The ProsenPeople

"Her Green Days": Nature in the Yiddish Narrative

Friday, December 16, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week Ellen Cassedy and Yermiyahu Ahron Taub wrote about their discovery of the Elena Ferrante of Yiddish literature and her transgressive fiction stories, now translated into English as the collection Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories. Ellen and Yermiyahu will be guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all Week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.


Two men are strolling together in the Borsht Belt when they come upon a flower by the side of the road.

“What’s the name of that?” one asks, pointing.

“How should I know?” replies the other. “What do you take me for, a milliner?”

The notion that the Yiddish language, and Jews themselves, are far removed from the natural world is well entrenched in the popular imagination. For Jews, the joke says, the only thing a flower is good for is trimming for a lady’s hat.

Yet in the fiction of Blume Lempel we translated and collected in Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories, nature plays a surprisingly significant role. Born in a small town in Eastern Europe in 1907, Lempel immigrated to Paris and then to New York, where she wrote in Yiddish into the 1990s. Her stories were acclaimed throughout the world of Yiddish letters.

In Lempel’s lyrical, jewel-like stories, the natural world operates as counterpoint, as driving force, as backdrop, and as protagonist. Sometimes the very hugeness of the natural world is invoked to put the life of the individual into perspective: one story opens with a vast world “encased in ice,” with “no marking of time,” where the “footsteps of eternity make no imprint in the void.” In another story, a woman flying to Reno for a divorce looks down into the “blue transparent void” that symbolizes her unknown future with its myriad choices; another woman lies under an apple tree on a hot day and travels in her mind far, far into the cosmos—all the way to the moon.

Many of Lempel's protagonists are seemingly happiest, or most deeply themselves, when working in nature. A Brooklyn woman named Pachysandra tends the small plot of earth next to her apartment building and feels herself transported back to her home in South Carolina—“The rise and fall of her green days pursued her in her dreams.” Mrs. Zagretti lovingly plants a delicate fig tree in her yard on Long Island and proudly presents its fruits to her Jewish neighbor as an antidote to American consumerism.

Connections between humans and animals—even insects—are particularly powerful. In the title story in our collection, the squirrels in the zoo come running at the approach of their blind friend Danny. Mrs. Zagretti finds a soulmate in a housefly, eliciting a devastating reaction from her Jewish neighbor. Mrs. Zagretti is not the only character to feel a powerful tie with a fly, either: the protagonist of a different story tries to keep a fly alive in her apartment by feeding and speaking to it—when it lands on a mirror, she takes note of how it communes with its reflection. In yet another story, a resident of an old age home releases a fly into the world in hopes that it will “live out its life in joy and satisfaction.”

Far from serving as a gentle pastoral backdrop, nature is often the site of grave danger, where beauty is intertwined with menace. A young woman hiding in the forest remembers that “the wind brought me the smell of berries, a dead bird, the rotten carcass of a half-devoured creature.” The half-mad narrator of another story calls the flowers in her garden by the names of people who perished in the Holocaust. Each burns as a memorial candle in its particular season. “Soaking up hot sunshine and plenteous rain, hail and hurricane, they know the art of adaptation and survival,” just like the survivor who watches over them.

For Lempel, the boundaries between dream and reality, civilization and nature, human and animal are permeable, shifting, difficult to trace. Her evocation of the natural world gives her stories a weight more powerful than the trajectory of her plots, and the precision and musicality of her prose offer exceptional pleasure to the reader.

So much for the “unbridgeable divide” between Yiddish and nature.

Ellen Cassedy and Yermiyahu Ahron Taub received the Yiddish Book Center’s 2012 Translation Prize for their work on the fiction of Blume Lempel, now available to English readers in their collection Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories.

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Hiding in Plain Sight: A Private Yet Candid Yiddish Writer

Wednesday, December 14, 2016 | Permalink

Earlier this week Ellen Cassedy and Yermiyahu Ahron Taub wrote about their discovery of Blume Lempel’s transgressive Yiddish fiction, now translated into English as the collection Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories. Ellen and Yermiyahu are guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all Week as part of the Visiting Scribe series.


Elena Ferrante may or may not be a certain Rome-based editor and translator, as has recently been alleged. What is clear is that whoever this writer is, they prefer to remain anonymous, to let the writing speak for itself.

Though Ferrante insists on remaining private as a person, her work reveals startlingly intimate truths about women’s lives. In this, the Italian writer has much in common with Blume Lempel, the author of the remarkable work we translated for the new collection Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories. While Lempel used her own name for most of her career she, too, opted for an unusual measure of personal privacy while reaching for an uncommon candor on the page.

Lempel was born in Eastern Europe at the turn of the twentieth century in “a white-washed room by the banks of a river that had no name.” She lived in Paris for ten years before fleeing to the United States with the rise of Hitler. She settled in New York, where she turned out a prodigious amount of wonderfully original fiction until her death in the 1990s.

Like Ferrante’s, Lempel’s work was surprisingly frank and often undaunted by taboo. But even as she broke new ground in what she shared in her writing, she fiercely guarded her personal privacy. “I hide my literary existence under my apron,” she told an interviewer at her home on Long Island. “If you asked my neighbors about my writing, they’d look at you and think you were crazy.”

Would Lempel have been able to exercise the same artistic freedom if her neighbors had known she was writing about rape, incest, abortion, and the erotic imaginings of a middle-aged women, nursing mothers, and elderly widows? Probably not. Perhaps the concealing “apron” helped liberate her to explore such taboo themes.

Lempel’s decision to continue writing in Yiddish into the 1990s, even as the number of Yiddish readers dwindled year by year, also helped her control over what was public and what was not. Lempel was published in Yiddish publications throughout the world. She received multiple prizes and was admired by Yiddish writers and readers alike. Indeed, she sought out that recognition; at the same time, however, in many ways she held herself apart, pursuing her singular literary vision on her own terms.

Hiding is a recurrent theme in Lempel’s work. In one story, she writes about a mother and son living among the animals in the forest during the Holocaust; the account is so vivid that critics assumed it was drawn from personal experience, though it was in fact entirely the product of her extraordinary imagination and rare powers of empathy. In another story, a woman who has been raped and impregnated by her peasant rescuer during the Holocaust peeks out of the barn through a crack in the attic wall. “I live on the sidelines,” a different narrator reflects, “like a stranger in my own world.” In yet another story, a Jewish woman in German-occupied Paris works for the Resistance behind a carefully applied mask of glamour.

In preparing Oedipus in Brooklyn for publication, we spent many hours interviewing family members and reading Lempel’s correspondence and personal papers. We were curious about her artistic process, the rhythm of her days, and her reasons for choosing her subjects. Still, as an individual she remained mysterious to us—just as, it seems, she wished.

The paradox of privacy coupled with outspoken literary expression is hardly unique to Blume Lempel or Elena Ferrante. In fact, it is at the heart of the literary enterprise for many writers. What is notable for these two writers, however, is the starkness of the divide. During her lifetime, Lempel’s dream of an English-language readership for the most part eluded her. It’s a joy for us now to help her unrealized dream come true.

As we peel back the “veil” of Yiddish, allowing English-language readers gain access to Lempel’s dazzling prose and her bold approach to storytelling, we hope we enable this extraordinary writer to be known in the way she wanted to be known.

Ellen Cassedy and Yermiyahu Ahron Taub received the Yiddish Book Center’s 2012 Translation Prize for their work on the fiction of Blume Lempel, now available to English readers in their collection Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories.

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Oedipus—in Brooklyn? And in Yiddish?

Monday, December 12, 2016 | Permalink

Ellen Cassedy and Yermiyahu Ahron Taub received the Yiddish Book Center’s 2012 Translation Prize for their work on the fiction of Blume Lempel, now compiled into the book Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories. Ellen and Yermiyahu will be guest blogging for the Jewish Book Council all Week as part of the Visiting Scribe series here on The ProsenPeople.


We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into when a book with a plain gray cover came our way some years ago.

The volume was a gift from an elderly teacher of Yiddish literature. Signed by the author, it had been published in Yiddish in Tel Aviv in 1981. We did not know much about Blume Lempel, beyond the fact that she’d been born in 1907 in what is now Ukraine, had managed to flee to New York just before World War II, and had continued writing in Yiddish into the 1990s.

We learned that she had spent ten years in Paris before the war, participating in the flourishing Jewish cultural life there. She was later published throughout the world in the postwar Yiddish press and garnered numerous prizes, and admired by leading Yiddish writers, including Yonia Fain, Chaim Grade, Malka Heifetz-Tussman, Chava Rosenfarb, and Osher Jaime Schuchinski. She died in 1999.

Within the covers of this little grey book, we discovered big surprises, a wide range of subjects explored through an astonishing poetic style and unorthodox narrative techniques. Our amazement only grew when we came to the story called “Oedipus in Brooklyn,” which we selected as the title story for our collection.

Lempel’s longtime editor, Abraham Sutzkever, who published many of her stories in the prestigious Yiddish literary journal Di goldene keyt, refused to touch “Oedipus.” Too shocking, he said. Lempel had to wait several years before it appeared in print in her first collection, the book with the plain gray cover.

Shocking? Maybe. But in Lempel’s hands, the story is neither sensational, tawdry, nor played for laughs. Her account of a contemporary woman involved in a transgressive relationship with her son is masterfully compassionate and compelling. Step by step, Lempel fearlessly leads the reader into the heart of darkness. She tells of the car accident that kills the father and blinds the son, of the growing closeness between mother and son, of their increasing isolation. Finally, the two leave the familiar streets of Brooklyn and move to Florida, a perfect backdrop of horror for the advancing tragedy:

A blinding haze hung in the air like carbon fumes. The earth was scorched, the waterways dried up, the white egrets disappeared. The roots of the mangrove trees, naked and greedy, waited for a drop of water. Creeping insects of all kinds eked out their slithery existence, leaving behind silver threads of slime on the desiccated waterbed.

Only the sea in its stoic indifference did not cease its endless song.

By the story’s end, the reader has come to understand and perhaps even sympathize with the plight of mother and son alike.

If “Oedipus in Brooklyn” is unmatched in its boldness, other stories by Lempel also break new ground. Again and again, as she explores the lives of a broad range of mostly female characters, Lempel takes up subjects considered untouchable by other writers. We listen to the furious inner thoughts of a woman pushing a vacuum cleaner. We sense the melancholy of a woman knitting. We meet a glamorous woman working undercover as an anti-Nazi spy, a prostitute, a lonely little girl, a madwoman who dances in the marketplace, a mother hiding in the forest with her feral son. We accompany a tart-tongued woman on a trip to Florida with her taciturn husband and a woman flying to Reno for a divorce. We befriend a homeless woman in the ladies’ room at New York’s Penn Station, a woman practicing Zen meditation, a drug addict communing with the flowers in her garden.

Blume Lempel was unquestionably one-of-a-kind. Asked by an interviewer which writers had influenced her, she mentioned Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, and the philosophers Spinoza and Bergson, but only in passing.

And all this in Yiddish. Cover to cover, Blume Lempel is never anything less than surprising. We have yet to encounter anyone like her, in any language.

Ellen Cassedy and Yermiyahu Ahron Taub received the Yiddish Book Center’s 2012 Translation Prize for their work on the fiction of Blume Lempel, now available to English readers in their collection Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories.

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