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  • Print publication year: 2003
  • Online publication date: November 2019

A Tuml in the Shtetl: Khayim Betsalel Grinberg's Di khevre-kedishe sude




THE comedy Di khevre-kedishe sude, oder, Reb arye der bal-menagn (‘The Burial Society Banquet, or, Reb Arye the Musician’), which depicts the chaotic events surrounding the annual banquet of a burial society, was published in Warsaw in 1883. This low-priced edition, with its dense typeface, cheap paper, and numerous typographical errors and irregularities, is a good example of the popular literature that Jews were soon to call shund. Here was a book that did not hide the fact that its readership was to be found among the less well-to-do, and that had no claims to higher spiritual (be it aesthetic or religious) values. Within the history of Yiddish literature, it represents a kind of pulp literature avant la lettre, as the term shund was not coined before the end of the nineteenth century.

The play's author, Khayim Betsalel Grinberg, was from the town of We˛grów, a short distance from the provincial centre Siedlce, 50 miles due east of Warsaw. He was born there in 1860, and already as a young man enjoyed a reputation as a prankster and jester (khoyzek makher). Even at that time he was starting to poke fun at the local authorities, the shtetl establishment, who presumably played a decisive role in Grinberg's probably not entirely voluntary decision to leave Węgrów for Warsaw.

In addition to Di khevre-kedishe sude Grinberg wrote another comedy, Bintshe di tsedeykes, oder, Di ayngefalene bod (‘Bintshe the Pious Woman, or The Dilapidated Bathhouse’). Both were characterized by Zalmen Reisin (Reyzn) as ‘showcase examples of popular satire, with a good-natured earthy humour, written in a juicy authentic folk idiom’. After publishing these two plays, Grinberg apparently went to Galicia, where we lose all further trace of him. Reisin emphasizes the popularity of his two plays, which is confirmed in an article written in 1890 by Ignacy Suesser on the Yiddish theatre and literary scene in Warsaw, where Grinberg is mentioned among the most popular repertoire authors of the Yiddish theatre. Both his pieces were republished in 1911, further evidence of their continuing popularity.

The dramatic format of Di khevre-kedishe sude is not that of a conventional stage play.