The ProsenPeople

Finding a Portable Homeland in Yiddish

Friday, September 28, 2018 | Permalink

After my mother died, I realized I needed to study Yiddish.

My mother didn’t actually speak Yiddish, but she peppered her conversation with Yiddish words. In the kitchen: “Hand me that shisl (bowl).” At the window on a rainy day: “A pliukhe (downpour)!” On the phone: “The woman’s a makhesheyfe (witch).”

When my mother died, I missed these words laden with heritage. (My father, though a great lover of all things Jewish, had been raised a Christian and couldn’t help.) Bereft of my mom, and wanting a way to maintain my connection to my Jewish forebears, I went looking for a beginners’ class in the language once heard in kitchens, lanes, marketplaces, and union halls on both sides of the Atlantic. Yiddish became my home within Jewish culture.

When I became a translator from Yiddish into English, I learned that Yiddish had a long history as a portable homeland for writers. In the words of the scholar Sebastian Schulman, Yiddish literature is “a truly transnational republic of letters, a body of texts that since its earliest days has been written, read, and sung across political boundaries.”

Sholem Aleichem was only one Yiddish writer who made a conscious choice to write in mame-loshn (mother tongue). Another was Yenta Mash (1922-2013), a little-known giant among Yiddish women writers whose work I’ve translated and collected in On the Landing: Stories by Yenta Mash (Northern Illinois University Press, 2018).

Mash is a master chronicler of exile. Her characters are always on their way to or from somewhere, always arriving or departing. Her work is urgently relevant today, as displaced people seek refuge across the globe. I put her alongside Jhumpa Lahiri, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and André Aciman for her keen insights into the experience of migration, assimilation, and resilience.

Gripping, honest, and somehow inspiring, no matter how grim the setting, Mash’s stories draw heavily on her own life—a life disrupted by repeated uprootings.

Born and raised in a small town, or shtetl, in the southeastern region of Europe once known as Bessarabia (today Moldova, east of Romania), Mash was deported to Siberia by the Soviets at the beginning of World War II. Though her exile saved her from the fate of Jews murdered by the Nazis, she suffered extreme hunger and privation during her seven years of hard labor. In 1948 she returned to Soviet Moldova, where she worked as a bookkeeper—and did not write—for three decades, before immigrating to Israel in the 1970s. There, finally, her words came pouring out, and received immediate acclaim. She published four volumes of short stories, appeared in Yiddish journals throughout the world, and received several literary prizes.

Those prizes were well deserved. Mash tells us much that we didn’t know about little-explored corners of Jewish experience in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and she does so in a richly elaborated literary style that is full of the friction of disparate cultures rubbing elbows.

As her characters struggle to adapt to new circumstances—whether in a harsh labor camp, in the postwar Soviet system, or in the not-always-friendly land of Israel—Mash portrays the most harrowing circumstances in meticulous detail. At the same time, though, she makes clear, as one critic wrote, that even “under hellish conditions, goodness and beauty can exist under the same roof. Often a kind of special illumination seems to shine forth out of that pitiless darkness.”

We see relationships forged, inner strength called upon, and a ceaseless wrestling with God. Mash’s characters keep the faith in their own way. They don’t stop believing, but neither do they let the Almighty off the hook for his many missteps.

When Mash arrived in Israel, her new land was hardly welcoming toward Yiddish, which was seen as an emblem of European oppression. Yet, like Sholem Aleichem and many others before her, Mash remained stubbornly loyal to her native tongue.

“Yiddish is my language,” she said. “In Yiddish I feel at home.”

Ellen Cassedy, the translator of On the Landing: Stories by Yenta Mash (2018), received a PEN/Heim translation grant and a Hadassah Brandeis Institute fellowship for her work on Mash. She was the co-translator, with Yermiyahu Ahron Taub, of Oedipus in Brooklyn and Other Stories by Blume Lempel (2016), awarded the Yiddish Book Center Translation Prize.

"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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Moscow, 1953: The Czardom of Black Cats and Black Marias

Tuesday, January 19, 2016 | Permalink

Excerpted from The Yid: A Novel by Paul Goldberg, published by arrangement with Picador.

In the early morning of March 1, 1953, when Iosif Stalin collapsed at his dacha, he was preparing to solve Russia’s Jewish Question definitively. Military units and enthusiastic civilians stood poised to begin a pogrom, and thousands of cattle cars were brought to the major cities to deport the survivors of the purportedly spontaneous outbursts of murder, rape, and looting. Stalin intended his holocaust to coincide with the biggest purge Russia had seen.

The West would have to choose between standing by and watching these monstrous events or taking the risk of triggering a world war fought with atom and hydrogen bombs. Stalin’s death was announced on March 5, the day his pogrom was scheduled to begin.

Act I


At 2:37 a.m. on Tuesday, February 24, 1953, Narsultan Sadykov’s Black Maria enters the courtyard of 1/4 Chkalov Street.

A Black Maria is a distinctive piece of urban transport, chernyy voron, a vehicle that collects its passengers for reasons not necessarily political. The Russian people gave this ominous carriage a diminutive name: voronok, a little raven, a fledgling.

At night, Moscow is the czardom of black cats and Black Marias. The former dart between snowbanks in search of mice and companionship. The latter emerge from the improbably tall, castle-like gates of Lubyanka, to return laden with enemies of the people.

The arrest of Solomon Shimonovich Levinson, an actor from the defunct State Jewish Theater, is routine. An old, likely decrepit Yid, Levinson lives alone in a communal flat at 1/4 Chkalov Street. Apartment 40. No hand-wringing wife. No hysterical children. No farewells. No one to hand the old man a toothbrush through the bars of a departing Black Maria.

In the parlance of state security, arrests are “operations.” This operation is easier than most: collect some incriminating rubbish, put a seal on the door, help the old man into the truck, and a little before dawn, the Black Maria drives back through Lubyanka’s armored gates.

Lieutenant of State Security Sadykov is slight and pale. His hair is straight and dark red. He is a Tatar, a dweller of the steppes, a descendant of the armies of Genghis Khan, an alumnus of an orphanage in Karaganda. With him are two soldiers, naïve nineteen-year-old boys from the villages of Ukraine, dressed in anemia-green coats, each armed with a sidearm. One of the boys carries a pair of American handcuffs.

Another night, another knock-and-pick. The function of the green, covered light trucks that fan through Moscow at night is clear to everyone. There is no reason to hide their purpose or to flaunt it. It’s best to approach through the courtyard, turn off the engine and the lights, and coast gently to a halt.

The driver, one of the nineteen-year-olds, skillfully pilots the vehicle through the dark, narrow cavern of an archway built for a horse cart. With the engine off, he surrenders to inertia. Bracing for a burst of frost, Sadykov and the boys step out of the Black Maria. A thin coat of crisp, pristine snow crunches loudly underfoot. Sadykov looks up at the darkness of the five-story buildings framing the sky above the courtyard. The night is majestic: dry frigid air, bright stars, the moon hanging over the railroad station, pointing toward mysterious destinations.

Whenever possible, Sadykov avoids going through front doors, favoring tradesmen’s entrances. The back door of 1/4 Chkalov Street is made of heavy oak, devilishly resilient wood that has defied a century of sharp kicks and hard slams. Protected by an uncounted number of coats of dark brown paint, it stands impervious to weather and immune to rot. Opening the door, Sadykov and his entourage plunge into darkness.

Since 1/4 Chkalov Street is close to the Kursk Railroad Station, travelers use the building’s stairwell as a nighttime shelter. As they await morning trains, these vagabonds curl up like stray dogs beneath the staircase, their bodies encircling suitcases and burlap sacks. If it’s your lot to sleep beneath those stairs, you have to be cold or drunk enough to tolerate the overpowering smell of urine.

Ignoring the odor and the sound of a man snoring under the stairs, the three soldiers feel their way to the second floor. Sadykov lights a match. A blue number on a white enameled sign identifies apartment forty.

With the match still lit, Sadykov motions to the boys. When duty takes Sadykov and his comrades to large communal flats, the arresting crew has to wake up someone, anyone, to open the door and, only after gaining entry, knock on the door of the person or persons they’ve come to collect for the journey through Lubyanka’s heavy gates. More often than not, the proverbial “knock on the door” is a light kick of a military boot.

Three men standing in cold, stinking darkness, waiting for someone to hear the kick on the door is not an inspiring sight. They might as well be scraping at the door, like cats, except cats returning after a night of carnage and amour are creatures of passion, while nineteen-year-old boys with sidearms are creatures of indifference, especially at 2:55 a.m. on a February night.

On the tenth kick, or perhaps later, the door opens. Sadykov discerns a frail face, an old woman. Blue eyes set deeply behind high cheekbones stare at the three men. These old crones are a curse, especially for those who arrest people for a living.

Whenever a Black Maria or its crew is in sight, a Moscow crone is certain to start mumbling prayers. Sadykov regards prayers as futile, yet he secretly fears them. He has an easier time with handwringing middle-aged wives; their hysterics affect him no more than a distant cannonade. (As a product of an orphanage, Sadykov has had no exposure to familial hysterics.) For reasons Sadykov cannot fathom, a prayer threatens, even wounds.

“Does Levinson live here?”

Making the sign of the cross, the old woman disappears into darkness of the hallway. The three men walk in. It’s a long hallway of a five-room apartment, with three doors on the right facing Chkalov Street, and two on the left, facing the courtyard.

Sadykov lights another match.

He hears a door creak. It has to be the old woman. She is watching. Her kind always watches. No, righteous she can’t be. She may be the resident snitch, and now she lurks behind the door, pretending to drag God into this purely earthbound affair while in fact savoring the results of her anonymous letter to the authorities.

Sadykov doesn’t know which door is hers, yet hers is the door he wants to avoid.

According to instructions, Levinson’s room overlooks the courtyard. That leaves a choice of two doors.

During operations, neighbors sit behind closed doors, like trapped rodents. And in the morning, they feign surprise and indignation. Just to think of it, Levinson, an enemy! A loner. Always grumbling. Had no use for children. Hated cats. Fought in the partisan bands along the Trans-Siberian Railroad during the Civil War. Would have thought he was one of us, a simple Soviet man, but with Yids nothing is simple. Treachery is their currency of choice. And if he really is a traitor, fuck him, let him be shot!

Have you seen old Yids creaking down the street, going wherever it is they go, carrying mesh bags and, in their pockets, rolled-up newspapers? With the pigmentation of youth wiped off their faces, they still look dark, bird-like, bleached angels ready to fly to God, or the Evil One.

Such is Sadykov’s mental image of Levinson.

Lighting his third match of the night, Sadykov steps up to another door. This time, he doesn’t order the boys to kick.

He knocks three times with the knuckles of his clenched fist. There is movement behind the door, no more than what you’d expect.

“Dos bist du?” asks a raspy voice in a language that isn’t Russian.

Continue Reading »

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Sholem Aleichem’s Motl on a Kindle as Yiddish Classics Go Digital

Tuesday, May 13, 2014 | Permalink
Looking for something new to read with your book club? Have you thought about trying something old? Thanks to a collaboration between Yale University Press, New Yiddish Library, and Open Road Media, not only can you read a classic work of Yiddish literature, you can do it on your e-reader!

Josh Lambert, the author of American Jewish Fiction: A JPS Guide and the award-winning Unclean Lips: Jews, Obscenity and American Culture writes about the digital release of nine classic works and what the e-book revolution means for Yiddish literature

I still love old-fashioned books, but every day brings another reason not just to grudgingly accept, but to feel actual joy about the e-book revolution. One example: with the transition to the digital format, the New Yiddish Library will finally accomplish its mission.

Don’t know the New Yiddish Library? It’s a book series owing its existence to the historian Lucy Dawidowicz, who raised money in the 1980s for a Fund for the Translation of Jewish Literature, and who, in doing so, couldn’t have even imagined that her efforts would result in Sholem Aleichem’s Motl ending up on a Kindle. 

Over the years, under the direction of the literary scholars and siblings Ruth Wisse and David Roskies, and in a partnership between Yale University Press and my employer, the Yiddish Book Center, the New Yiddish Library produced a series of truly excellent volumes: sharp, careful, readable translations of masterpieces of world literature, accompanied by rich introductions and footnotes by leading scholars. There are, of course, plenty of other translations of Yiddish literature by various hands and of varying quality, but the New Yiddish Library set the gold standard. 

And, until now, that gold was a little pricey. Not extravagantly so—published by Yale, the volumes were gorgeously produced and inexpensive by academic press standards, but they were still mostly too costly to assign to college students. And, for that matter, more expensive than most of what’s on the tables at your local Barnes & Noble. 

Thanks to a new partnership with Open Road Media, an ambitious e-book publisher founded by publishing veteran Jane Friedman, the books are now not just available on every device you can name (Nook, iPhone, an so on), but they’re reasonably priced. Or, to put it another way, the only thing standing between you and a genuine literary treasure—be it the stories of Mendele the Book Peddler, the gritty tales of Lamed Shapiro, or the delightful poetry of Itzik Manger—is less than what you’d spend on a movie ticket.

So, what does the e-book revolution mean? Today it means more access to some of the signal works of literary genius in which Jews figured out how to use their language, Yiddish, to express the complexity and excitement of becoming modern. Nothing wrong with that.

Josh Lambert is the Academic Director at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, MA, a visiting assistant professor of English at UMass Amherst, and a contributing editor for Tablet. 

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A Yiddishist in Vilnius

Tuesday, September 04, 2012 | Permalink

Steve Stern's most recent book, The Book of Mischief, is now available. He will be blogging here all week for Jewish Book Council and MyJewishLearning.

I had fun in Vilnius, despite my low tolerance for fun. Not to mention that fun in Vilnius seemed like a betrayal of everything sacred. So what was I doing in Lithuania? A good question, and having traveled all the way to that small Eastern European nation to teach English-speaking students the same stuff (creative writing) I routinely taught at home, I asked my class at our first meeting, “What the hell are we doing in Lithuania?” But the truth was that the question was disingenuous. I knew perfectly well why I’d come. When first invited to teach there in the Summer Literary Seminars, I instantly declined. I don’t travel well; I like to hang on to my desk with my teeth—that was my default reply. Then I remembered that I am a lover of Yiddishkeit. What reputation I have is as a writer inspired by Yiddish culture and folklore, and old Vilna once boasted the mother lode of that culture before it was utterly erased. So I complained to everyone I knew that I’d had a chance to go to Lithuania and blown it. Eventually I received another email from the program, saying, “We hear by the grapevine you might be having second thoughts.” I considered my bluff called.

It’s a beautiful city, Vilnius, a hard place in which to imagine the unimaginable. Especially when you’re strolling serpentine streets flanked by blue and yellow houses, some squat as toadstools, others narrow as the spines of books, most sprouting scrollworked balconies. The baroque churches look like pink cupcakes, the hidden courtyards beckon like grottos, and the women (Sabrina, I can look) are whip-thin and sleek as cats. It was a storybook milieu, complete with an argosy of hot air balloons overhead, and it dazzled me to the point where I forgot to miss what was missing. What was missing? Only about 1000 years of the most vibrant Jewish life to be found anywhere on the planet. It was here that the Vilna Gaon sprang from the womb reciting Talmud, and the poets of Yung Vilne kept the printing presses busy until the plates were melted into bullets for the resistance. Here the shelves of the YIVO archive and the Strashun Library groaned from the gathered weight of the Diaspora, and the cauldron of conflicting ideologieHasidim vs mitnagdim, bundists vs Zionists—boiled over in the streets. Here Chaim Soutine and Jacques Lipchitz plied their visionary trade within earshot of Jascha Heifetz’s violin. All that remained of that world, however, was a handful of memorial plaques, some busts and a couple of signs informing the tourist that history was once here but had since moved on. Not that I’d expected more; though I’ll confess to a romantic hope that, if I connected my passion for Yiddish culture to its source, sparks would fly and the streets swarm again with Jews. Instead there was only a sputtering of my good intentions before the impulse fritzed out and expired. Then it was easier to brood over what was absent than to try Grande syna Vilnaand recover what was lost.

So I abandoned my role of amateur Yiddishist in exchange for professional mourner. I gave a fiction reading in an old church outside of which the first Jewish victim of the Nazi occupation (a woman) was shot. “It’s wonderful to be here in a city where you can picture a Jew hanging from every lamppost,” I quipped, embarrassing everyone. The audience, comprised of Vilnius’s tiny Jewish community come to hear a concert of Yiddish music for which I was the opening act, sat in deadly silence. When I was done, a man like a steamer trunk in a tuxedo marched to the stage and, accompanied by a classical pianist, belted a medley of Yiddish folksongs that exorcised the chapel of my sarcasm. He ended with a Kaddish that rocked the foundation of the church. Chastised, I too dropped a tear into the overflowing bucket of Jewish grief and tried to hold that thought. But the music was truly cathartic, and afterwards, exhilarated, I went off with colleagues to drink too many beers in sidewalk cafes, in cafes tucked away in vaulted catacombs, in cafes with terraces overlooking the river, where I wallowed in guilty pleasure.

Steve Stern is the author of several works of fiction, including A Plague of Dreamers, The Frozen Rabbi, and North of God. His honors include two New York Times Notable Books, a Pushcart Writer's Choice Award, an O. Henry Prize, and the Edward Lewis Wallant Award for Jewish American Fiction. Stern was born in Memphis, Tennessee and now lives in Saratoga Springs, New York.

A Yiddish Writing Contest

Monday, May 07, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Are you the next Sholem Aleichem or Avrom Sutzkever? Check out this Yiddish Writing Contest from Yugntruf.

Yiddish Flashcards

Tuesday, April 03, 2012 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

In honor of the publication of Leela Corman's Unterzakhn today, Schocken Books created some handy Yiddish flashcards. We've shared a few below, but check out the complete set + a great Pinterest board in honor of the book here. Plus, check out our review.

The Greatest Yiddish Literature Party Ever

Monday, June 20, 2011 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Yep, that’s right…the GREATEST Yiddish Literature Party EVER…brought to you by your friends at the Jewish Book CouncilVol. 1 Brooklyn, and Jewcy in honor of the new film Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness by Joseph Dorman. Join us on July 6th from 7:30PM to 10:30PM at (le) poisson rouge for readings by:

There will be (Yiddish!) drink specials (TBA) and the event is free to the public.  
Stay tuned to find out how you can win a free copy of Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye the Dairyman and Motl the Cantor’s Son.

Some helpful links:

  • Coming? Let us know on Facebook.
  • More on the film can be found here.
  • Want to check out the film? It will be shown at Lincoln Plaza Cinema starting July 8th with screenings daily through July 14th.

Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness - Trailer from Riverside Films on Vimeo.

““Sholem Aleichem: Laughing in the Darkness” is an invigorating and fascinating biographical documentary that should be required viewing for anyone with a love for the written word.” 

-Phil Hall, Film Threat

The Oy of Yiddish

Thursday, April 15, 2010 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

This week on Schott’s Vocab (a blog by Ben Schott for the NY Times), vocabularists were invited to pose questions to Michael Wex (Born to KvetchHow to Be a Mentsh and Not a ShmuckJust Say Nu). Questions included: Can you tell me anything about the word “broiges” or “broygas”?, Anyone have the etymology of the explicative “feh!” (expresses disgust and disdain)?, Is faklempt a real Yiddish word–or something that was invented on SNL’s Coffee Talk?

For the answers to these questions, and more, please visit part 1 and part 2 of the post:

The Oy of Yiddish, Part 1

The Oy of Yiddish, Part 2

For the Kiddies

Wednesday, October 28, 2009 | Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Yiddish for babies? Most definitely. Teach your baby Yiddish with this slim new book from Janet Perr, author of Yiddish for Dogs. The new book, Yiddish for Babies: A Language Primer for Your Little Pitsel, will be available from Simon & Schuster on November 10th:

Oy vey, bubelleh,
The kinder are going to kvell over this book!

Whether your baby is a Shayna Maidel,

a Shmendrick,

or just plain Meshugga,

it’s no bubbe meiseh…this book really is for everyone!
The farbisseners, the alter kockers, the pishers,
the nudnicks…even the goyim and the machatunim.

YIDDISH FOR BABIES is fun for the whole mishpocheh!

Want more? Join the facebook group for the book here.