Richard J. Fein's Yiddish Genesis: Essays is a series of explorations of literary topics that especially matter to him. In his brief "Preface" (less than a page) he describes "these essays" as "visitations of Jewish literatures [sic] long haunting me." Several of the essays have appeared previously, in slightly altered form, in major periodicals like Midstream and Shofar, and we are now fortunate to have this lively and thought-provoking collection in a single volume.

The collection is divided into three parts, each of which, dealing with a particular kind of literary experience in the author's life, can be construed as a distinct literary memoir. Part I attempts to define and characterize "Jewish Literature." Part II, perhaps the most personal, deals with Fein's connections to Yiddish language and literature. Part III focuses on the author's perspectives on Biblical narrative.

One of the chief themes in Part I is the profound resemblances between Jewish literature and Russian literature of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, especially the moral concerns of both that make it impossible to maintain any sort of aesthetic distance, as well as what Fein refers to as the "centrifugal" pattern of fiction, in which isolation and/or alienation play a central role. As examples of the latter, he cites classic Russian works like Gogol's "The Overcoat," Dostoevsky's "Notes from the Underground," and Tolstoy's "The Death of Ivan Ilych." Great Jewish examples include the stories of Sholom Aleichem. Given the hostility of European secular governments to the Jewish community, Fein notes, it is no wonder that a sense of "eternal loneliness" finds its place in much Jewish literature.

In this regard, though somewhat tongue in cheek, Fein calls Chekhov, another major Russian writer, one of the "great 'Jewish' writers," not merely because Chekhov has an overwhelming sense of moral commitment and a centrifugal focus but also because "Chekhov wrote the supreme horse story, 'Misery,' subtitled… 'To Whom Shall I Tell My Grief?' " Rather impishly, Fein reveals that one way to identify a Jewish story is that "it has a horse in it,"

particularly one that lends a sympathetic ear to the narrator's complaints. Then he proceeds to list several impressive examples: many of the Tevye stories of Sholom Aleichem, Sholem Asch's "The Sinner," Isaac Babel's "the Story of a Horse," Isaac Rosenfeld's parable "A Horse," and Bernard Malamud's novel The Fixer.

But if a story does not contain a sympathetic horse (or any horse, for that matter), does that automatically disqualify it from consideration as a Jewish story ? Not to worry, author Fein reassures us: there is another major element of Jewish stories: a "seemingly endless and guarded passageway leading inevitably to some authority that is rarely reached." Not surprisingly, the chief examples of this motif are in the works of Franz Kafka, "the supreme Jewish writer," but there are other important Jewish writers who use it, like Sholom Aleichem and Bernard Malamud. Fein's discussion of this Kafkaesque theme in "The Jewish Story Revisited," a subdivision of Part I, is beyond the scope of this review. Suffice it to say that Fein's comments on the subject comprise a miniature jewel of literary criticism.

He concludes his remarks on the two basic elements of Jewish fiction with his characteristic wittiness: "The ultimate Jewish story, it would seem, is about a horse in a labyrinth. To the best of my knowledge it has not yet been written."

Perhaps the most significant theme of Part II is articulated at the opening of "Waiting for Yiddish," one of the essays in that section:

            When I was a child, Yiddish was awkwardly present in my ear, a set of invasive sounds claiming me beyond comprehension or will.…To have come back to the language in middle age (if it is a return and not a discovery in the first place) is like approaching one's past anew.

There is a not-very-skillfully concealed sense of guilt on the author's part at having shunned Yiddish as a youth. One of the most intriguing passages on Fein's early reaction to Yiddish announces, "There was something about Yiddish that made me squirm--not only the language itself but some of its speakers." He singles out Yiddish comedian Menashe Skulnik, primarily for his odd-sounding name "combined with his goggle-eyed, shit-eating smile and thick-lipped face to make for a kind of Yiddish Stepin Fetchit."

In middle age author Richard J. Fein returns to Yiddish to fashion a new identity for himself as translator of Yiddish poetry and as poet deeply inspired by those Yiddish poems, particularly those of Yankev Glatshteyn. He has"visions" of Yiddish poets appearing to him to discuss their poetry with him and to encourage him to translate their work, a situation which would often stimulate his creative powers and result in the creation of his own poems—for instance, "Yankev Glatshteyn Visits Me in the Coffee Shop."

Throughout Part II we follow the author's poignant conflict between trying to keep the spirit of Yiddish literature alive in the New World and acknowledging that as a primarily Eastern European phenomenon Yiddish language and literature cannot be successfully resurrected. As he astutely points out, not all those "Yiddish camps, choirs, dramatic groups, outings and festivals, college courses, … lecture programs" have been able to produce "one significant Yiddish writer." He doesn't specifically mention by name the National Yiddish Book Center, which has done wonders in unearthing hundreds of thousands of Yiddish books sent to major universities, as well as supervising numerous translations—now being done online—and providing courses in Yiddish and other educational opportunities for students and other interested folks. But his general point is right on target: to date, no major writer has been produced in the Diaspora.

Fein doesn't use the word "Holocaust" very often, but it is clear, when he refers to the "demise of Yiddish culture" and he laments that "Yiddish…is about memory that lingers while the world that was the basis of that memory has been extinguished, or nearly so," that he is thinking of the Nazis' annihilation of millions of European Jews for whom Yiddish culture was a way of life. In one of his few explicit references to the Holocaust, he points to the influence of Glatsteyn's "foreboding Holocaust poem 'Wagons' " on his own work, most notably a poem called 'January in Berlin' :

In the afternoons trains grow full,
as if everyone knew
it gets dark early in Berlin,
by four dusk comes creeping in.

Part III of Yiddish Genesis consists of fourteen short essays on Old Testament stories that the author finds most appealing. The essays enable us to enter the author's mind as he grapples with the meaning of these stories—with the Tower of Babel, for instance, the reconciliation in Egypt between Joseph and his brothers, or the function of two significant female characters, Abraham's wife, Sarah, and Moses' wife, Zipporah, in a male-dominated text.

Fein has the gift of being able to make powerful, enlightening statements in one or two sentences to explicate a character: "So far as I know, Zipporah is the only woman in all of literature who circumcises her own son and then, symbolically, her husband"; "the great paradox in Moses' vision [of the Burning Bush] is that the fire that destroys can become the fire that sustains. This is the fire that Moses sees in Horeb, and his life is changed." Even the Almighty can be characterized n a sentence or two: "…I see Him [God], the first shnayder (Yiddish for tailor), sitting down and stitching the garments, handing them to Adam and Eve, and eyeing them to make sure the skins fit"; "God plays favorites. Just ask Saul."

One of the most difficult Biblical narratives for the author to comprehend, but by the same token one of the most fascinating for him, is the story of Abraham's attempt to sacrifice his son Isaac. "It is because [the author] cannot rationalize the near sacrifice" that he finds it most compelling. "I find the story grips," he tells us, "because it has no moral justification."

All in all, Yiddish Genesis, this readable assortment of essays, fulfills the twofold classical function of literature: to teach and to delight. The author's wide-ranging knowledge of literature, not merely of the texts mentioned in this review, is put to good use. To make a cogent point, Fein frequently invokes English and American authors: Shakespeare and Milton, Wordsworth and other Romantic poets, Hawthorne and Melville, Whitman and Dickinson, Yeats and T.S. Eliot, Henry James and James Joyce, I.B. Singer and Henry Roth, to cite just a few. Though not basically a scholarly tome, Yiddish Genesis effortlessly injects relevant comments by major scholars and critics, like late comparativist and Harvard professor Renato Poggioli, classicist C.M. Bowra, and critic and theorist Walter Benjamin (whose tragic suicide while fleeing from the Nazis is well known). In one of his dream-visions (for lack of a better term) the author encounters the late literary and social critic Lionel Trilling, who tries to discourage him, unsuccessfully, from pursuing Yiddish studies.

To further prove that he wears his learning lightly, Fein scatters throughout his book perceptive literary observations only tangentially related to the topic under discussion, but a source of delight nonetheless. For example, he shares with us the possibility that Herman Melville, in "Bartleby," might have served as unofficial mentor for Kafka. As a poet, moreover, Fein has a natural penchant for unusual similes and metaphors. The figure of speech that immediately comes to mind—appearing more than once in his anthology—is the one he uses to contrast his youthful rejection of Yiddish with his present embrace of it:

            To come to Yiddish as I did is like having a love affair in middle age with someone known years before but back then rejected as ungainly, embarrassing, and pushy. Now the sounds and nuances evoke a pleasure I had once thought never possible, just as once I thought that a woman's gray hair would never be alluring.

In short, Richard J. Fein's collection, Yiddish Genesis: Essays, is a book to be read and reread—a literary treasure.