||Two irreverent parodies by Abraham ben Michjael Kotler, a Russian Maskil from Kovno, the “master of parody”. The first, Masekhet Derekh Erez ha-Hadashah is described on the title page as being with Rashi and Tosafot. Kotlar is currently in Clevland, Ohio. There are three approbations, one describing the work as being sharp arrows and wondrous contradictions to the hearts of our brothers in America. The text is arranged like a tractate of Talmud, the text in square letters in the middle, Rashi and tosafot on the sides in rabbinic type. The Mishnah begins “a’masi (when) do we begin to come to America? The elders when they become weak . . .” to which Rashi comments this means when the strength of the elders lessens to famine.” Kotlar mocks the situation of Eastern European Jewish immigrants in the United States, which he himself having immigrated to the USA in 1888 only knew too well. All topics typical for Jewish American immigrant literature can be found in the text: the cultural shock of the “green” immigrants, poor living conditions, tenement houses, sweat-shops, street-gangs, fights and love affairs between misses and boarder and many more. What gives this literary masterpiece its extraordinary esprit, however, is less its content than the combination of content and form: The parody imitates style, layout (including Rashi-commentary and Tosafot), and (Hebrew) language of the Talmud. It often uses original quotes from different talmudic tractates and either gives them new meaning by putting them in a different context or by adding or omitting parts of sentences. – For the better understanding it should be noted that a talmudic parody never makes fun of the Talmud. It uses its form, language and way of thinking to deal with (in most cases) a certain political or economical situation. Attached to Masekhet Derekh Erez ha-Hadashah is Mahzor Katan, not previously winted with the former work, which includes a Haggadah for Pesah according to the American Nusah and Akdamot.
Kotlar’s parodies had its critical readers and admirers – a small elite of mostly Eastern European Mascilic Jews like Kotlar himself, trying to save as much of their tradition and classical Hebrew as possible while at the same time opening up to their new life in the United States. Kotlar earned his living with a bookshop, selling traditional as well as modern literature in both Hebrew and Yiddish. His shop also served as centre and meeting-place for talmudic scholars and intellectuals in the beginning of the 20th century.
Kotlars parody lost its readership. And so far it has attracted only poor scholarly attention (an excerpt of the text, however, has been translated into English by David Stern and found its way into the Norton Anthology of Jewish American Literature, 2001). Although the early immigrant literature is of high interest to many scholars today, many of them are not fit or willing to indulge in a talmudic tractate that not only requires knowledge of talmudic Hebrew and a feeling for the method of argumentation of the Talmud, but also a profound knowledge of Yiddish vocabulary and grammar, of English with the typical ill-pronunciation of Eastern European speakers, and of other languages such as German, Russian, and Humor.