Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 16. Nr. April 2006

6.6. Das Jiddische als Kulturvermittlung
HerausgeberIn | Editor | Éditeur: Astrid Starck Adler (Basel)

Dokumentation | Documentation | Documentation

Farmitlung and Shtadlones in Latin American Yiddish Literature

Alan Astro (Trinity University, San Antonio, Texas, U.S.A.)


Reading Astrid Starck’s call for papers for IRICS on "Das Jiddische als Kulturvermittlung," I was perplexed by my own desire to come to Vienna - until I realized I wished to commune with the Galitsyaner geshpenster, the ghosts of the Galician Jews who had immigrated to the capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire. For someone who is one-half Litvak - my mother’s family comes from Kovner gubernye: Shavl and Keydan - one-quarter Minsker and one-quarter Zhitomirer, that desire seemed surprising. But despite Second Avenue shtik, with its competing Litvakes and Galitsyaner, I decided to visit the Galitsyaner geshpenster.

Unlike my grandparents, they hadn't come to the United States. Not only had they not escaped extermination, but they also didn't speak English. And my German isn’t very good. No doubt, some of the Galitsyaner in Vienna didn’t speak perfect German either, and were more comfortable in mame-loshn. So that is why I chose to speak to them in Yiddish. This paper is a translation and adaptation of some of the things I said to them at the IRICS conference in mame-loshn.

I wonder if the section title, "Das Jiddische als Kulturvermittlung," is translatable. Perhaps it could be glossed as "Using Yiddish to Transmit Culture," i.e., Eastern-European Jewish culture. That would be a vast program indeed! But the geshpenster and I hear something different in that expression, because the German word Vermittlung has a meaning that farmitlung in Yiddish does not. Farmitlung means only "mediation," whereas the German Vermittlung also denotes "transmission." This is one of those false friends that should remind us of just how far Yiddish and German are from each other, even regarding words of purely Germanic origin.

Farmitlung is a resonant word in Yiddish, because it can designate many of the occupations Jews were commonly involved in, as middlemen throughout various sectors of the economy. Nowadays, we see brokerage as central to our postmodern, tertiary, service-oriented economy that has generated hitherto unknown wealth; however, the misfortune of the Jews was that they - we - were postmodern far too early.

The physiocrats of the French Enlightenment, declaring that working the soil was the sole proper source of wealth, relegated middlemen to the status of economic parasites. Following the physiocrats, all manner of reformers took as their aim to turn the Jews into "productive" elements, preferably farmers. The objective of countless leftist programs was to reduce the specificity of Jews and (perforce) of their occupational activities. Zionism took a different tack, by seeking to make Jewish middlemen into farmers qua Jews, in the Land of Israel. Other attempts to settle Jews as farmers had Argentina, Ukraine, and North America as their arenas. Of course, the Nazis held that Jews could not be made into productive elements and had to meet the fate reserved for parasites.

As one looks through the modern period, it might seem that the only group not buying into the apparent necessity of productivizing the Jews were the traditionalists among them. However, one strain of Jewish modernism did not share that perspective. A large part of Yiddish literature, even as it strove to place Yiddish speakers on a literary par with members of other European nations, kept a healthy irony about the attempt to normalize the Jews. The best example is the affection Sholem-Aleichem lavished upon Jews engaged in so-called luft-parnoses , the insubstantial intermediate professions that were the bane of Jewish reformers as well as anti-Semites. The constant busy-ness of economic exchange, bearing even upon the smallest profits, figures in Sholem-Aleichem as part and parcel of the quickness of dialog and thought essential to Talmudic culture. Rapid, dire attempts to trade in words and things, and the accompanying humor as a release for such nervousness, are the stuff of Sholem-Aleichem’s writing.

This rehabilitation of the small-time broker emerges clearly in a story from the area of Jewish culture that I have most intensely studied of late: Latin American Yiddish literature. Thus we read at the beginning of "A bank aza" [Quite a Bank], published in 1939 in Mexico City by Meir Corona:

A dank, dirty corridor leads to the first courtyard, home to a soda factory. Past the gate and the toilet for the entire building, a hallway leads to the second courtyard. There, a dark, narrow, twisting staircase takes you to the door of the bank.(1)

The proprietors of such a bank are certainly no Rothschilds; as one enters, one discovers furnishings more befitting an apartment than a business, with one of the partners sitting on a bed and soaking his foot in a bowl. His associate then arrives, brandishing an impressive piece of booty, an extraordinary Seltzer bottle: "He lifted the bottle and showed ‘the little tube of the siphon inside. It reaches all the way to the bottom so you don’t waste a drop!’"(2)

Into the bank come two shoe-merchants for a loan. One of the bankers is interested not only in the applicants’ collateral, but also in the volume one of them is carrying: the Yiddish translation of the Bible by Yehoash [Yehoyesh].(3) Leafing through it, the banker offers this commentary:

The Talmud says that when Onkelos translated the Torah into Aramaic, there was an earthquake that covered four hundred square miles. You can find that in the tractate Megillah.(4)

After much unyielding negotiation, the shoe-merchants are promised a loan. They have already left the "bank" and are on the street, when they hear the cries of one of the bankers behind them. They are afraid lest he be coming to retract the offer, but the message he has is more important: "Listen! I made a mistake! The passage isn’t in the tractate Megillah, but in Hagigah!" The Talmud is as important as money to the banker; this is a literalization of the Yiddish proverb: toyre iz di beste skhoyre ["Torah is the best merchandise"].

This portrayal of Jews of the immigrant generation, steeped in what Max Weinreich in The History of the Yiddish Language(5) called derekh ha-shas, the Talmudic way of life, contrasts with the presentation of the first generation born in the new country: the taste for skhoyre remains even as the aspiration for toyre goes. In a sense, this is a reworking of what happens in Y. L. Peretz’s allegory, "Fir doyres - fir tsavoes" [Four Generations - Four Wills].(6) The story is entitled "Iber an ibergerisener retsue" [A Ripped Tefillin Strap]; the author is Moyshe Rubin; the protagonist is Lebensohn, an Eastern-European Jewish intellectual in Buenos Aires, who ekes out a modest living by giving Bar Mitzvah lessons to scions of a nouveau riche family:

Lebensohn felt an obligation to have them appreciate the literary treasures of ancient and modern Hebrew, to show them the splendors that shone in every epoch, the sweet pain, the joyous longing that were hidden deep in the soul of the modern Jew. He wanted to make them yearn for the great prize that the future held out for the Jewish nation. He had begun to explain these things with all the fire in his spirit, but his three pupils soon interrupted him.

"¡Señor maestro!" exclaimed the redhead, "we’re no longer little muchachos. Imagine, telling us such stories... We already know that Abraham was a judío, we know that the judíos introduced judaísmo. Then came Jesus Christ, who brought forth a lot of Christians, who beat the judíos... Abraham was rico, very fuerte. He had a lot of dinero in the bank. I myself already have a hundred pesos in the bank. And how much do you, maestro," he asked as the lesson ended, "have in the bank?"(7)

Lebensohn is a Hebraist, and we suspect, a Zionist. But as I noted above, Argentina was one of the places where a succedaneum of the Zionist program was attempted. The effort to settle Russian Jews as farmers on the pampas was the brainchild of the Baron de Hirsch, railroad magnate and Franco-British Jewish assimilate. Hirsch and his plan are described in sarcastic terms by the labor Zionist leader Leon Chasanovitch:

The dual nature of the Jewish character showed itself in him with all its contradictions. The moneyed Jew [der geltyid], the railroad speculator, who had amassed millions with little concern for the means employed, became a great philanthropist. The lord who oversaw a vast financial empire with utmost rationality, considering every factor, weighing every obstacle, suddenly lost all sense of measure in striving to help his coreligionists. In order to save an entire people, he came up with fantastic schemes that anyone would declare to be utter madness, if millions of pounds sterling had not stood behind them. He sought to devise a magic formula that would revolutionize the life of an entire people and restore in two decades what two millennia had destroyed. The messianic impulse, which always hovered in the Jewish collective consciousness and more than once brought forth daring mystics who tried to bring the heavens down to earth, had bored its way into the heart of a Jewish millionaire, an educated European, who strove to bring redemption in the form of a resettlement program grander than the world had ever known....(8)

Because a single Latin American republic would have siphoned off the poor Jews of Eastern Europe, those left behind would feel less pressure to compete furiously with one other. Simultaneously, Jewish prestige throughout the world would be enhanced. The entire web of anti-Semitic slurs about Jewish exploitation and unwillingness to work would be belied by the eloquent Argentinean Jewish example. The whole world would see what Jews could attain when they are free, what a godsend they would be for a land that allowed development of their healthy instincts.(9)

We feel a little uneasy at Chasanovitch’s portrayal of furious Jewish competition, of the unhealthy activity of Jewish traders, of Hirsch as a "moneyed Jew" [geltyid] - as well as, in another passage, of Herzl as a "Jew of the mind" [gaystesyid].(10) It is clear that the borrowings from anti-Semitic discourse, with its Geldjuden and Geistesjuden undermining Aryan society, are not simply rhetorical flourishes. Chasanovitch subscribes to at least part of that view.

More justifiably, Chasanovitch reserves no small amount of wrath for another group of middlemen: the Jewish Colonization Association, a veritable army of functionaries whom Hirsch hired to put his plan into effect. Unfortunately, the association was made up of French and German Jewish assimilates blinded by their scorn for the Yiddish speakers they were supposed to help. Here is how Chasanovitch paints the failure of their action:

We shall not hold the Jewish Colonization Association accountable for three million of the three-and-a-quarter million Jews it was supposed to relocate. We shall limit ourselves to asking about the remaining quarter of a million, or even some fewer. But we have a right to demand some significant accomplishment from an association that has had at its disposal such colossal means and a population so eager to be resettled. So what are the results?... All the [Argentinean Jewish] agricultural colonies in 1908 were home to fewer than sixteen thousand souls, a number inferior to the Jewish population of one Russian provincial town or in a single street of Vilna. (11)

This passage seems to be an ironic rewriting of Abraham’s quarrel with God over the number of righteous men in Sodom necessary to save the city - a biblical episode that the anti-Semitic philosemite Léon Bloy called "la première spéculation juive" [the first Jewish speculation].(12)

The sometimes corrupt, sometimes negligent behavior of employees of the Jewish Colonization Association made life so difficult for Jews settled on the pampas that they resorted to a time-honored Jewish mediation of another kind: shtadlones. Traditionally, shtadlones refers to the practice of sending prestigious emissaries to non-Jewish authorities in order to negotiate rights and privileges for the Jewish community. The court Jew is an example of a shtadln. However, the Argentinean Jewish farmers, sometimes bereft of the direst necessities, found themselves time and again sending the most eloquent among them to petition their powerful coreligionists in the Jewish Colonization Association! This cruel twist of history is commented upon by Mordkhe [Marcos] Alpersohn, a Jewish settler in Argentina, whose memoirs became best-sellers within the Yiddish world.(13)

Ironically, the Jews who had come to Argentina to engage in the supposedly most honorable means of livelihood found other Jews involved in what was then considered the worst kind of trade: prostitution. There is no doubt regarding the existence of Jewish whoremongers in the decades surrounding the turn of the century. This was the case in many centers of Jewish immigration, though in Latin America the proportion was perhaps greatest. One can easily imagine how anti-Semites seized upon the presence of Jewish white traders, and how Jewish moralists heaped outrage upon them. I would have hoped that by now people could approach the matter with greater equanimity, but one reviewer of my book chastised me for reminding the world of this black mark on Jews.(14) My view of the question was that Jewish outsiders were in an advantageous position to exploit the institutionalized hypocrisy regarding sex in Catholic societies. Indeed, it is not always clear whether human trafficking in the sex industry is criticized out of the impulse to protect workers’ rights in a morally ambiguous area or simply out of a puritanical inability to deal with the fact that prostitution crops up in every society.

In his memoirs, Alpersohn paints how some Jews, frightened by the rigors awaiting them as farmers on the pampas, end up in less honorable trades:

A few Jews with experience sneaking across borders had used false papers to smuggle some pimps and prostitutes into the hotel courtyard among us. These creatures used their whorish lips to paint our predicament as blackly as possible. The more naïve women among the immigrants broke out crying. Several of us protested, chasing out the interlopers. We came to blows, and the guard - who had apparently been bribed - failed to stop the fighting. They managed to trick some pious Polish Jews, wearing traditional fringed garments, into taking their wives, grown daughters, and all their earthly possessions over to the other side, never to return.(15)

Alpersohn shows a keen sense of the problematic of economic mediation in his play Di arendators fun kultur, which questions in almost contemporary theoretical terms the commodification of art. In this work, the theater producer - a stand-in for any dealer in the culture industry - is likened to the lessee [arendator] of a tavern, who "is himself not a drunk; sometimes, he can’t even abide drink. But he knows quite well how to exploit drunks,"(16) i.e., those who thirst for art, even as they lack discernment. Alpersohn dreams of setting up non-commercial theaters away from the cities, in the Jewish agricultural colonies.(17)

In Buenos Aires, Yiddish theater was first produced by Jews involved in prostitution rings. More respectable members of the community mounted an ultimately successful campaign to drive out the tmeim [impure elements] from the cultural arena. One of the leaders of that effort, Jacob Botoshansky, produced in 1926 a play depicting the clean-up operation. It was entitled Ibergus [Remolding], and its author was Leib Malach. Once again, we are surprised to see how readily a Yiddish intellectual like Botoshansky uses anti-Semitic discourse to make his point. For example, regarding the prostitute Rosa, he writes: "When Rosa goes off to live with the Christian Dr. Silva, she is pure, but not Jewish; when she works in Mother Hen’s brothel, she is Jewish, but impure"; Rosa’s relatives are said to be "suspended between Judaism and purity." (18) The one morally pure Jew in the play is painted as almost a Christian:

Leib Malach has enhanced Yiddish drama with a new shade of color: a blond hue, a Christian nuance. Not by accident has the author given flaxen hair to his mouthpiece in the play: the immigrant schoolteacher who has fallen in love with a prostitute and helps the girls in bordellos write letters home to their mothers. He embodies the Christian admonition: "Let whoever is free from sin cast the first stone."... The blond teacher is made up to look almost like a Christ figure - almost, since he is a Jewish Jesus.

Of course, we cannot judge Botoshansky by today’s post-Holocaust understanding of the danger of such stereotypes. We must also remember that Botoshansky, along with other Yiddish writers, was writing for an entirely Jewish audience. Unlike the case at present, no non-Jews then were receptors of Yiddish cultural material in the original language. Finally, the stereotyping has an esthetic dimension. Botoshansky intended the stark portrayal to be expressionistic, even though he does not use that word:

The whole production follows from the use of masks. It is not naturalistic, but stylized. As the characters arrive on stage, they are accompanied by music, and their movements are like those of automata.


Rosa appears as Mary Magdalene. The abyss is dark: "Mother Hen" is made up as a witch; "Knife" is half-rabbi, half-whore; "Star" is a harlequin, with black and red spots on his face.

Indeed, we must ascribe great subtlety to Botoshansky, who even as he drove pimps and prostitutes out of the Yiddish theater of Argentina saw the shallowness of so-called respectable elements. He portrays as "overgrown children" the shtadlonim who solicit aid from the government in their fight against their "impure" coreligionists.

The metaphor of impurity [tume] emerges with respect to another business Jews in Latin America engaged in: the sale of Catholic icons. The Colombian Yiddish writer Shloyme [Salomón] Brainsky mentions in close proximity the two kinds of forbidden trafficking: in women and in graven images. The first is alluded to in the most veiled of terms:

Nathan had met the few Jews there [in Bogotá]. He was shocked to discover how they procured their livelihoods.

Two of them, who befriended Nathan, advised him to become a peddler. Among the wares they sold on credit were not only ladies’ underpants and slips, but also crucifixes and holy images. When Nathan saw such merchandise, he fell speechless. Upon recovering, he stammered: "How can a Hasid like you, Meyer-Ber, ordained as a rabbi, and a pious Jew and a Torah scholar like you, Simon, even come close to such impurity?" In the old country, Nathan, a typical shtetl Jew, would actually shut his windows to avoid hearing the impure chants of Christian processionals passing by. He could not grasp others like him could bring themselves to make a living by selling such things.

"Well," said Meyer-Ber, smiling, "making a living may be compared to saving a life, and that is permitted even on Yom Kippur."(19)

Brainsky intends Meyer-Ber’s recourse to questionable pilpul, near-Jesuitical casuistry, as harsh irony, but the same trope is brought to bear far more ludically in another tale from the Latin American Yiddish corpus, Pinkhes Berniker’s Cuban tale Jesús. In it, a Jew who was a rabbi in the old country, has tremendous success as a peddler of Christian images, because his customers find in his bearded Jewish face a likeness of that of Jesus of Nazareth. The humor of the situation becomes almost rollicking:

How could he act this way? He didn’t know. The Christian women, his customers in the villages all around, waited for him as Jews await the Messiah. They worshiped him, and he earned from them more than he could ever have dreamed.

They had no idea who he was. He never told them he was a Jew, and he still wondered how he could deny his Jewish background. He learned a little Spanish, especially verses from the New Testament, and spoke with the peasant women like a true santo, a saint. Once, when a customer asked him, "¿Qué eres tú? What are you?" he rolled his eyes to the heavens and started to say, drawing out his words, "What difference does it make who I am? All are God’s children."

"And the judíos? The Jews?" asked the women, unable to restrain themselves.

"The judíos are also God’s children. They’re just the sinful ones. They crucified our señor Jesús, but they are still God’s children. Jesús himself has forgiven them." He ended with a pious sigh.

"And do you yourself love the judíos?"


"¿De veras? Really?"

"¿Y qué? What of it?" He put on a wounded expression and soon conceded, "My love for them isn’t as deep as for the Christians, but I do love them. A sinner can be brought back to the righteous path through love, as our señor Jesús said."

"¡Tiene razón! He’s right!"

"¡Y bien que sí! And how!"

"¡Es un verdadero santo! He’s a true saint!" All the women drank in his words.

"Have you yourself seen a real Jew?" Their curiosity couldn’t be sated.

"Yes, I have."


"There, in Europe."

"What did he look like?"

"Just like me."


"Yes, indeed."

"¡Si él lo dice, debe ser verdad! If he says it, it must be true." The peasant women winked at each other, and their faces grew intensely serious, as if in a moment of great exaltation. Joseph fell silent, engrossed in his thoughts. He let the peasant women examine some sample gods, for now he simply took orders, which he filled by mail. In the meantime, he took stock of his situation, how much money he had in the bank, how much he was owed, and how many more thousands he would earn in the coming year if business improved by just fifty percent. "Who needs to worry?" A smile lit up his face as he felt these words in his heart: "I give thanks and praise to thee, almighty God, who hast given Jesus unto the world."(20)

The Jews of Latin America arrived in traditionally Catholic societies that had bereft of Jews since the Inquisition. They learned to be both Jews and latinos, though that might be a contradiction in terms. (Indeed, Guillaume Apollinaire gave the title "a Latin Jew" to a paradoxical tale, Borgesian avant la lettre, of sainthood sought through sin.(21)) Even the expression "a Jewish farmer" is historically an oxymoron, which Alberto Gerchunoff enhanced by styling the Jews settling on the pampas as "Jewish gauchos."(22) This, despite the fact, noted by Borges, that the Jews qua farmers were the natural adversaries of the gaucho cowboys.(23)

Negotiating between contrasting parts of oneself is as constitutive of modern Jewish farmitlung as mediating among other groups and individuals. Transmission of that culture of the self as both self and other has to be part of the project of das Jiddische als Kulturvermittlung.

© Alan Astro (Trinity University, San Antonio, Texas, U.S.A.)


(1) Meir Corona, "A bank aza", trans. by Debbie Nathan as "Quite a Bank" in Alan Astro, ed., Yiddish South of the Border: An Anthology of Latin American Yiddish Writing (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2003) 161.

(2) Corona 163.

(3) Yehoash [Yehoyesh], pseudonym of Solomon Bloomgarden, Toyre, neviim ukhsuvim [Torah, Prophets and Writings] (New York: Yehoash Farlag-gezelshaft/Forverts, 1939).

(4) Corona 163.

(5) Max Weinreich, Geshikhte fun der yidisher shprakh, trans. by Shlomo Noble and Joshua Fishman as History of the Yiddish Language (Chicago: University of Chicago, 1980).

(6) Y. L. Peretz, "Fir doyres - fir tsavoes/Four Generations - Four Wills" in Peretz, trans. and ed. Sol Liptzin (New York: YIVO, 1947) 266-75.

(7) Moyshe Rubin, " Iber an ibergerisener retsue, " trans. by Astro as "A Ripped Tefillin Strap" in Yiddish South of the Border 73-74.

(8) Leon Chasanovitch, "Dos rezultat fun tsvey tsendlik yor," trans. by Astro as "Meager Results: Two Decades of Jewish Agricultural Settlement in Argentina" in Yiddish South of the Border 41-42.

(9) Chasanovitch, "Meager Results" 42-43.

(10) Chasanovitch, Der krizis fun der yidisher kolonizatsye in Argentina un der moralisher bankrot fun der Ika-administratsyon (Stanislav [Polish Galicia]: Bildung, 1910) 9.

(11) Chasanovitch, "Meager Results" 45-46.

(12) Léon Bloy, Le Salut par les Juifs, L’œuvre complète, vol. 21 (Paris: F. Bernouard, 1947) 80.

(13) Mordkhe [Marcos] Alpersohn, Draysik yor in Argentine: memuarn fun a yidishn kolonist, 3 vols. (Buenos Aires: no publ., 1922-28). A volume of the memoirs was also printed in Berlin by the Yidisher Literarisher Farlag in 1923.

(14) Judith Laikin Elkin, review of Yiddish South of the Border, Latin American Jewish Studies, 24 (Summer 2004): 15.

(15) Alpersohn, "Di tmeim un andere farfirers," trans. by Astro as "Of Pimps, Prostitutes and Other Seducers" in Yiddish South of the Border 19.

(16) Alpersohn, "Di arendators fun kultur" (Buenos Aires: G. Kaplanski, 1933) 34.

(17) See Astro, "Metatheater and Allegory in Mordkhe Alpersohn’s Di arendators fun kultur," Yiddish 13.2-3 (2003): 43-54.

(18) Yankev [Jacob] Botoshansky, "Director’s Prologue to Leib Malach’s Play Remolding," trans. by Astro in Yiddish South of the Border 90-91. All the quotations from Botoshansky can be found on these two pages.

(19) Shloyme (Salomón) Brainsky, "Nisoyen," trans. by Moisés Mermelstein as "Temptation" in Yiddish South of the Border 130-31.

(20) Pinkhes Berniker, "Yezus," trans. by Astro as "Jesús" in Yiddish South of the Border 142-43. For a close reading of the story, see Astro, "Jesús: A Cuban Yiddish Story by Pinkhes Berniker," Hopscotch 2.4 (2001): 134-39.

(21) Guillaume Apollinaire, "Le juif latin" in L’Hérésiarque et Cie (Paris: Stock/Le Livre de Poche, 2003) 43-61.

(22) Alberto Gerchunoff, Los gauchos judíos, trans. by Prudencio de Pereda as The Jewish Gauchos of the Pampas (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1998).

(23) Jorge Luis Borges, "El indigno," trans. by Andrew Hurley as "Unworthy" in Borges, Collected Fictions (New York: Viking, 1998) 353.

6.6. Das Jiddische als Kulturvermittlung

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