Yisroel Shtern: redeemed by the Internet?
Yisroel Shtern (1894-1942?) was a Yiddish poet of Warsaw. The Yisroel Shtern Project, possibly the most attractively designed and easy-to-read Yiddish-English web site now going, aims to present translations of a wide selection of his poetry and prose. (A couple of these translations are by yours truly.)
Everyone thought Shtern an eccentric -- he much preferred davening in the local shtibl than hanging out with fellow literati. To quote the web site:
Shtern stands almost alone as one who held in high regard both the secularizing I L Peretz and the traditionalist Hillel Tseitlin ; who frequented both Tlomackie 13 - the secular Yiddish writers' club, where his actor brother was a familiar - and the shtibl of the Bratslaver Chassidim. He adhered to no Party and his work appeared in Bundist and Zionist publications as well as in the Folkist daily Moment.
Other writers thought him strange but valued his work. [. . .] In the Warsaw Ghetto Shtern was starving and Ringelblum's diary records that the community moved him into an apartment at the Kehilla's expense. For that matter Shtern was starving before the War; and did repeatedly write, with authority, about the spiritual aspects of the experience.
While Shtern first published in 1919 and we know that he was writing much in the Ghetto (all of it lost), periods of marked creativity alternate in his life with lengthy periods of silence. He was hospitalized, whether for malnutrition or for a nervous breakdown is unclear. The tone of his work is generally gloomy and sometimes very fearful. Striking and characteristic is the absence of human relationship, together with the personalizing of inanimate features of the city - such as the buildings and the streets where Shtern spent so much of his days, wandering about in a shabby coat with papers poking out of his pockets.
Secular Yiddishism has had difficulty locating Shtern. Yet it is interesting that he chose to adhere to the Bratslaver Chassidim. For it is the oral transcribed Yiddish tales of the Bratslaver that secularists have honoured as among the earliest Yiddish stories. The perspective of the Bratslaver, so foreign to secular socialism, is clear in Shtern's essays and verse: through suffering we are brought closer to God; simple and poor people will be holier. Shtern is very serious about the purpose of literature in general: with Dostoyevsky as a model, to bring the reader to a truer understanding of the relation between life and God.
It is more than likely that the continuation of the Yiddish language will depend on observant Jews4. Yisroel Shtern saw himself as a bridge between them and the secular, and sought - as in his great essay Crowns - to introduce Jewish ideas to those without such knowledge. It may be that his relevance is greater now than ever before.