Guest post: Noa Tsaushu on Issachar Ryback’s Shtetl, mayn khorever heym: a gedekhenish

Noa Tsaushu is a doctoral student of Yiddish Studies at Columbia University, currently working to complete her dissertation titled “Yiddish Art: The Desire for Cohesion among the Soviet-Yiddish Avant-Garde.” She is this year’s recipient of the Joseph Kremen Memorial Fellowship in East European Arts, Music, and Theater at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, and had recently translated and contributed to a volume of works from the Merrill C. Berman Collection titled Jewish Artists, Jewish Identity, 1917–1931. The libraries recently acquired a copy of Issachar Ryback’s Shtetl, mayn khorever heym: a gedekhenish, which is featured in Noa’s dissertation, and we are grateful for her generosity in sharing some information about this fascinating and chilling work.

Image of a man in a pinstripe suit staring intently at the camera
Issachar Ber Ryback, 1897-1935.

Issachar Ber Ryback (1897-1935) was born in Elisavetgrad (now Kropyvnytskiy, Ukraine). His traditional Jewish education began relatively late and was quickly replaced by art education. By the age of twelve, he had already attended painting and drawing classes and worked in monasteries across the Kherson province, painting decorations and ornaments. In 1912, at the age of fourteen, he entered the Kyiv Art School where he studied intermittently for about six years. Paintings from the period depict scenes of dancing Jews and traditional skilled workers and are indicative of Ryback’s growing interest in Jewish subject matter. Much like his contemporaries, Ryback was deeply invested in the notion of national determination and was grappling with the question: what makes art Jewish?

Painting of a tall, brown, angular building with dark grey hues in the background.
The Old Synagogue, 1917, Oil on Canvas, Image courtesy of the Tel Aviv Museum.

An expedition that Ryback took with El Lissitzky (1890-1941) through the Pale of Settlement in 1915-1916 turned to folk art to answer the question. The artists examined visual and plastic motives found in traditional architecture, decorative art, and ceremonial objects. The notes and sketches that they took while traveling synthesized past artistic production to conceptualize their own, and their later recollections provide an instructive taxonomy of Yiddish avant-garde syntax.

Purplish-brown book cover with a stylized lion next to a tree, breathing leaves from his mouth. The world "Shtetl" is written in Hebrew characters below.
Shtetl, My Destroyed Home: A Recollection, Front Cover, Image courtesy of McGill University Library.

Shtetl, mayn khorever heym: a gedekhenish [Shtetl, My Destroyed Home: A Recollection] is a quintessential example of this syntax. The lithographic album was published in Berlin of 1923 (Farlag Shveln), seven years after the expedition. As history unfolded, the Russian empire collapsed and gave rise to the Soviet Union, with revolution, civil war, and pogroms that rapidly ensued. Entire communities perished, hundreds of thousands of people were killed, millions were displaced, and the Jewish artistic wealth that had so fascinated Ryback was on the brink of extinction.

Opening page of the book, with the main text in an oval flanked by two creatures on either side.
Shtetl, My Destroyed Home: A Recollection, Title Page, Image courtesy of McGill University Library.

Ominous dark tones, oblique angles, and contorted proportions dominate Shtetl, and depict everyday scenes of traditional Jewish life, a subject matter that had been mutilated beyond recognition. Ryback’s response to the calamity reflects a marginalized Jewish anxiety. Unlike the Cubists whose grand gesture disintegrated the object in its entirety, Ryback chose to keep his objects intact and distorted their spatial coordinates to the highest point of tension. The manipulation results in oblique objects and underscores the material destruction of his native landscape.

Surrealist image of a woman knitting in a living room, with a mirror and other objects askew
Shtetl, My Destroyed Home: A Recollection, Plate VII, In zal [In The Living Room], Image courtesy of McGill University Library.
Among the oblique objects is a mirror whose vertical axis has been elongated and tipped forward (Plate VII, In zal [In the Living Room]). The subtle gesture punctuates the sense of domesticity and gives way to terror. Devoid of reflection, the mirror becomes a threat, it looms over the scene, no longer able to reflect the world around it. The uncanny feeling is amplified by a steep couch with a menacing back rest that encroaches upon a petrified human occupant. The knitting needles, a token of intimate craft, are placed upside down and hover like a ghost in midair. Similar to the speared legs of the side table, the needles converge into a crux and reveal a weapon-like presence.

Scene colored in orange, with a man facing three women.
Shtetl, My Destroyed Home: A Recollection, Plate VIII, Der shadkhn [The Matchmaker], Image courtesy of McGill University Library.
The oblique objects in Der shadkhn (Plate VIII, The Matchmaker) reinforce the formal occupation with continuity and demise—a matchmaker and three elderly women negotiate past and future pedigree; their figures are physically burdened by the national task of propagation. The matchmaker is the most convoluted, his body expands and extracts, forming a disfigured contour. Substituting his abdominal area is an umbrella, sharp on one end and coiled on the other. Ryback rotates the object horizontally, so it becomes hazardous. Repositioned, it resembles a dagger, about to devour the matchmaker’s intestine. The visceral quality is not accidental, in the wake of the pogroms, the umbrella, as are the mirror, couch, knitting needles, and side table, are indicative of a reality in which ubiquitous objects store the potential of violence. By contrast, the handkerchief that is about to fall out of the matchmaker’s pocket signifies a subjugated type of object that functions as an extension of the human body. With its paisley, organic-like pattern, the flaccid textile evokes the appearance of a slimy internal organ that had been pulled inside out.

Ryback’s oblique objects are ethnographic artifacts, manipulated to emphasize the formal idiosyncrasies of Jewish history. He arranges them in compositions that articulate a syntax of perpetrator and victim and prioritizes the mimetic gesture to relational violence. Through formal manipulation Ryback synthesizes notions of visuality, palpability and plasticity into the traditional domain of Jewish culture and reclaims them as Jewish art.

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