Ayelet Brinn’s well-intentioned interview with Gennady Estraikh and Mikhail Krוtikov, published today in In Geveb, fails to ask the two veterans of Aaron Vergelis’s Sovetish Heymland about their controversial role in 1990s Oxford, together allegedly wrecking the Oxford Programme in Yiddish that had done so much in Yiddish Studies. They did so, allegedly, while becoming part of campaigns of personal destruction against the scholars who brought them there in the first place and worked countless hours to raise the support and facilities to bring them. Estraikh presented himself as a penniless graduate student in Moscow begging for help in the wake of the USSR’s collapse (winter 1990-1991) and came to study (in 1991) with Dovid Katz and Dov-Ber Kerler. Krutikov, by contrast, was an already-emigrated young scholar whom JTS’s main man in Yiddish recommended for Oxford as part of the wider project to dismantle the Oxford Program in Yiddish he had been railing against for years; he arrived in 1996, after a pseudo-search committee set up so that the JTS man’s recommendation would be the only one taken into account. The ex-Soviets went on to artfully trash the scholars who spent decades building the program. In classic Sovetish Heymland style intrigue mode, Krutikov was brought to Oxford primarily to serve as for-hire hit man in Soviet-style intrigue. Both former students of A. Vergelis, both gifted actors and masters of machinations, used it as a launch pad for American careers and rapidly destroyed the magnificent program that they had usurped. That history will be written and is very heavily documented (down to Estraikh’s apology for plagiarizing a grammar of one of his teachers, which he then “fixed” with a recall of the entire edition and addition of a front-cover credit sticker; the original is now a collector’s item). What is weird in the third decade of the twenty-first century is the (ab)use of In Geveb for an agenda of rewriting recent Yiddish Studies history for the glorification of a rather curious-bedfellow clique bringing together veterans of JTS and Sovetish Heymland (perhaps united by disdain for mainstream cultural Yiddishism, such as that of the late lamented Yiddish educator Naomi Prawer Kadar for whom one of the naive and manipulated enabling funding bodies is rightfully named).
The interview uses as launching pad the magazine Yiddish Pen, and dismisses its role in a sentence as some kind of “khutspedik” and failed tiny endeavor (praising other Yiddish magazines for their “wisdom” in shutting down!), while implying it was the brainchild of the gentlemen interviewed (that is indeed the chutzpah here).
It might be helpful for readers of In Geveb to become acquainted with the journal. Yes, Yiddish Pen was indeed a forum for publication of serious work by the last generation of pre-Holocaust born-and-raised Yiddish writers alongside young talents in an array of genres (including literary research and linguistics). Yes, Estraikh was allowed, as managing editor to overload some issues with Soviet Yiddish claptrap, but in those years that meant some fine writers being presented to Western audiences. When Krutikov arrived in Oxford, some twenty-five issues of Yiddish Pen had already appeared.
As soon as resources permit, these issues will be put online in their entirety, so students of Yiddish literature and culture in the last decade of the twentieth century may now be able to form their own evaluations based on study of the texts, rather than the tendentious and personality-driven politics of a current online journal that poses as “academic” while serving the career interests of a rather small clique that can get away with a lot in the current state of university level Yiddish studies. From a wider angle perspective, the interpersonal tales fade rapidly as ever so much nonsense, as the rich tapestry of the twentieth century’s last major Yiddish literary project, Oxford’s Yiddish Pen, is examined anew. It is still thought to be the first new serious Yiddish monthly in Europe since the Holocaust, and absent the post-Soviet power grab, it may have survived much longer.
As a modest beginning, readers of In Geveb are cordially invited to become acquainted with the English and Yiddish contents pages of the first 27 issues of the 1990s Oxford magazine Yiddish Pen. (NOTE: the interviewees may indeed take credit for issues from around 30 onward, until they closed down the magazine, the summer program, the doctoral program and all the Oxford Yiddish programs they took over, en route to greener pastures in America.)