by Paul Buhle
Schechter, Joel, Radical Yiddish: Essays and Comic Strips, illustrated by Spain Rodriguez. San Francisco: Blue Thread Communications (published by Jewish Currents, New York). 114pp, paperback, $14.95.
(Swans - April 8, 2013) This is a charming selection of theater professor and dramaturge Joel Schecter's commentaries, illustrated by the late Spain Rodriguez. Some of these essays were published in Jewish Currents, the historic magazine of the progressive and secular Jewish left; others appeared in the columns of Arty Semite , the Web partner of the Jewish Forward; and still others have found their way to print in smaller publications. Regardless of their origin, they reveal the touch of an original intellect, set upon discovering details that reveal a larger picture.
Thus Schechter, nearing retirement age, asks himself, what did he find for himself in Yiddish and in the Workmen's Circle, an organization once powerful and numbering in the tens of thousands, now reduced to a few active branches (Schechter himself is a tuer, an activist in the Bay Area branch)? The answer: a link to the past, a rich tradition with lots and lots of left-wing connections but also much more, embracing everything from entertainment to enlightenment.
Each essay suggests that the past is still alive, no matter the Holocaust (wiping out two-thirds of the Yiddish speakers in the world), the later suppression of Yiddish in the old Soviet Union and Israel (where Yiddish presses were destroyed, Yiddish theater forbidden, and acceptance slow to come, even on a limited basis), being assimilated out of existence in the U.S. and revived by Hasidic populations, minus the secularism. Yiddish traditions with left-wing ideas embedded within them survive willy-nilly. Schechter is one of the key voices of their current survival.
Spain Rodriguez, whose death in December 2012 ended one of the most fruitful collaborations in recent Yiddish culture, provided exquisite art for this volume, mostly on scripts by Schechter but with the artist himself interpreting the secular prose "scripture" in the most creative ways. Here we see classic Yiddish theater of the early twentieth century; there we see Yiddish anarchists; elsewhere we see the final generation of Yiddish actors during the 1950s-'60s working to survive and perpetuate their art; still elsewhere Harvey Kurtzman and the creation of a Yiddishist Mad Magazine. The "blue thread" of the publishing entity (the blue thread of Jewish mysticism) runs through the volume. There is much more to say, but the reader will wish to capture the details without the guidance of the critic.
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About the Author
Paul Buhle retired from college teaching to produce radical comics fulltime. His latest include Studs Terkel's Working, A Graphic Adaptation [reviewed in these pages], The Beats, A People's History of the American Empire (aka an adaptation of Howard Zinn's classic) and a pictorial biography of his childhood hero, The Art of Harvey Kurtzman. His last production (2011) is Yiddishkeit: Jewish Vernacular & the New Land, edited with Harvey Pekar, and reviewed in these pages. (back)