’s interesting. And besides, measuring and meting out esteem would only serve to consign the whole project to the purgatory of future critics. So I decided: everyone’s equal! (Exceptions prove the rule).
I have been writing these portraits for eight years. Roughly 300 are already written. Some have been printed in various newspapers. And in the writing, problems have emerged that were hardly there in the planning. The practice has taught me.
For any number of reasons, I am one of those Yiddish writers who personally knew most of our generation’s active creators of Yiddish culture. First of all, because I travelled all over the world. (Of course, I more or less just passed through the Soviet Union, and I haven’t been to Eretz-Israel at all--which is certainly to the detriment of the present work, but what can I do?) Second, because I held office as the secretary of the Association of Jewish Writers and Journalists in Warsaw (Fareyn fun Yidishe Literatn un Zhurnalistn in Varshe), the famous , for almost ten years--1925-1934. Third, because my endless piety was towards not only Modern Yiddish culture, but also towards its creators. (Piety with a measure of gall--naturally). And I was always looking for intimate, personal relationships.
Originally, this book, in multiple volumes, was to be published by Farlag “Tomar” in Vilna, with whom I had a contract for a 15 volume edition of my complete collected works. They were to publish this book alphabetically and in its entirety, with all volumes published at the same time. But it wasn’t destined to be. This book was destined to be published on the initiative of my Vilna friends, Masha and Leybl Roskes (Roskies). And so too the original publication plan was changed. First, the two volumes exclusively devoted to Poland will be published. How could it be otherwise?
This first volume pertains to the three Ps of Polish Yiddish: Poet, Prosaicist, and Playwright. The second volume will also be about Polish Yiddish writers, including: opinion writers and other columnists, reporters, cultural activists, figures of the Yiddish stage, and journalists--in short, everyone who belongs to the mosaic of that generation of Yiddish culture.
I only wrote about those people whom I knew personally. Those who I did not personally know--perhaps they were lighthouses more than they were people*--I did not write about them. It is my lexicon. In that sense, my gall comes to the fore.
I saw Yitskhok Leybush Peretz only once in my life--I was 14 years old then, in Stanisle (Ivano-Frankvisk), in 1908, at a literary evening after the Czernowitz language conference, where I was sitting in the very last row of the very highest balcony of the theater. Therefore, aside from the Peretz introduction...I have included in my lexicon three, but only three, of the women who had a significant relationship to his Peretz’s life. The third had, in my opinion, a significant relationship to his work, to his female characters. There is, too, a portrait of Matilda Ash. They are exceptions.
Those knowledgeable about Yiddish literature in Poland will not find the names of some significant writers. Dovid Kasel (David Kassel), for instance. Although we lived in the same city for years--I hardly knew him. He avoided our club. Besides, I haven’t set out to write about everyone. It is my lexicon. And here I have included people who only sojourned in Warsaw for a brief time; but who, in my eyes, blend into the total image. [Yankev] Fikhman--for example--[Moyshe] Stavski, Shnirson. Against this, there are others who left Independent Poland in the early years of its existence, and yet I have included them. Giser, Korman, etc. Others will be in the volume “America.” An exact, scientific approach was hardly possible here. Our people is grass and quicksilver are our writers...everything is labile--Oh, you want a precise metric for my lexicon?...Some writers came to prominence, or just came to Poland, after my departure from it. In the years 1935-1939. And there was still the question of whom to include in the first volume? Who is a poet, who a novelist, a playwright? Here I did, in fact, have a criterion: at least one belletristic book! And sometimes avowed belletristic ambition was enough for me. Examples: Noyekh Prilutsky, Yankev Pat. So why is Kolye Tepper included? I don’t know. Many, perhaps those I missed, will be in the second volume on Poland. Others in the third or the fourth. I will find some pretext to include them in those volumes. Our people is grass and quicksilver are our writers.
Readers who want to read the entire book, will find many repetitions and redundancies, they will find that I talk too much about the the Khalyastre (The Gang, a modernist group in Poland that Ravitch participated in) and about its leader, Perets Markish, they will find that I talk too much about the Association of Jewish writers, too much about “literarishe bleter” (Literary Pages), “folkstaytung far literatur” (People’s Newspaper for Literature), publications which I edited or co-edited. And the reader who only reads parts of this book will also learn through these repetitions. They will always know what the book is dealing with, and what it’s talking about. Footnotes would hardly suit such a half belletristic book.
So many honorifics, ironic and serious, have occurred to me over the past eight years of work. “In three things a man is recognized: in his cup, in his pocket, in his anger” (Talmud Bavli, Eruvin 65)--for years, this proverb wouldn’t let me be. May it at least be recorded in these observations--recorded for “eternity”...
No matter how many times I have sat down to write one of these portraits--and I have now done it more than 300 times--I have always said a prayer: Give me, God, the strength not to treat this person as they treated me, not as kindly and not as poorly. Just give me, God, strength to control my relationships to people so it is not based on their relationship to me. God heard my prayer--for many of these portraits. For all of them--certainly not. I am but a sinner. But we are all brothers, all sisters, the kinship of ink is the only kind of racial kinship in which I believe. And all the more so for that ink with which the dear Jewish letters are written. And everyone described herein has some relationship to Jewish letters. That rule has no exceptions.
An array of writers who were not included in this book--and about whom I have written only “moments,” not portraits--will be included in the second volume.
I was advised to also include photographs of the writers. First, it wasn’t possible to get photos of everyone; second, portraits with portraits are like potatoes with potatoes…
It was necessary to include the year in which every verbal portrait was written. Not for the sake of “history,” but--without them many of the portraits would seem almost anarchist, and changing them didn’t make any sense, as they would then have to be changed every year. The few biographical dates are always the most recent. Often in the text of the portrait, the subject is still alive. In the biographical details, they’re already dead...but for those friends, dear, holy friends, for whom there was definitive, verified news that they had left the living, for those friends that information is given--for the rest--and may they all, all still be with us, may the great mystery be solved--I simply wrote the uncertain words: tragic news...
At the end of the book I provided an article about 13 Tłomackie Street, written in Buenos Aires in 1938. A sort of decoration for the portrait gallery.
The intention of this book--especially of the two volumes devoted to Poland--is to bring an eternal, paper rest to the tumultuous, sincere, and hopeful general of Yiddish culture, which will rise again in all its glory--but differently. It will never again be the way it is described here. May it live on, seethe on, hope on in these pages and through these pages.
And here my notes, too, come to an end. Nile [Neilah, closing service of Yom Kippur]. Nile and Mekhile [forgive] rhyme. I ask forgiveness lekhatkhile [at the start] of those colleagues who will feel offended by this, or by any word of mine. And even more must I ask forgiveness from those who cannot read these words...believe me everyone, everyone--you who are still here, and you who are already there, where we will all sooner or later be, because in my heart you are all, all still among the living--believe that I had no ill-intents.
This book is a contribution to the history of Yiddish literature. Whether it succeeds or fails, anyone who studies the Yiddish literature of our time will--I hope--look in this book and be grateful to the author for providing them with a set of keys, however partial,--perhaps two will jam the lock, perhaps one will open it--to a community of sincere and suffering Jewish souls from a great and tragic Jewish generation.**
M. R., Montreal, July 1944
*- I really don’t know what this means and it doesn’t appear to be an idiom. Perhaps he means these people, those he didn’t know, are more like symbols or sign-posts than individuals. But that, too, is unclear.
**- Ravitch here ends the entry with a lovely rhyme: bunt shlislekh and bund...neshomes (“set of keys” and “community of souls.”) The Bund, of course, was also the name for the Jewish Socialist party and union in Eastern Europe.