The train had a remarkable and meaningful role in the process of modernization and secularization within European Jewish society during the nineteenth century. Not surprisingly, this central role is reflected in the literature of the period, in what I would like to call “the train genre.” This essay examines the role of the train in three works by prominent Jewish writers: S.Y. Abramovitsh's “Shem ve-Yefet ba-agala” [“Shem and Japheth on the Train”], Sholem Aleichem's Di ayznbangeshikhtes [The Railroad Stories], and Shmuel Yosef Agnon's “Bi-kronin shel rakevet” [“In the Railroad Car”]. All three writers use the train to represent a common experience in pre-World War I Eastern Europe. However, Agnon, who published his story decades later, assumed that his audience would be unfamiliar with this experience and even with the language of his protagonists. This distance both in time and in language suggests that Agnon's story should be read as a retrospective look at the experience with which the earlier works deal. The essay traces the transformations of the train as a symbol of modernity and shows how Agnon uses a different mechanism to reconstruct the symbolic role of the train against the collective post-World War II memory that had come to associate it with the Holocaust. Mikhail Bakhtin's concept of the “chronotope” provides a theoretical tool that captures the unique characteristics of the use of time and temporality in the Jewish train genre. The speeding train and the interior of the railcars symbolize the conflict between dynamic changes and timeless space. These stories reflect the ambivalence that Jews felt toward the rapid changes of modernity and their dilemma about whether to take part in this process or to remain outside of it. Moreover, the theme of the train allowed Jewish writers to counter old and new understandings of causality and historical processes. These changes were represented both in the narrative content and in the structure of these works.
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Neta Stahl; Conceptions of Time and History in Modern Hebrew and Yiddish Train Stories. Comparative Literature 1 September 2014; 66 (3): 322–339. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00104124-2764078
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