Sholem Aleichem at his writing desk in 1904.
Sholem Aleichem at his writing desk in 1904.

Books we reviewed in the early 1900s had not one ‘beach read’

Here at J. we’ve been suggesting books for our readers for well over 120 years. Tastes have changed, and the bestseller of the past may be long forgotten, but a look back in our pages reveals some gems — and perhaps a few questionable recommendations.

In 1904, we still boasted that the number of excellent Yiddish writers in the U.S. rivaled Europe. We had some specific recommendations, too.

“There has just arrived here J.D. Berkowitz, one of the younger Yiddish story-writers and a man of considerable talent,” we said.

Not for this paper the vagaries of modern literature! Per our recommendation, “He writes in a simple and straightforward manner and, unlike a number of the other young Yiddish story writers, who have been influenced by the European impressionists and decadents, he writes a story only when he has a plot, and tells his tale in the cheerful, old-fashioned manner.”

Berkowitz was the son-in-law of Sholem Aleichem (1859-1916) and a translator of his works into Hebrew. According to the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, Berkowitz’s short stories captured the spirit of Jewish small-town Lithuania at the turn of the century, detailing “young Jews’ alienation and suspension between the traditional and modern worlds.”

In an article on British Jewish writers later the same year, we recommended Samuel Gordon, comparing him favorably to the well-known and beloved Israel Zangwill, author of the classic “Children of the Ghetto” of 1892.

Zangwill may have had more finesse, we said, but Gordon — the author of a few short story collections, including “Sons of the Covenant” — told it like it was.

“He tells us the story of the transplanted Jew in the Ghetto of London, and he tells us it in language simple and straight, unlooped by those beautiful turns of phrases which we so frequently meet in the paradox-loving, epigrammatic Mr. Zangwill.”

We also recommended Julia Frankau, a novelist who wrote under the pen name Frank Danby and was known for the harshly satirical novel “Dr. Phillips,” which pulled no punches in interpolating her own wealthy yet hypocritical Jewish upbringing.

She “has made prominent the vulgar, parvenu Jew who, like the vulgar, parvenu Englishman, actually exists in merry England,” we said, using a word that describes a person of obscure origin gaining wealth or celebrity — basically an influencer of yesteryear. “But despite the brutality of its characters, and the vulgarity of its setting, the work of Mrs. Frankau is strong and virile, and possesses qualities which make a book live.”

In 1907, we took a look at women authors writing in Yiddish specifically and said this: “Were one asked as to which of the present women writers in Yiddish possesses the greatest talent, the answer would be Rochel Brochos.”

We noted that “her stories, which appear in some of the leading Jewish Journals of Russia, have all been marked by keen insight into Jewish life and appreciation of the most affecting dramatic elements of Jewish existence in the land of the Czar.”

According to the Jewish Women’s Archives, Broches (also spelled Rokhel Brokhes) unsparingly described the effects of poverty and the havoc it played on the lives of women. Her work has largely been forgotten, partly because much of it was published in periodicals and not in book form. You can, however, still find some of her work in more recently released anthologies.

In “Book Notes” of June 1917, we recommended readers look at a novel called “Wheel of Destiny” by Samuel H. Borofsky. We described it as a “defense of the Jewish people of America,” but it seems to have been set on a pretty wide stage. “The book is replete with graphic descriptions of the life in Siberian mines and plantations in Ecuador and the sunny land of Jamaica,” we wrote.

The book has pretty much vanished from view (although a facsimile print-on-demand copy is available online), but it seemed to have been a combination of a detective tale and an anti-Russia polemic.

It’s a bit more thrilling than some of our recommendations, which don’t always sound like beach reads. Quite a few commentaries on the Talmud and educational tales for children were recommended by our editors, as well as edifying books like “The Jews of Russia and Poland.”

“For a bird’s-eye view of the history of the Jews in Russia and Poland, no better use could be made of $1.25 than to invest it in the purchase of a splendid little volume with the above title, from the pen of Prof. Israel Friedlaender, Ph.D.,” we wrote in “Book Notes” of 1915.

More colorful, perhaps, was “Bohemian San Francisco” by Dr. Clarence E. Edwords, which drew “living pictures of the queer and quaint foreign quarters of the city.” We recommended it in 1914.

Although it’s not clear from our description, the book was an unapologetically subjective history of the restaurants of the “pleasure-loving” city of S.F., along with recipes for things like “Terrapin a La Maryland.”

“Their foods and how prepared forms a most interesting feature of the book, and through it we learn many of the peculiar secrets which give such exquisite flavor to certain dishes,” we said.

And what better recommendation from a newspaper to its readers than a novel about newspapers and reporting?

“There is a glamour of romance about newspaper life that has an irresistible fascination for the average mind,” we wrote optimistically in 1908. We were recommending the novel “The Scarlet Shadow” by Walter Hurt.

“Being himself a practical newspaper man, and therefore thoroughly familiar with his subject, the author has produced a work that is gratifyingly free from those absurd inconsistencies which mar most stories of the Fourth Estate, and gives his readers a graphic glimpse into that charmed domain.”

The plot involved the drama of the real-life trial of William Dudley Haywood in the 1905 murder of former Idaho Gov. Frank Steunenberg, which pitted mining companies against the labor movement in a scandal du jour.

As we put it, “altogether, it is one of the most absorbing romances that has appeared this season.”

We hope you have time this summer to grab a couple of books — from this century or a previous one  — and spend an hour or 20 between the pages of something that makes you happy.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.