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Murderous Modernity

An Exceptional »Shund« Novel


In many respects, the Yiddish story Der retseyekh un di retseyekhte (The Murderer and the Murderess) represents a typical »shundroman.« Published in Zhytomyr in 1875, the fifteen-page booklet depicts a series of passionate crimes that follow many of the genre’s common tropes. Yet, behind the shocking and exciting main storyline, the novel may also be read as leveling unusual social critique at the modernizing tendencies in Jewish society.

For Eastern European Jewry, the second half of the nineteenth century was a time of dramatic transition. Existing lifestyles connected with the shtetl, the traditional Jewish town, began disintegrating in the face of modern transformations and challenges. Economically, the shtetl became impoverished and social mobility intensified, prompting mass emigration to the urban centers. Culturally, traditional Judaism became just one of many possible lifestyles and ideological choices for its Jewish inhabitants. And literarily, as Yiddish became a full-fledged literary language, traditional forms of literature, such as rabbinical treatises and chivalric romances, were complemented by new, markedly modern genres. One of them was the »shundroman.«

Although »shund« (literally: trash) was mainly a source of entertainment for Jewish readers literate in the Yiddish language, the genre is a valuable source reflecting these historical processes. Gaining popularity from the 1870s onwards, »shund« novels offered sensational stories at an affordable price and were consequently widely consumed by readers of Yiddish – and especially by those without reading proficiency in other languages. Depicting scandalous blends of romance and violence, these stories borrowed heavily from non-Jewish pulp fiction, which was often reframed in a Jewish setting.

»Regina: The Tragic Love of a Poor Jewish Girl. A True Story«, Warsaw 1937/38. Source: National Library of Poland, Public domain, CC BY 1.0.
»Regina: The Tragic Love of a Poor Jewish Girl. A True Story«, Warsaw 1937/38. Source: National Library of Poland, Public domain, CC BY 1.0.

In contrast to other literary engagements with the shtetl and its static inhabitants, »shund« stories often took the tendencies of modernization as their main background and usually presented a positive attitude towards them. The protagonists in the stories by Nokhem Meir Shaykevitsh (known as »Shomer«) and Shimeon Bekerman, who were popular in the late 1870s and 1890s respectively, embody the benefits of social mobility for Jews: They escape an obsolete shtetl, make fortunes in the big city, and become valuable members of society, equal to their fellow non-Jews.

Der retseyekh un di retseyekhte from 1875 similarly engages the theme of Jews and the modern world. While it does not include tropes and models that later became common in popular Yiddish literature, such as the Yeshiva student or the modernized Jew, the story uses archetypes already prevalent in other works such as the innocent governess, the violent drunkard, and the idler. Other motifs, like misalliance or domestic violence, appear in the story without the Judaization that characterized later »shund« works.

Frume Dreizin, »The Murderer and the Murderess,« Zhytomyr 1875. Source: Internet Archive, Public domain, CC BY 1.0.
Frume Dreizin, »The Murderer and the Murderess,« Zhytomyr 1875. Source: Internet Archive, Public domain, CC BY 1.0.

In Der retseyekh un di retseyekhte, a young girl named Khane Goldshteyn leaves the shtetl after her father’s death to work as a governess in the fictional city of Baltograd. The city, however, does not welcome the provincial girl with open arms, and Khane is taunted by the local women on account of her low social status. Nevertheless, two men fall in love with her: Khaim, son of a wealthy widow, and a nameless factory worker. The triangular affair does not have a happy ending. Khaim is killed by the brother of his own admirer, while the factory worker murders his wife to be able to marry Khane. Besides serving to shock the reader through the depiction of raw violence, these crimes of passion may be interpreted as a critique of the modernization process.

Signed by Frume Dreizin – either a pseudonym or the name of a real female author, which would have been extraordinary for contemporary Yiddish literature – the novel was printed at a time of profound change in the status of Jewish women. Although the Haskalah still promoted the ideal of the »angel in the house,« a bourgeois notion that restricted women to the domestic sphere, the traditional role of the Jewish woman as a homemaker and shopkeeper gradually gave way to other models. Increased access to secular education and facilitated mobility opened new possibilities for women beyond the shtetl. These transitions allowed Khane, the story’s heroine, to work as a governess and gave her the opportunity to move away from her hometown and make money independently to support her family. The plot, however, underlines the negative side of these changes: Khane gets involved in an awkward relationship with Khaim, after whose murder she loses her job and returns to the shtetl traumatized. In her case, women’s emancipation entailed disastrous consequences.

Increased contacts with non-Jews, another determinant of modernization, is similarly depicted in negative terms. Khaim’s love affair with a Christian woman results in the latter’s pregnancy, which she perceives as a disgrace. The Jewish man tries to convince her that he intends to convert and marry her, but he shows no indication of fulfilling his promise. When the Christian woman learns that she has been deceived, her brother, described as a typical goy who always carries a gun, swears vengeance. Using this weapon, he eventually kills Khaim, while the police stand idly by. Though Khane herself is not directly affected by the violence, she consequently returns to the shtetl. After the horrors of the big city, the small town now appears as a safe Jewish space.

Der retseyekh un di retseyekhte thus employs modern literary means to warn against the perils of modernization in Jewish society. While breaking with traditional literary genres and adopting tropes from non-Jewish literature, it highlights the benefits of traditional Jewish life in the shtetl. Defying the optimistic premises of the early »shundroman,« it represents an interim step towards the eventual crystallization of the genre’s clear ideological agenda – conservative in comparison to other, more positive depictions of modernity in the Yiddish literature of the late nineteenth century.

Adam Stepnowski is a graduate of the Taube Department of Jewish Studies at the University of Wrocław. He is currently writing his PhD dissertation at the Faculty of Philology on Yiddish »shund« literature in Eastern Europe before 1914 | stepnowksiadam(at)gmail.com.

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