Shedding happy tears is a confounding human experience perhaps akin to seeing a sun shower or finding a quarter-less shopping cart at Aldi’s. Reading “In the Land of Happy Tears: Yiddish Tales for Modern Times” is equally baffling. Billed as a “children’s middle grade book” for readers ages 10 and up, the composition is accessible even though the narrative is often not.
Collected and edited by David Stromberg, a Jerusalem-based writer, translator and literary scholar, “In the Land of Happy Tears” is a 192-page aggregation of 18 translated Yiddish stories.
Divided into four sections — bravery, rebellion, justice and wonder — the book (published by Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books) presents pieces which collectively “show us what it means to put these powers into effect, both in the realm of the spirit and in the world where we live,” Stromberg writes in an informative opening section titled, “What is Yiddish, anyway?”
After sharing an evolution of Yiddish storytelling, which began in the 18th century with Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer (the Baal Shem Tov) and continued on through the 19th century with Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (the Baal Shem Tov’s grandson) and into the 20th century with the writings of S.Y. Abramovich, I.L. Peretz and S.N. Rabinovich (better known as Sholem Aleichem), Stromberg describes the wane of Yiddish culture: “The death blow to Yiddish culture, which was already threatened by cultural adaptation in America, came with World War II, when the Holocaust — also called the Shoah, or “catastrophe” in Hebrew — destroyed millions of lives and decimated most of the Yiddish-speaking communities in Europe.”
Immediately following such cultural chronology are the stories, each of which appear in English for the first time, explains Stromberg. Included fables address a sleep-stealing moon that seeks children as playmates; a boy whose refusal to turn over his sandovar generates “an end to all war”; a diamond-skinned prince whose dermatological disorder can only be remedied (seemingly) by bathing in the tears of needy children; and other short sagas which rely on anthropomorphism as well as allegory.
“These tales reveal the mind-sets of their writers and readers, and the culture of resilience exemplified by Yiddish,” writes Stromberg. “The collection puts flesh onto the Jewish imagination of Eastern Europe — which America inherited and nearly forgot — offering a chance to experience the world in which these stories were created.”
There is a bit of a journey involved in accessing substance within the script, as Stromberg’s collection is a riddled read geared for a particular demographic. Getting through “In the Land of Happy Tears” is not a terribly challenging endeavor; understanding its stories is a bit more cumbersome.
In attempting to grasp each myth’s meaning, I was reminded of Katherine Woods’ translation of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s “The Little Prince” (1943): “Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them.”
For juvenile readers, “In the Land of Happy Tears” is a worthwhile volume, which may very well illumine a world seemingly lost to assimilation and genocide. Those a bit older should be lucky enough to have someone elucidate the text. PJC