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2011: The Sesquicentennial of the Birth of America’s Top Hebrew HumoristThe Sweat of the (Low) Brow: New York Immigrant Life in Gerson Rosenzweig’s Satire. Facets of his Talmudic Parody Tractate America.
Ephraim Nissan *
Abstract. Gerson Rosenzweig’s is far less visible in Jewish American literary studies, as well as in Hebrew literary studies, than he would deserve to be. This is because he wrote his parodic prose — an apex of Hebrew-language humoristic literature — in early rabbinic Hebrew with Aramaic admixtures. Appreciating its quite considerable merits requires of readers the ability to make sense of his dense intertextuality, through familiarity with the traditional Jewish canon of early rabbinic writings. Such familiarity was widespread in his days (even among less affluent Jews, immigrants who in the Old Country were schooled mostly in religious matters) but is not available for the great majority of potential readers at present, nor has it been in the second half of the 20th century. This article provides an analysis in depth of most of Chapter 3 of Rosenzweig’s masterpiece, Tractate America. That chapter is concerned with employee relations and labour strife, as well as with the work of women, and child labour. Rosenzweig’s is artistically quite successful at treating this subject, clearly on the mind of his original readership among the Jewish immigrant community in New York City, by camouflaging it as a parody styled as early rabbinic literature. That parody would deserve the notice of that compartment of literary studies that is specifically concerned with the literatures of ethnic Americans. Arguably however it is especially in humour studies that Rosenzweig’s opus deserves close scrutiny.
* Ephraim Nissan, Goldsmiths’ College, Department of Computing, London & Centre for Jewish Studies, University of Manchester, England, United Kingdom.