Der Nister Critical Essays


(Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism)

Der Nister 1884-1950

(Pseudonym of Pinkhes Kahanovitsh; also transliterated as Pinchas Kahanovitch) Ukrainian novelist, short story writer, and essayist.

Der Nister is considered by many critics to be one of the most accomplished Yiddish writers of his time. Noted for a distinctive style that incorporates elements of Jewish mysticism, Russian Symbolism, folklore, and mythology, his novels and stories opposed the strict realism once demanded of Soviet writers by the communist regime. Der Nister's best known work is Di mishpokhe Mashber (vol. 1, 1939; vol. 2, 1947; The Family Mashber), an epic saga of two Jewish brothers set in the Ukraine during the late nineteenth century.

Biographical Information

Born in Berditshev, Ukraine, Der Nister was influenced early in his life by Rabbi Nachman Bratslaver, a man known to his contemporaries as a gifted storyteller in the Hasidic tradition. Der Nister's older brother was a follower of Bratslaver, and from early childhood to adulthood Der Nister was exposed to Hebrew studies and literature. The name Der Nister, which, translated from the Hebrew, means "the hidden one," or "the concealer," was adopted by the author to avoid being drafted into the Russian army. In 1908 Der Nister left Berditshev and settled in Kiev. Following the overthrow of the czarist government during the Russian revolution, only Der Nister and a few other Yiddish writers continued to compose works that were not politically oriented, and to escape the ensuing isolation Der Nister left Kiev for Berlin, where he was free to publish his stories without censure. Der Nister returned to the Soviet Union in 1926 and settled in Kharkov. During World War II he wrote about the horrors occurring in Nazi-occupied Poland, and in 1947 he was sent to report on life in Birobidjan, a region designated by the Soviet government as an autonomous Jewish settlement. In 1949 Der Nister was arrested by Soviet forces following an order calling for the extermination of Yiddish writers during the suppression of Jewish culture that began in the Soviet Union in 1948. Der Nister died in a Soviet prison hospital in 1950.

Major Works

Der Nister's works treat such themes as the individual's moral choice between good and evil, idealism versus realism, and the nature of human emotion. His earliest works, such as Gedanken un motiven (1907), Hekherfun der erd (1910), and Gezang un gebet (1912), express reverence and sympathy for followers of the Hasidic way of life. Der Nister's short story "Unter a ployt" (1929; "Under a Fence") was fiercely condemned by Soviet critics who found Der Nister's departure from the prescribed realistic formula reactionary and subversive. To preserve his artistic conscience as well as his status as a Soviet writer, Der Nister devised an approach to his writing that appeared to follow the principles of realism, but incorporated his own distinctive brand of symbolic expression and endorsement of the Jewish community. In Di mishpokhe Mashber, Der Nister demonstrated this approach to writing by providing a realistic treatment of Jewish life, but setting his narrative in the city of Berditshev during the 1870s, a milieu that had ceased to exist. The first volume of Di mishpokhe Mashber delineates the experiences of Moshe and Luzi Mashber, and Luzi's friend Sruli Gol, a somewhat unorthodox Hasid. Moshe is a wealthy and arrogant merchant, while Luzi and Sruli are self-abasing, non-materialistic, and devoutly religious. When Moshe refuses to help the ailing mother of one of his clerks, Luzi and Sruli object, and Moshe throws them out of his home. Following this incident, Moshe must declare bankruptcy and is imprisoned for failing to pay his debts. While Moshe is in prison, his daughter dies and his wife becomes paralyzed, and shortly after his release from prison both Moshe and his wife die. In volume two, Sruli rescues Luzi from exile after the city leaders express disapproval of Luzi's associations with the poor and his utter lack of regard for social status.

Critical Reception

Critics have praised Der Nister's ability to encompass both fabulous, mystical circumstances and vivid, lifelike characters in his works. Commenting on Di mishpokhe Mashber, Charles A. Madison has asserted: "[Der Nister's] canvas is broad, rich, colorful. The major characters are portrayed with striking suggestiveness and sympathetic understanding; life spurts from them even though they become overshadowed by the veil of mysticism." Der Nister's lengthy and often deliberately cryptic sentences have been considered representative of Hasidic narratives, and many critics have noted that his blending of these literary styles with mythological and realistic elements is unique. Sol Liptzin has stated: "[Der Nister] was expected to revile a people and a tradition which he loved so fervently in his heart of hearts and he had no way of knowing whether this love … would ever penetrate to readers in later years or be intelligible to them. In the morass in which he was forced to move in his last years, he remained a hidden saint, the noblest personality among the Soviet Yiddish writers."