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A Rhetorical Conversation: Jewish Discourse in Modern Yiddish Literature, by Jordan D. Finkin. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2010. 216 pp. $65.00.
A Rhetorical Conversation: Jewish Discourse in Modern Yiddish Literature describes a series of instances where spoken discourse is found in modern Yiddish literature. Jordan D. Finkin’s intention is to demonstrate that Yiddish literature is greatly indebted to conversational structures based on Talmudic and rabbinic discourse. Finkin brings to his analysis an extensive and sophisticated understanding of linguistics, using linguistics’ tools to shed light upon the moments in which Yiddish writing interacts with, and uses, spoken forms. The book as a whole seeks to prove how much modern Yiddish literature owes to its dialogic nature. His larger project, as he asserts, is “mapping those lexical, rhetorical, and semantic ‘subsystems’ influenced most strongly by contact with loshn-koydesh texts as reflected in Yiddish literature and as expressed in the development of Yiddish literary language” (p. 29).
The introductory chapter sets out Finkin’s argument that modern Yiddish literature is inextricably bound with, and largely shaped by, its roots in spoken discourse. In the next five brief chapters, Finkin offers a series of examples, from a variety of angles, to prove his point. Chapter One, The Case of the Tautological Infinitive, describes the frequent use of Yiddish terms such as geyn gey ikh in order to show the deep connection between Yiddish literature and rabbinic and Slavic discourse. Chapter Two, The Language of Jewish Discourse, seeks to unpack the coded conversational base of Yiddish writing. The following three chapters analyze the oral elements in modern Yiddish literature as found, for instance, in the poetry of Moshe Leyb Halpern, the monologues of Sholem Aleichem, and the stories of I. L. Peretz.
Finkin seeks to use an interdisciplinary approach to uncover the slippage between oral and written Yiddish. In some cases he succeeds, as for instance in his compelling discussion of the modernist poetry of Halpern. However, too often Finkin’s points are merely repetitions, in a series of guises, of his main thesis that Yiddish literature is based on spoken discourse. This I feel could have been fully hashed out in the first third of the book, and then it would have been exciting to read about the larger ramifications of this idea. For instance, in his analyses of Yiddish American modernist poetry, Finkin makes the point that “American individualism allowed for intimate investigations of Jewish discursive language, while European universalism tended to obscure or submerge precisely that” (p. 51). This for me is evocative and quite important for our understanding of the variations between Yiddish European and American literature, and I would have liked to see much more done with this sort of broader conclusion. In many instances, I found that the book was heavy on examples and light on discussions that would help illuminate the literature or the culture in which it was produced.
Also, I do not understand the editorial decision that in some cases the Yiddish original was given along with the English translation, and in other cases it was only found in the endnotes. It would have made the book easier to read, and Finkin’s points about linguistics more comprehensible, if we had the Yiddish in front of us in all cases. Finally, in a book so indebted to the groundbreaking work of the literary critic Shmuel Niger, it was surprising that Finkin mistakenly labels Shmuel Niger as the pseudonym of Daniel Charney, who was in fact his brother.
Overall, this book is a useful and interesting addition to our understanding of the influence of spoken discourse on modern Yiddish literature. It is a good first step in what I hope will be further work by Finkin outlining the literary and cultural implications of his findings.
Loti Smorgon Research Professor Contemporary Jewish Life and Culture